STATE OF THE UNION
This summer presented a different challenge for Columbus General Manager Scott Howson -- finding a way to make a playoff team better.
A postseason wannabe since their inception in 2000, the Jackets earned a franchise-best 92 points last season and made the playoffs for the first time. They were swept out of the first round by the Detroit Red Wings, but Howson said the experience his players gained from that series is what matters most as the franchise moves forward.
"The expectation level goes up from both internally and from our fans," Howson told NHL.com. "So no longer will a playoff berth and out in the first round be acceptable. We've got to raise the bar and that's what we are trying to do here."
Rick Nash, the Jackets' captain and marquee player, showed his faith in the organization by signing an eight-year contract extension on July 3. It kicks in at the start of the 2010-11 season and likely will keep Nash in Columbus until he's at least 33.
What sort of impact Nash's decision has on future transactions remains to be seen, but Howson believes his presence and a winning environment will turn Columbus into a hot destination for free agents. He believes Nash's decision already has had an affect on the Jackets' young players, including Derick Brassard, Jakub Voracek and Steve Mason.
"After you get through a certain part of your career, winning becomes the most important thing and Rick believes we have a chance here," Howson said. "I think that's a big statement to his teammates and to the hockey world."
The other noteworthy moves Columbus made this summer were both made to add depth.
Signing free agent Sami Pahlsson, a defensive-minded center with a Stanley Cup ring, gives the Jackets the kind of depth down the middle that they've never had before. Antoine Vermette, Brassard and Pahlsson now are the Jackets' top three centers.
Brassard, who is healthy after losing the second half of his rookie year to a shoulder injury, could slot between Nash and Kristian Huselius. Vermette could play between R.J. Umberger and possibly 2008 first-round pick Nikita Filatov, who will be given every opportunity to make the team in training camp.
Pahlsson, Voracek and Raffi Torres could be a third line, but that's just speculating.
"The expectation level goes up from both internally and from our fans. So no longer will a playoff berth and out in the first round be acceptable. We've got to raise the bar and that's what we are trying to do here."
-- Columbus GM Scott Howson
Howson, though, admits it's not good enough yet. Neither Derek Dorsett nor Andrew Murray, two potential candidates to be the fourth-line center, would be natural pivots. Nor are any of the Jackets' top prospects centers.
"If we have an injury, we don't have a lot in the organization," Howson said.
Goaltending appears to be area of strength and stability.
Mason undoubtedly is the franchise goalie and arguably the most important player on the team -- but he's still just 21, so Howson wanted to supply him with some insurance. That's why he signed Mathieu Garon, who earned a Stanley Cup ring as Marc-Andre Fleury's backup in Pittsburgh last season, to a two-year contract.
"The second year is often the toughest year for anybody that had success in the first year," Howson said. "Getting Garon signed was important for the franchise just to have a competent goalie there in the event Steve does struggle."
Howson would like to upgrade the area in front of Mason. He feels the Jackets have six NHL defensemen, but only one, Kris Russell, has an offensive element, and he's the youngest of the group.
Through some maneuvering, Howson was able to select John Moore, a puck-moving defenseman out of the USHL, with the 21st pick in June's Entry Draft. Moore likely is not NHL-ready yet, and 2008 second-round pick Cody Goloubef is still developing at the University of Wisconsin.
"We have a long-term need of upgrading the puck-moving ability of our defense," Howson said.
Adding depth up front and an extra skill on the back end hardly seem like daunting challenges when you consider where the Jackets were just two seasons ago.
Fans in Columbus were treated to front-row seats as three of the Blue Jackets' prized prospects developed last season. Goalie Steve Mason developed into a Calder Trophy winner, and had center Derick Brassard stayed healthy, he likely would have been in the running for the award. Right wing Jakub Voracek was solid all season.
This coming season, there is a good chance they'll get to see another of the Jackets' top prospects develop at the NHL level. Nikita Filatov, the sixth pick in the 2008 Entry Draft, will be given every chance to make the NHL roster out of training camp.
But Filatov isn't the only prospect who has GM Scott Howson and Director of Amateur Scouting Paul Castron giddy at what the future may hold for the Blue Jackets.
