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Blue Jackets aim for playoffs after bold summer

Friday, 09.23.2011 / 3:00 AM / NHL.com's 30 in 15

By Pete Jensen - NHL.com Staff Writer

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Blue Jackets aim for playoffs after bold summer
With the most active offseason of their existence, the Blue Jackets acquired a No. 1 center and No. 1 defenseman, and are thinking about a return to the playoffs.
An offseason filled with positive energy has helped the Columbus Blue Jackets burst onto the radar in the Western Conference -- at least on paper.

PROJECTED LINEUP

Forwards
R. NASH J. CARTER V. PROSPAL
R.J. UMBERGER D. BRASSARD A. VERMETTE
M. CALVERT S. PAHLSSON R. JOHANSEN
J. BOLL D. MACKENZIE D. DORSETT
K. HUSELIUS*
DEFENSE
F. TYUTIN J. WISNIEWSKI
M. METHOT R. MARTINEK
K. RUSSEL G. CLITSOME
GOALIES
S. MASON
m. DEKANICH*
ones to watch
d John moore
d david savard
f maksim mayorov
d nick holden
g curtis sanford
*Injured
But according to second-year coach Scott Arniel, that isn't good enough. After the franchise failed to qualify for the playoffs in 2010-11 for the 10th time in 11 seasons of existence, Arniel knows significant progress must be made in order for the Blue Jackets to translate their high expectations into a postseason berth.

"(The playoffs) are what it's all about," Arniel told NHL.com before training camp opened. "It's what we all play, coach and live for. At the end of the day, you're always evaluated by whether or not you make the playoffs, and then by how far you go. Our players are skating here for the past few weeks and you can feel the buzz around here. We're in a very tough conference and need to stay in the now by focusing on our first game -- Oct. 7 against Nashville. We can only take it one day at a time and let the pieces fall into place."

The Blue Jackets already sport one of the most explosive forwards in the League in All-Star right wing Rick Nash. But after a number of bold acquisitions this summer, the Blue Jackets finally will provide their superstar with an opportunity to co-exist with an exemplary supporting cast.

Columbus General Manager Scott Howson made a surprising move June 23, acquiring standout goal-scorer Jeff Carter in a trade with the Philadelphia Flyers. Then, after acquiring the rights to defenseman James Wisniewski, the Blue Jackets signed the emerging power-play force to a six-year, $33 million deal July 1.

With added offensive depth on both sides of the blue line, Columbus hopes to rebound from a disappointing finish to the 2010-11 season. After the team rolled to its best start in franchise history (14-6-0) and won a franchise-best 17 road games last season, the Blue Jackets were doomed by a seven-game winless streak from late February to early March, and then by a separate six-game slide to finish the season.

But Wisniewski said the positives from last season -- together with the jolt of confidence from the front office this summer -- have made the team's outlook higher than ever entering the new season

"With Columbus having the run they had last year but then just falling short the last month and a half in terms of injuries and stuff like that, we have high expectations of ourselves," Wisniewski said. "Hopefully we can go about our business, fly under the radar a little bit, take some teams by surprise and keep rolling from there."



For years in Columbus, Nash, a two-time 40-goal scorer, has produced consistently on the Blue Jackets' top line. But with a lack of complementary talent around him, Columbus has struggled to compete against the Western Conference's elite teams.

SUMMER MOVES

IN: Jeff Carter, C (trade, Flyers); Mark Dekanich, G (Predators); Alexander Giroux, LW (free agent, Oilers); Aaron Johnson, D (free agent, Oilers); Radek Martinek, D (free agent, Islanders); Vinny Prospal, C (free agent, Rangers); Curtis Sanford, G (free agent, Canadiens); James Wisniewski, D (trade, Canadiens)

OUT: Jakub Voracek, RW (trade, Flyers); Scottie Upshall, LW (free agent, Panthers); Jan Hejda, D (free agent, Avalanche); Mike Commodore, D (free agent, Red Wings); Mathieu Garon, G (free agent, Lightning); Kyle Wilson, C (free agent, Predators); Nikita Filatov, LW (trade, Senators); Sami Lepisto, D (free agent, Blackhawks); Andrew Murray, C (free agent, Sharks); Ethan Moreau, LW (free agent, Kings); Chris Clark, RW (free agent, Bruins); Anton Stralman, D (free agent, Devils); Craig Rivet, D (free agent)
Enter Carter, an All-Star with one 40-goal season who has scored at least 33 for three straight seasons.
   
