You can't get much closer to the Stanley Cup Playoffs than the Columbus Blue Jackets did last season. A surge during the final two months of the regular season enabled the Blue Jackets to finish with 55 points in 48 games, the same number as the Minnesota Wild. But the Wild's 22 non-shootout victories were three more than Columbus' 19, giving Minnesota the final playoff berth in the Western Conference.
Realignment has moved Columbus to the newly formed Metropolitan Division of the Eastern Conference, meaning that the Blue Jackets will be spending a lot less time in airplanes this season. Whether they'll be spending the spring competing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs depends largely on the answers to these six questions:
1. Is Sergei Bobrovsky for real? -- Columbus' season took off at the start of March when coach Todd Richards made Bobrovsky his No. 1 goaltender. The Blue Jackets went 20-5-3 from March 1 to the end of the season largely because of Bobrovsky's brilliance. He finished the season with a 21-11-6 record, a 2.00 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage -- good enough to earn him the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's top goaltender. General manager Jarmo Kekalainen signed Bobrovsky to a two-year deal this summer, meaning that the 24-year-old Russian will have to continue to excel to get a long-term contract. The Blue Jackets have no one ready to step in should Bobrovsky falter, so if he can't come close to last season's performance, their playoff hopes will vanish quickly.
2. Which Marian Gaborik will the Blue Jackets see? -- Gaborik, a three-time 40-goal scorer, came to Columbus from the New York Rangers at the NHL Trade Deadline after struggling to recover from offseason shoulder surgery. He also was not a favorite of (since-departed) coach John Tortorella. Gaborik had three goals and eight points with his new team, capping a disappointing season that saw him finish with 12 goals and 27 points before undergoing abdominal surgery. The good news for the Blue Jackets is that Gaborik has had an on-year, off-year career since 2007-08 -- and this would project to be an "on" season. Beginning in 2007-08, Gaborik has alternated 40-goal seasons with seasons in which he's battled injuries and inconsistency. A 40-goal season from Gaborik, who's in the last season of a five-year contract, would go a long way toward pushing Columbus into the playoffs.
3. What will the Blue Jackets get from Nathan Horton, their big signing in free agency? -- Horton probably surprised a lot of people when he opted to sign a seven-year free-agent deal with Columbus, a team that never has been a prime destination in free agency. The good news is he brings a winning background (he was part of Boston's 2011 championship team and had 19 points in 22 playoff games for the Bruins last spring), good size and scoring ability. The bad news is he needed offseason shoulder surgery and may not be back until December. On a team not overflowing with skill up front, the Blue Jackets need Horton in the lineup sooner rather than later.
4. Is Ryan Murray ready to contribute? -- The Blue Jackets took Murray, a defenseman with the Everett Silvertips of the Western Hockey League, with the second pick in the 2012 NHL Draft and were hoping he'd be able to step right into the lineup. The lockout meant that Murray began the season back in the WHL, and any hopes that he'd join the Blue Jackets were ended when he injured his shoulder in November and underwent season-ending surgery. He was cleared for contact prior to development camp and showed quick hands and good awareness on the ice. The Blue Jackets are hoping he'll be ready to grab a spot on the blue line.
5. Will Ryan Johansen turn into a contributor on offense? -- When Columbus selected Johansen with the fourth pick of the 2010 NHL Draft; the hope was he'd be the No. 1 center they've never had. They're still waiting. Johansen played perhaps the best hockey of his NHL career down the stretch last season, but he wasn't a big offensive threat (five goals and 12 points in 40 games). Nor was he impressive when he was sent to Springfield to help the Blue Jackets' AHL team after the NHL season concluded. Columbus needs Johansen to contribute a lot more offensively if it hopes to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
6. What effect will moving to the Eastern Conference have? -- Moving from the Central Division of the Western Conference to the new Metropolitan Division in the Eastern Conference will cut down on travel (about 6,000 miles less than 2011-12) and means all but 14 games will be played in the Eastern time zone. But it also means battling a division that had four playoff teams in 2012-13 -- not including the improved Philadelphia Flyers and Carolina Hurricanes, as well as the 2012 Eastern Conference champion New Jersey Devils -- and the Atlantic Division looks even stronger. With only three guaranteed playoff berths in each division, the Blue Jackets figure to have a tough task making the postseason for the second time since entering the NHL in 2000.