Here are the Blue Jackets' five most prized prospects:
Nikita Filatov -- Castron told NHL.com he'd be surprised if Filatov doesn't make the final roster out of training camp. He played in eight NHL games last season and scored a hat trick in one of them. "In my opinion, he's ready to play in the NHL," Castron said. Filatov would find himself on either the right or left wing and definitely on the power play if he makes it. He would play on the top two lines so the Jackets could maximize his scoring potential.
John Moore -- The Jackets' first-round pick (No. 21) in June's Entry Draft is the slick-skating, playmaking defenseman of the future. Howson believes the team still needs a puck-rushing defenseman now, but he doesn't think he'll have to worry about getting one for the long term because Moore, who is 18, is going to be that guy.
Maxim Mayorov -- The 20-year-old Russian left wing made his North American debut last season and posted 31 points in 71 games with the Syracuse Crunch of the AHL. He was scoreless in three games with the Jackets. Provided Mayorov sticks it out in North America, the Jackets feel good about his development and the experience he gained.
Cody Goloubef -- Another offensive-defenseman, Goloubef is entering his junior year at the University of Wisconsin. He had 13 points in 36 games for the Badgers as a sophomore. As he continues to earn more of an offensive role at Wisconsin, he'll continue to develop his overall game. The Jackets like his mobility.
Teddy Ruth -- The Jackets acquired Ruth two years ago in the trade that sent Sergei Fedorov to Washington. At 6-1 and 199 pounds, he's thicker than Goloubef (6-foot, 195) and probably will turn out to be more of a shut-down defender, a role he plays at the University of Notre Dame, where he'll be a junior this season. Castron, though, said Ruth is capable of joining the rush.
The Blue Jackets entered the 2009 Entry Draft without a second-round pick -- it went to Ottawa in the trade that brought Antoine Vermette to Columbus. They rectified that on the draft floor in a trade with the Islanders that moved them down in the first round from No. 16 to No. 26, but also gave them the 37th pick.
As USHL defenseman John Moore sat undrafted through 20 picks, the Jackets, who had Moore high on their want list, dialed up another trade. They shipped Nos. 26 and 37 to Anaheim to move up five spots, and they selected Moore with the 21st pick.
"We thought that if he's still there at 21, if we can give another pick back to move up five spots to get him then we would," Director of Amateur Scouting Paul Castron told NHL.com. "We really liked him and I think (GM) Scott Howson did a real good job. It might have looked odd the way it happened, but he did a good job to get a guy our organization feels strongly about."
Columbus made another trade on Day 2 to get back into the second round. It closed the draft with six picks, including four defensemen. Here is a quick look at the six:
John Moore -- The USHL Defenseman of the Year had 39 points in 57 games with the Chicago Steel last season. The Jackets feel Moore could be one of the top skaters on their team right now, but he'll likely play in the OHL with the Kitchener Rangers. He already has signed a three-year entry-level contract.
Kevin Lynch -- Lynch, who played in USA Hockey's National Team Development Program, is headed to the University of Michigan. The center had 24 goals and 24 assists in 63 games last season, coming on in a top-six role mostly at the end of the season. His stock rose at the IIHF World Under-18 Championship, when he helped Team USA win gold with 10 points and a plus-9 rating in seven games.
David Savard -- Savard had 44 points and a plus-29 rating in 68 games for Moncton in the QMJHL. His 44 points were 10th in the league among defensemen. He's 6-1 and 200 pounds.
Thomas Larkin -- A 6-5, 206-pound defenseman who had 46 points in 31 games for Phillips Exeter Academy in the New England Prep School Ice Hockey Association. Larkin is committed to Colgate. He was born in London and grew up in Italy.
Anton Blomqvist -- The under-the-radar Swedish defenseman, who is 6-4 and 190 pounds, is hoping to land a major role with Malmo this coming season. Malmo plays in the league directly below the Swedish Elite League.
Kyle Neuber -- Think Jared Boll, only with less of a skill set now. Neuber is a tough guy, and had 21 points and 338 penalty minutes in 139 career OHL games. He is eligible to play in the AHL this coming season, but could go back to Mississauga as an overage player.