Also joining the team this summer is Vinny Prospal, who early on will replace Kristian Huselius, out until at least November recovering from a torn pectoral muscle. Prospal had 9 goals and 14 assists in 29 games with the New York Rangers, despite missing 53 games following October knee surgery. He also has a wealth of playoff experience.

Leading the returning players is RJ Umberger, who hasn't missed a game in three seasons, while scoring between 23 and 26 goals over that span.

Two more assets are returning centers Antoine Vermette and Derick Brassard, who scored 47 points apiece last season. Promising 21-year-old forward Matt Calvert adds to the list of players who will compete for playing time this year. The 2008 fifth-round pick had 11 goals and 9 assists in 42 games last season as a rookie.

"I think the exciting thing is the amount of talent we have in the fold for this year -- anything can happen," Umberger told NHL.com. "We have so many different combinations, so we just need to see what works. We have so many good players at the forward position, so we can really try some things.”



Wisniewski is expected to bolster Columbus' scoring ability on the blue line, especially with the man-advantage, where the Blue Jackets struggled at No. 29 (14.0 percent) last season.

While Wisniewski was the team's most prized free-agent addition, the team made another key move that could keep its defensive corps intact quite some time -- signing Fedor Tyutin to a six-year contract extension in August.

"If I can play with Tyutin for the next six years and just know my defense partner hand-in-hand, how great would that be?" Wisniewski told NHL.com.

The Blue Jackets also added a former teammate of Wisniewski's with the New York Islanders in Radek Martinek, who brings a stay-at-home presence to the blue line. While Martinek provides a touch of veteran savvy, Columbus will rely primarily on its youth to make up for the loss of Jan Hejda, who signed with the Colorado Avalanche this offseason.

Kris Russell, 24 and in his fourth season, was second among the team's defensemen last season with a career-best 23 points.

Marc Methot, who signed a new four-year contract in July, brings youth and physicality to the unit. After setting career highs in games played (74) and assists (15), Arniel said Methot really benefited from playing for Canada at the World Championship.



Since his Calder Trophy-winning season propelled the Blue Jackets to the playoffs in 2008-09, Steve Mason has taken a giant step back. His stingy 2.29 goals-against average in 2008-09 has skyrocketed to 3.00-plus in each of the past two seasons, and the team has struggled as a result.

Howson and Arniel met with Mason to discuss improvements that needed to be made over the course of the summer.

"We just threw some things out there that we felt he needed to work at to be a true No. 1 goaltender and he was very receptive to it," Arniel said. "He's not stubborn and knows there's always need for improvement. Steve had great success early on (in his career), and we know that most goalies mature around 25 or 26 years old. We're trying to fast-track him and hopefully we can get him back to his form."

To that end, the team also hired former Canucks goalie coach Ian Clark in the same role, and Arniel said Clark's relationship with Mason already is "starting to mold and grow."

Competing for the backup job will be Mark Dekanich and Curtis Sanford.

Dekanich, 25, registered a 2.02 GAA and AHL-best .931 save percentage for the Milwaukee Admirals' Nashville's. Sanford, 31, led the AHL with a 1.93 GAA playing for the Hamilton Bulldogs, Montreal's AHL team. He's played 108 NHL games with the Blues and Canucks.
Quote of the Day

There was a lot of talk off the ice. From a player's standpoint, that's not the talk in the room. GMs make decisions, coaches make decisions, but as a team you have to come together and be ready to go, and we are.

— San Jose Sharks forward Tommy Wingels on his team's approach entering training camp