It may seem like eons ago, but it has been only one full season since the Blue Jackets turned Columbus into a hockey town. But they followed up their first playoff berth with the disappointment of last season, which included the firing of coach Ken Hitchcock.
Now, new coach Scott Arniel brings new blood into a team that is looking to regain the relevance they had two seasons ago, when they turned more than just a few heads around the NHL.
Arniel comes to Columbus with instant credibility. He played for Scotty Bowman during his 11-year NHL playing career that included eight trips to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and he coached with Lindy Ruff for four seasons in Buffalo (2002-06). He also is a former coach of the year in the American Hockey League.
The 48-year-old Arniel, who spent the last four seasons coaching the Manitoba Moose, isn't making any promises of a playoff berth, but he will push the Blue Jackets to play a speed game. They will skate at a high tempo and that, Arniel hopes, will allow the Jackets to play with the puck more often than they did last season, when they finished 24th in goals against (3.04 per game) and 20th in goals for (2.61 per game).
"I think we're going to see a different look with some guys," Arniel told NHL.com. "Some guys felt they were held back a little bit, maybe didn't get as much ice as maybe they should have received, or others that maybe played too much that didn't get to play in specialty teams situations. I can't come in here with one opinion; I have to come in here with the coaching staff and let guys fit themselves into certain slots and certain holes."
The Jackets were 16 points out of eighth in the Western Conference last season. It's a gap Arniel believes can close considerably this season because of the veteran leadership and depth he thinks he has.
Rick Nash remains the focal point, the face of the franchise and the captain, but Chris Clark is a former captain in Washington and Ethan Moreau is a former captain in Edmonton. Rostislav Klesla, Mike Commodore, Fedor Tyutin and Jan Hejda bring experience to the defense, while R.J. Umberger, Samuel Pahlsson, Antoine Vermette and Kristian Huselius add veteran leadership up front.
Arniel believes that type of leadership is the perfect jumping-off point for a team that has plans to rise up the standings.
Youth also should be served in Columbus as Derick Brassard, Jakub Voracek, Jared Boll, Kris Russell, Anton Stralman and, most importantly, Steve Mason, should be ready to take their careers to new heights. The final piece could be the scoring of Nikita Filatov, who never got along with Hitchcock, but has gotten off on the right foot with Arniel.
The key to everything in Columbus this season, though, hinges on how Mason rebounds from a sub-par second season after winning the Calder Trophy in 2009. There are a lot of open-ended questions about Mason, who is only 22-years-old, but Arniel believes conditioning was a problem last season, and Mason took care of that by working out hard this summer.
It's a wait-and-see process with Mason, as it is with the Blue Jackets at large. But Arniel has brought optimism to the organization, a welcome sign after a disappointing season.
"There won't be any secrets -- I have to just let things evolve," Arniel said. "These players have to go out and show me in person."
It starts with Nash, who remains one of the game's most gifted power forwards. Nash's numbers didn't wow last season, though he did score 33 goals and dish out 34 assists in 76 games, and for the first time in his career he established consistent chemistry with a Jackets' center.
Vermette, who played mostly between Nash and Umberger, is coming off his best NHL season with 27 goals and 38 assists while playing all 82 games. Umberger had 23 goals and 32 assists, but was a minus-16. If that is indeed the first line Arniel uses, he has to hope that Nash and Vermette keep that chemistry, and that Nash can score even more.
If Brassard is going to keep his position as the Jackets' No. 2 center, he had better pick up his numbers. He had a disappointing first full season in the NHL, with only 36 points in 79 games, after he showed promise with 25 points in 31 games as a rookie in 2008-09 before a shoulder injury ended his season.
What could be interesting to watch is how fast 2010 first-round draft pick Ryan Johansen rises in the organization. Johansen, who was the fourth pick in June, has the potential to become the No. 1 center for the Jackets down the road.
If Johansen, 18, has a good camp, he could stick around for at least the first nine games of the regular season before the team has to make a decision on whether to send him back to his junior team, the WHL's Portland Winterhawks, or keep him and use up the first season of his entry-level contract. Should Johansen excel, Brassard's job as the No. 2 center could be in jeopardy.
Johansen had 69 points in 71 games last season, second among all WHL rookies.
