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2010 Blue Jackets Preview

by David DiCenzo / Columbus Blue Jackets

It's over 4,000 miles from Columbus to Stockholm. The Swedish city is where the Blue Jackets will begin the 10th season in franchise history with two games against the San Jose Sharks this week. But the flight to and from Sweden isn't the longest trip on the Jackets' sked. There's a more important journey that can't be measured on an odometer.

What the Columbus organization wants is to distance itself from last season. Two years ago, the Jackets broke through an earned a date in the National Hockey League playoffs. Last season, they took a step back.

But there's a new guy in town to get them back on the rails.

"Obviously, I've had one-on-one conversations with guys from last year, guys that I look at as the core group," says first-year head coach Scott Arniel.

"I listened to what they had to say. We didn't dwell too much on last year. Everybody knows what went on. We're more concerned about doing the right things and moving forward. These guys are driven to be better.

"There's a good attitude. That's the biggest thing. They all believe that we can compete in the West."

In a conference loaded with perennial heavyweights, Columbus will need a style makeover to get back to the postseason dance. Arniel has a vision. It will require his young, deep team to push the pace and attack.

"I want this team to be more of a skating team," Arniel says. "We've really implemented in our practice drills and our systems about how we want to move our feet all the time. I've noticed that we have people who can play that way and the guys are really embracing it."

Arniel's approach has been refreshing to the Jackets players from top to bottom. Past editions of the team seemed to overemphasize the need to play it safe, and on occasion, especially through stretches last year, they were too loose in their play.

The coach's aggressive fore-checking system has a lot of the Jackets salivating at the possibilities.

"You look at the teams that were in the Stanley Cup Finals and their styles are kind of where Scott wants to go with his style," captain Rick Nash said as training camp was about to begin.

"It's different," adds winger Jared Boll. "There's no sitting back, that's for sure. The whole point of training camp has been to be in shape, be going the whole time.

"It's a lot of work but it's really fun to play like that."

While the CBJ's forward units will be expected to press hard, the same goes for the defensive pairings. Veteran D-man Mike Commodore figures that fans will be able to notice a pretty big difference in the defensive play – they'll be moving around more and pressuring up ice. The system's design creates opportunities for defenseman, limits opportunities of the opposition, especially the high-end forwards that wreak havoc when given too much space.

"For me, it makes the game a whole lot more enjoyable," says Commodore. "It gets old sitting back. Granted, there's a time and place to not pinch and we have to learn that. We don't want to be running around because you're going to get caught and burned.

You get up, you get a chance to make plays before your Datsyuks and your Ovechkins get a head of speed going. If you're sitting back waiting for them, they're going to light you up.

"It's a good way to play," he says of the strike-first style.

The new coach and his staff are confident they have the horses to do it. One of the reasons that Arniel took the job in Columbus is that he felt the cupboards were stocked with talent. He says that the depth in the organization is maybe at an all time high.

For example, the Jackets can ice three solid scoring lines at any one time. But it’s not just the blend of players like Nash, Kristian Huselius, Antoine Vermette, R.J. Umberger and key third-year players Jakub Voracek and Derick Brassard that please Arniel. Twenty-six year-old Kyle Wilson and veteran Derek MacKenzie have proved their worth and earned a trip to Sweden.

The defense is also deep with regulars Commodore, Jan Hejda, a healthy Rostislav Klesla, Marc Methot, Anton Stralman, Fedor Tyutin and Kris Russell. The club had a glut of young talented defenseman they can call upon should injuries strike.

"When you have competition, it makes people play at their best all the time," Arniel says. "I really saw that (in training camp).

"That's what you need to make yourself an elite team."

The Jackets also have potential in between the pipes with former Calder Trophy winner Steve Mason hoping to return to his rookie form. Mathieu Garon proved to be a reliable contributor, while David LeNeveu and the injured Gustaf Wesslau add depth to the organization.

"I think that Mase, number one, he worked at it this summer," says Arniel. "He wasn't happy with what happened last year, like a lot of players weren't. He controlled what he could control, making sure he was in top shape. His mental attitude is that he's real determined to show people he's an elite goalie.

"Mathieu is a great veteran. He's a great guy to be along there with Mase. It's proven now that your goalies can't play 65, 70 games. They get worn down. You need that guy to come in and win games for you.

"I like where we're at."

Like the goaltenders, the skaters also have an attractive blend of youth and veterans. Former Oiler captain Ethan Moreau adds additional grit and another influential voice in the dressing room.

Boll believes the mix of emerging youngsters and proven NHLers will be good for the whole team.

"Brining in Ethan is huge for us," he says. "He's been around. He's a real veteran guy and when he talks, people listen. Our young guys, Jake and Brass, having (Nikita Filatov) back, they have a lot of skill and offensive upside.

"No one's really a rookie anymore. Everyone's played and been around so we can't use that excuse we're a young team. We have to grow up and show it on the ice."

Commodore points out that making it to the NHL is one thing but staying there, and excelling, is completely another. It's not easy. The same applies to a team as a whole. And if the Jackets plan on being one of the best eight in the West by the time Spring rolls around, they can't make the same mistakes they did in 2009-10. They need to distance themselves from that memory.

"Last year was painful for a lot of guys," Commodore says. "And team-wise it was awful. I hope the lesson is learned.

Overall, I think the state of the union is pretty good."

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