Ken Hitchcock makes a lot of references to levels. As in the level of play his own team, and their opponents, can reach.
Last season, the Columbus Blue Jackets coach saw his guys get to a new level when they battled their way to the franchise's first ever playoff appearance. Once there, it took them three games before they reached another level, only to cruelly fall to the Detroit Red Wings in a thrilling game 4 of the their opening round playoff match-up.
Watching the veteran Red Wings crank up their play taught the Blue Jackets something valuable – they need to be better to achieve post-season success
"We still, for me, have a lot of levels that we're capable of getting to," says Hitchcock.
It's a compliment to the Blue Jackets for their bench boss to suggest that coming off a record 92-point season, in which they regularly defeated some of the elite teams in the National Hockey League, that there is a lot of room for improvement. A game against Columbus is hardly an easy two points anymore.
With the deepest lineup the team has ever seen, the reigning Calder Trophy winner Steve Mason anchoring the net and improvements in both backup goaltending and special teams, it's no wonder that Hitchcock has openly stated that he wants Columbus to dethrone the Red Wings as the best in a loaded Central Division.
"We have a good team like them and we've got good players like them," says second-year center Derick Brassard. "Why not? We have to be confident with our team."
Brassard will be one of the catalysts on this year's edition of the Blue Jackets. Lost with a shoulder injury after just 31 games last year, when he seemed well on his way to giving his teammate Mason a run for the Calder, Brassard is back to center the top unit with Kristian Huselius and captain Rick Nash. With his incredible vision, decisive speed and improved physical size, a full season with Brassard dishing the puck could elevate the line even further.
"We've been clicking," says Nash, coming off another 40-goal campaign. "We've been finding each other on the ice. Sometimes it takes awhile to find chemistry, but it seems like he and I are understanding each other's game pretty quick."
But Columbus is far from top heavy. Hitchcock will have the luxury of rolling four lines thanks to unprecedented franchise depth at the forward position. With Fredrik Modin currently on IR, it looks like the opening night lines this Saturday against the Minnesota Wild might include a second unit with Antoine Vermette (a revelation after coming from Ottawa in the Pascal LeClaire trade), Jake Voracek and Nikita Filatov, while R.J. Umberger, newly-acquired defensive center Samuel Pahlsson and the recovering Jason Chimera man the third line. Opponents won't find a shift against the fourth line all that easy as three of the following five players; Raffi Torres, Michael Blunden, Andrew Murray, Jared Boll and Derek Dorsett, will be on a line and bring a load of grit to the ice.
The addition of Fliatov is just another injection of skill into the lineup. And while Hitchcock had his concerns about the teenager's ability to play responsible two-way hockey, the last part of the exhibition schedule gave the coach reason for optimism.
In the last two (preseason) games, he's really got up to speed," Hitchcock said after last Sunday's pre-season finale at Nationwide Arena. "He's a dangerous player but he's really been competing at a much higher level.
"He's pushing for work on a full-time basis."
On the defensive end, the Blue Jackets have the usual suspects ready to go. Mike Commodore and Jan Hejda comprised one of the best shutdown pairings in the NHL last year, while Jackets' veteran Rositslav Klesla, who played inspired hockey in the playoffs, will likely team with the versatile Fedor Tyutin, coming off a career year. Marc Methot, Kris Russell and new guy Anton Stralman round out a solid corps.
This collection of talent has eased the loss of proven veteran performers.
"We still have some veteran guys here, enough in the mix,” says Umberger, who added to the depth last season when the former Buckeye made a memorable return to Columbus, scoring 26 times. "The young guys we have here are great players.
"They're going to be learning fast and they'll be the guys down the road."
One of the youngsters is already "the guy." The franchise unearthed a gem last season when Mason took over the net in November and never relinquished his grasp. With a league-best 10 shutouts and 33 wins in 61 appearances, the 21-year-old Oakville, Ontario native was one of the biggest stories of the NHL season.
Mason now has some more reliable help. Seeing the effect a heavy workload had on the kid down the stretch prompted GM Scott Howson to make a move for veteran goalie Mathieu Garon. He'll spell the young star more often after proving his worth in Edmonton and Pittsburgh recently (26-18-0 for the Oilers in the 2007-08 season).
There is the matter of the Columbus power play (12.7 per cent last season) but after pumping in a few goals during the exhibition season, Hitchcock thinks they could be better in 2009-10.
"We look more dangerous but I have to see more substance from the power play," the coach says. "We've got to be able to shoot the puck more."
As the Jackets get ready to lift the curtain on the new season, there's a buzz as to what exactly this year's team can produce. Columbus fans got a brief taste of the playoff frenzy – and now they want more.
The even better equipped Blue Jackets hope there are more spring games in store for them, though like Hitchcock might say, it will take another level to get there.
That's no problem for the captain. He envisions more than 92 points and first-round playoff exit.
"Any season (the expectations) should be higher than last season," says Nash.