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Jackets still seeking elusive playoff berth

Monday, 06.30.2008 / 9:00 AM / Division Notebooks

By Mike G. Morreale - NHL.com Staff Writer

Rick Nash had a banner year for the Blue Jackets, potting 38 goals and 69 points, though as a team, Columbus hopes that sixth-overall pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft Nikita Filatov will help to pick up the goal scoring slack on the lowest-scoring team in the league.
WATCH Rick Nash in action
Fans of the Columbus Blue Jackets have reason for optimism next season after their team completed the 2007-08 campaign with the highest point total in their seven-season history while battling to the bitter end.

The Blue Jackets (34-36-12, 80 points) were in the thick of the playoff hunt for much of the season, but nagging injuries down the stretch played a part in them finishing 11 points behind Nashville for the eighth and final slot in the Western Conference. If there’s one thing the city of Columbus and its fans certainly want, it’s to be playing hockey beyond the first week in April – the team has never qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

As such, expect second-year General Manager Scott Howson to be extremely busy this summer. Already the Blue Jackets have used the Entry Draft as a springboard, selecting the exciting Nikita Filatov with the sixth-overall selection. They also selected defenseman Cody Goloubef with the 37th selection.

The explosive Rick Nash was the undeniable MVP of the team this season, leading the club with 69 points, 38 goals, 10 power-play goals, six game-winners and four shorthanded goals. At the All-Star Game in Atlanta, Nash scored a game-high three goals for the Western Conference in an 8-7 defeat. He was part of several highlight-reel performances this season. In particular, his dazzling play on Jan. 17 to beat Phoenix, 4-3, was certainly one for the ages. Nash gathered an outlet pass from Michael Peca down the middle of the ice, beat Phoenix defensemen Keith Ballard and Derek Morris with three inside-outside moves and finally kicked the puck to himself and scored against goalie Mikael Tellqvist with just 20 seconds remaining in the third period.

Still, despite Nash’s career-high point total, Columbus finished with only 193 goals, the lowest total in the League this season.

“This is the first summer since I’ve been around that we’ve some room to make some moves,” the 24-year-old Nash told The Columbus Dispatch. “It’s not up to me to decide who we pick up, but it’s no secret we’re all pretty excited to see who we get.”

Ken Hitchcock, who was named the fourth coach in Columbus history on Nov. 22, 2006, is looking forward to the upcoming season and the challenges that await his team.

“I know the stress and pressure that goes with the job, but I think it makes you a better coach,” Hitchcock said. “Without dealing with situations that are pressure-related, I don’t think you grow as a coach.”

Ideally, Howson and Hitchcock will seek players who are stout, agile and competitive, but not necessarily in that order. One position that should be solidified at training camp is in goal with third-season performer Pascal Leclaire between the pipes. The 25-year-old finished second in the NHL with nine shutouts and seventh with a 2.25 goals-against average, in addition to sporting a 24-17-6 record and .919 save percentage.

Leclaire, a first-round pick (eighth overall) of the Blue Jackets in 2001, was actually the best goalie in the League in the opening two months of the season. He won seven of his first nine starts with five shutouts and a 1.11 GAA. Leclaire’s uprising came at a crucial time as second-year goalie Fredrik Norrena (10-19-6, 2.72 GAA, .896 save percentage), the team’s MVP in 2006-07, struggled to get untracked this season.

Howson’s signing of unrestricted free-agent defenseman Jan Hejda (13 assists, plus-20 rating) from Edmonton last July proved to be a huge boost to the defensive corps. While the native of Prague didn’t register a goal, he worked on the top defensive pair all season, averaging more than 21 minutes of ice time per game while also chipping in on the power play and in shorthanded situations. Hejda also led the team in hits (148), while recording 90 blocked shots and 18 takeaways.

Columbus, which ranked eighth in the League with a 2.56 GAA under Hitchcock, also received an inspiring performance from Ron Hainsey along the blue line. The fifth-season defender, a native of Bolton, Conn., who was claimed off waivers from Montreal in November 2005, finished fourth on the team with 32 points (24 assists) and had a career-high eight power-play goals. He was also second on the team in blocked shots (91) and takeaways (33). Defenseman Rostislav Klesla (six goals, 12 assists, plus-7) played in all 82 games and finished first in blocked shots (110) and third in hits (107).

In addition to Nash, right wing Nikolai Zherdev made considerable offensive contributions. The fourth overall pick in the 2003 Entry Draft finished with career-highs in points (61), assists (35) and power-play goals (seven). Peca, an unrestricted free agent this summer, finished third on the team with 34 points (26 assists) and second in face-off winning percentage (52.7) in 65 games. One player Hitchcock would like to see produce is left winger Fredrik Modin, who was acquired from Tampa Bay in 2006. Modin, who was out of the lineup numerous times with various ailments, scored just six goals in 23 appearances in 2007-08. Center Manny Malhotra had a relatively productive season, leading the team with a 59 percent winning percentage on face-offs and finishing with 64 hits, 40 blocked shots, 29 takeaways and 11 goals, the second-highest total in his nine NHL seasons.

Columbus had 11 rookies in and out of the lineup in 2007-08, none of whom finished the season with more than 10 points. Still, the organization was impressed with defenseman Kris Russell and forward Jared Boll, who each led all Columbus rookies in games played at their respective positions. Russell had two goals, eight assists and 64 blocked shots in 67 appearances. Boll, who made the team out of training camp, had five goals, five assists, a team-leading 226 penalty minutes and was second on the club with 135 hits in 75 games.

Contact Mike Morreale at mmorreale@nhl.com.




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