Huselius is a veteran presence who Arniel hopes to pencil in for 60-65 points, though if he gets to 70 and plays a full season, Brassard could benefit. While Voracek showed flashes last season with 50 points, if Arniel feels he's more suited for third-line work then the hole in the top six could be filled by Filatov.
Arniel said he met with Filatov this summer and told the Russian prospect what he has to do to make the team out of training camp. Filatov understood everything and agreed, a positive sign for the No. 6 pick in the 2008 Entry Draft. If he's going to make the team, he'll likely do it in a top-six role because of his ability to score. Filatov's speed also plays into Arniel's plan for an up-tempo team.
If Filatov makes it as a second-liner, then the Jackets' depth could fill out with Pahlsson centering the third line/checking line between Moreau and Voracek, with Boll and Clark headlining the fourth line, which would most definitely be a gritty line. Training camp will determine the rest of the Blue Jackets' depth.
The Jackets' blue-line group is coming off a season to forget. Mason's struggles were well documented, but part of the blame for his poor sophomore season has to fall on the defense. The Jackets were 24th in goals-against (3.04) and 17th in shots-against (30.7 per game). Their penalty kill was 17th at 81.7 percent.
That all being said, if the Blue Jackets can adapt to the puck-possession style Arniel wants them to play, the defense should benefit and the numbers should improve. It's not as if the cupboard is bare on the blue line.
Tyutin has developed into a No. 1 defenseman in his two seasons with the Blue Jackets. He has had his two most productive seasons since being traded from the New York Rangers. He finished last season with 32 points, but Tyutin would like to improve on his minus-7 rating. He led the Jackets in ice time by a landslide (23:31, nearly three minutes more per game than anyone else).
The Jackets and Anton Stralman agreed on a one-year contract minutes before going into an arbitration hearing this summer. That's good news for Columbus because Stralman, 24, appears to be growing as a player and could be in line for a big season.
Stralman led all Jackets' blueliners with 34 points in 73 games last season after scoring only 22 points over 88 games in his first two NHL seasons, with Toronto. However, he tied Brassard for a team worst minus-17 rating.
Columbus needs bounce-back seasons from Hejda, Commodore and Klesla if it wants the defense to improve.
Hejda was one of the League's steadiest and underappreciated defensemen from 2007-09 as he wracked up 34 points and a plus-43 rating while missing just one game. Last season, though, he was limited to 13 points and a minus-14 rating in just 62 games, and he missed the last 12 games of the season with a right knee injury sustained March 15.
Combined, Commodore and Klesla played only 83 games, produced just 19 points and were a minus-16. Klesla played in only the first 26 games of last season, missing the last 56 with a partially torn hip labrum. Klesla hasn't played a full season since 2007-08.
Two important components to the Blue Jackets' blue line are also youngsters who could be the future of the defense.
Kris Russell is 23, but entering his fourth NHL season, so it's time for him to play his way into the Jackets' top four. He's the slickest offensive defenseman on the team, and if Arniel wants to play an up-tempo, puck-possession game, Russell needs to be a major factor.
John Moore is only 19 and has never played a professional season, but he's the top defense prospect in the Blue Jackets' system, and if he's good enough in training camp he could make the team. Moore, who signed his entry-level contract in July, spent last season in the OHL with the Kitchener Rangers, where he scored 47 points in 61 games.
Arniel told NHL.com that he believes Mason didn't spend enough time properly conditioning himself after his standout rookie season, which had a lot to do with his forgettable sophomore season. The coach also said conditioning shouldn't be a problem again for Mason because he has been working hard this summer.
"I think the biggest thing I've noticed is he's taken on his conditioning, taking it to another level, and he's worked hard this summer," Arniel told NHL.com. "He spent time with goalie coach Dave Rook in London (Ont.), and he got in here early and looked good. I think after that success in his first year, he got very busy in the offseason and probably didn't delegate the right amount of time to his training and it might have affected him early on in the season with the injuries. But he recognized that and it's one area he's looking after."
If Mason can revert back to the way he played as a rookie, the Jackets could be in contention for a playoff spot late in the season. If not, Mathieu Garon could turn into the No. 1 in Columbus. Garon returns as Mason's backup after posting 12 wins and a 2.81 GAA in 35 games last season.
"I've told the guys that they need to control what they can control, and to me that's being in tip-top shape and working your butt off," Arniel said. "From everything I've heard and seen so far, Steve has done just that."
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