Will it translate into the organization's first playoff berth? That's still unknown, but coach Ken Hitchcock believes Columbus is closer than it's ever been and it's finally fair to put some lofty expectations on his revamped club.
"As coaches we all get excited because it's a new year, but the players know when you're legitimately competitive or not, and the players we have coming back know exactly what we have done and they are really jacked up," Hitchcock told NHL.com. "They see this as the best team in the existence of the franchise and they are excited because they see this as a legit opportunity to get to the dance."
Hitchcock feels the Blue Jackets greatly upgraded in this area with the additions of R.J. Umberger, Kristian Huselius and Raffi Torres. Umberger and Torres came via trades. Huselius signed as an unrestricted free agent.
The coach, who also signed a three-year contract extension this summer, believes Umberger can take the role as the Jackets' No. 1 center, although he has never played the part in the NHL. In fact, the only line Hitchcock has in his mind right now is Umberger centering Huselius and captain Rick Nash, who is coming off the best season of his career.
Umberger, playing mostly as a wing, had a career-high 50 points last season as well as 15 points (10 goals) in 17 playoff games. Nash had 38 goals and 31 assists last season.
"I'm not sure it's his natural spot, but it's a spot I've seen him have success," Hitchcock said of Umberger. "It's a different responsibility. R.J.'s production has always come off this unbelievable work ethic and shutting people down to create chances, so this is a different mindset, but I think we ought to give him a go because we have that type of opening right now and if because he's got such a great work ethic, great size and great tenacity. He'll be an effective player."
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
2007-08 SEASON STATS
(13th West/25th NHL)
|Change from 2006-07||+7|
(12th West/20th NHL)
(14th West/28th NHL)
The backup plan also has potential to work, but is no guarantee.
The Jackets are hoping rookie Derick Brassard wins the job as second-line center, and if Umberger doesn't work out, perhaps he'll be ready for the No. 1 job. Hitchcock said Nikita Filatov could push Brassard, even though he was drafted as a wing.
Brassard, the sixth pick in 2006, played 17 games with Columbus last season, but spent most of the season as a point-per-game player with the Syracuse Crunch of the American Hockey League. Filatov was the sixth pick this year, and this will be his first season in North America.
"The No. 1 backup plan could be Filatov, but (the question is) is he ready or is Brassard ready?" Hitchcock said. "We have the potential down the road, but the key for Umberger is where Brassard is at. The physical change on Derick right now is unbelievable. He looks like he's ready to compete against men."
Jakub Voracek is another former high draft pick who should be integrated into the lineup this season despite that he's 19. He's a playmaking wing who would likely crack the top six if he makes the team, which is not guaranteed, but expected.
"The thing I have learned over time is your younger players don't have to beat out a veteran player for a spot, nor do you create a spot for them," Hitchcock said. "The only thing is younger players have to prove they can play in the National Hockey League, and if they look like they can play in the League you go ahead and make room for them."
Hitchcock is hoping for bigger things out of Jared Boll, who earned a reputation as a tough guy last season for his League-high 27 fighting majors and 226 penalty minutes. Boll broke his right hand this summer, but should be 100 percent when training camp opens this month.
"We might have to have the chains on him for what he does, but he's a big boy and he's a guy that we expect to move up the ladder," Hitchcock said. "We expect him to be a very effective player along with (Jason) Chimera and (Manny) Malhotra."
Both Chimera and Malhotra played up last season, but because of the Jackets' depth, albeit somewhat inexperienced, they should find more comfortable roles on the third and fourth lines along with Torres and Michael Peca, who played together in Edmonton during the Oilers' run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2006.
Andrew Murray, Jiri Novotny, Michael York and Craig MacDonald are among Columbus' veteran depth players. Tom Sestito and Derek Dorsett may be ready to make the jump from the AHL. A key could be Fredrik Modin, who was limited to just 23 games last season mostly due to a back injury, but still managed 6 goals and 6 assists. The 33-year-old Swede is known for a hard slap shot and has twice scored 30 or more goals.
"We're going to tread cautiously with him, but we are pretty excited," Hitchcock said. "What a great add for us if he can stay healthy because he's such a great player."
Talk about a totally revamped group. The blue line for Columbus is going to look quite different this year with Fedor Tyutin, Christian Backman and Mike Commodore coming in to replace Ron Hainsey, Dick Tarnstrom and Duvie Westcott.
Rostislav Klesla, who has been in the organization since its inception in 2000, Jan Hejda, Ole-Kristian Tollefsen, Kris Russell, Aaron Rome and Marc Methot all return to give the Jackets depth.
Klesla is coming off the best season of his career as he compiled 18 points and a plus-7 rating with only 60 penalty minutes while playing in all 82
s. It was the first time he had a plus rating in his career.
"We're going to end up with six good players with the possibility for eight or nine," Hitchcock said. "We're in a situation where we can have significant depth on the back end that we have never had before. We have four or five big-minute players."
Hitchcock said he envisions Tyutin playing with Klesla and Hejda teaming with Commodore as a shutdown pair. Backman, who arrived with Tyutin from the New York Rangers in the trade that sent Nikolai Zherdev to Manhattan, could be the point-man on the power play.
This was the first summer in two years that Tollefsen has been training instead of rehabbing an injury. Russell is another player that could find a role on the power play, but Hitchcock said he's more of a backdoor threat because of his strong skating ability.
Methot and Rome could begin the season in Syracuse, but Hitchcock believes they are NHL ready. Rome played 17 games with Columbus last season, while Methot appeared in nine after seeing time in 20 the season before.
For the first time in franchise history, the Blue Jackets feel they're entering the season with a franchise goalie in place.
Pascal Leclaire broke out last season by posting career-highs in games played (54), wins (24), goals-against average (2.25), save percentage (.919) and shutouts (nine, which was second in the League).
He's the clear-cut No. 1 and, if healthy, should play in upward of 60 or more games. His backup again appears to be Fredrik Norrena, who saw time in 24 games last season, but Hitchcock said nobody should sleep on rookie Steve Mason.
Mason led Canada's National Junior team to the gold medal at this year's World Junior Championship and led the Kitchener Rangers to the Ontario Hockey League title. He is likely ticketed for at least a year in the AHL, but Hitchcock said he's coming on fast.
Daniel LaCosta, who played in one game last season, is also in the mix.
"Mason is not going to let people take it easy," Hitchcock said. "We have two veteran guys and then we have him. He's not going to want to wait."
Three reasons for optimism
* The Blue Jackets have a lot of competition for roster spots and depth-chart positioning heading into camp, and that's a great sign for an up-and-coming franchise looking for a breakout season. The mixture of veterans and rookies, especially up front, should make for some interesting decisions for Hitchcock and General Manager Scott Howson.
* Rick Nash has matured enough to take on a leadership role for this club, and it's his job to guide it to the playoffs. Nash scored 38 goals last season in his most complete season of his career. Nash could break the 40-goal, 80-point plateau this season, especially if Umberger works out as a worthy top line center.
* It appears as though the Blue Jackets are finally going to have a defined style. They're going to be big and competitive, meaning nothing will come easy against them and they are going to wear some teams out with their size and depth. Hitchcock and Howson appear to be on the same page in how they want this team to look and play.
Contact Dan Rosen at email@example.com