For a team whose entire Stanley Cup Playoff history consists of being swept in one first-round series four years ago, the Columbus Blue Jackets are generating a lot of buzz.
In a way, that's understandable. After all, the Blue Jackets overcame an awful start last season to tie the Minnesota Wild for eighth place in the Western Conference, losing out on the final playoff berth on a tiebreaker. Realignment has also moved them to the Metropolitan Division of the Eastern Conference, cutting down on travel (and late-night TV games for their fans).
Most of Columbus' 55 points came during the last two months of the 48-game schedule; the Blue Jackets went 19-5-4 in March and April after a 5-12-3 start, and finished by winning eight of their last nine games.
"There's lots of excitement here," coach Todd Richards told NHL.com. "There's lots of anticipation of the season. There's a real buzz. Everyone wants to talk hockey now, where in the past it wasn't that way."
But with the buzz comes greater expectations, ones the Blue Jackets will be hard-pressed to meet.
"With all of the great stuff that happened, there are higher expectations now," Richards said. "There are a lot of positive things, but now people are expecting more. Our fan base is expecting more. Hockey people have been talking us up a lot, and there are a lot of good things in Columbus, but now they're expecting more. We have to take another step. We took two steps forward last year; we can't take a step back."
To "take another step," the Blue Jackets will need a repeat performance from goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who won the Vezina Trophy last season, as well as improved production offensively and better play on the blue line.
One point in their favor is realignment, which moved them from the Central Division of the Western Conference to the new Metropolitan Division in the East. The switch will eliminate nearly 6,000 miles of travel as opposed to 2011-12, the last 82-game season, and figures to have benefits both on and off the ice.
"I love the idea of us playing in the East, and I do believe that the travel will be easier," Richards said. "But I think more important than all of that is that it's a chance for our fans to follow us more closely and get more attached to this team."
That attachment will grow even more if the Blue Jackets can continue to improve and snag a playoff spot. To do so, they know they can't afford to get off to the same kind of start that wound up costing them a playoff berth last season.
"Every game is important," center Brandon Dubinsky told NHL.com. "Getting off to a great start is important. If we didn't start out 4-12 or whatever it was, we would certainly have been in a much better situation than what we put ourselves in. It's obviously positive the way we ended the year. I think there was also a huge learning curve for this team. I don't know if we felt like we could win every night at the start of the year, but by the end we felt we were going to win every single game.
"Every team is good. You've got to have a good start to the season."
One year ago, the Blue Jackets were picking up the pieces after the offseason trade that sent franchise scoring leader Rick Nash to the New York Rangers. Fast forward 12 months and Columbus has replaced Nash, added another top-six forward and is eager to see what a core group of improving young forwards can do.
The Blue Jackets stunned everyone at the NHL Trade Deadline in April by landing sniper Marian Gaborik from the Rangers. Gaborik, now 31, has had an on-year, off-year trend to his scoring numbers; he's scored 40 or more goals every other season since 2007-08. With the five-year, $37.5 million contract he signed with the Rangers in 2009 entering its final season and Gaborik now fully healthy after offseason abdominal surgery, he should be primed for a strong season.
"We're excited to have him for a full season. We saw a little bit of what he can do last year," Richards said. "To me, what he provided our team was the 'threat,' the threat to score. I call him a three-zone player. He can pick the puck up in his own zone, carry it down the ice and score a goal, whether it's with his speed or his great shot; with his release, because he gets it off so quickly."
The Blue Jackets will have to wait a while for their major offseason acquisition, free agent Nathan Horton, to recover from shoulder surgery. But when he joins the lineup, Columbus will be getting a six-time 20-goal scorer as well as a player who helped the Boston Bruins win the Stanley Cup in 2010 and get within two victories of another title this past spring.
"To me he's another player who provides that danger of scoring a goal at any moment," Richards said.
The Blue Jackets decided not to retain last season's top point-getter, 38-year-old Vinny Prospal, who finished with 30 points. That means more is going to be expected from youngsters such as Artem Anisimov (11 goals, 18 points in 32 games) and Cam Atkinson (9-9-18 in 35 games) as well as veterans like Brandon Dubinsky (2-18-20 in 29 games) and R.J. Umberger (8-10-18 in 48 games).
Richards figures to spend the preseason mixing and matching to see who fits best with whom. One likely pairing is Gaborik and Anisimov, who played together during their time with the Rangers, along with a left wing to be determined.
Regardless of who he plays with, Gaborik is determined to have a big year.
“I’m not young anymore,” Gaborik told the Columbus Dispatch, “so I have to work harder on things to be ready. But I still feel good. I still think I can fly. I’ve [scored 40 goals] before. I feel comfortable I can do it. It’s not all about the goals. I’m trying to help us win in many ways. But, of course, I’m a guy who can put the puck in the net and, hopefully, I can provide it a lot.”
To say that Ryan Murray's first season after being the second player taken in the 2012 NHL Draft didn't go the way he planned would be an understatement. Murray's chances of making the Blue Jackets as an 18-year-old were taken away, first by the lockout that wiped out the first three months of the season, then by a shoulder injury that resulted in season-ending surgery.
The good news is that Murray says he's healthy and ready to go. He also feels he put his enforced layoff to good use.
"I got the opportunity to come down here and do some rehab on the shoulder, and I got to watch a bunch of games and be around the guys in the room," he told NHL.com. "Just being able to be there and watch the guys prepare and see how they treat their job -- how seriously they treat it and how hard they've had to work for it -- it was great for me to see that."
Veteran James Wisniewski, who partnered with Murray early in the preseason, was impressed with the youngster's performance, especially after he scored the overtime winner in Columbus' preseason opener, a 5-4 victory against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"Hopefully we play together for a long time, and we can work on things where we're just yin and yang," Wisniewski said. "He knows what I'm doing and I know where he's going, and it just becomes second nature. That's what we can work on from here on out."
While the signing of Horton this summer was important, Richards cites the February 2012 acquisition of defenseman Jack Johnson from the Los Angeles Kings in the trade that sent Jeff Carter to L.A. as the beginning of the franchise's turnaround. Johnson and Fedor Tyutin formed a solid pairing during last season's late run and figure to start the season together.
"I think the one major event that happened was acquiring Jack Johnson," Richards said. "I think it started with Jack, with his attitude of wanting to be here, him openly talking about it, saying he wanted to play here, wanted to make a difference here. He was coming from L.A. to Columbus; you don't know how that's going to go. He's coming from a team fighting for a playoff spot, coming to a 30th-place team. But he came in and he wanted to be part of it."
The Blue Jackets also have puck-mover Nikita Nikitin, physical defenseman Dalton Prout and youngster Tim Erixon jockeying for spots along with David Savard, who has posted good offensive numbers in the minors but has yet to stick full-time in Columbus.
Two of those four should fill out the last pairing on defense. But it's Murray who has the potential to be a difference maker on a team that has never had one on the blue line.
"It's a big jump going from junior hockey to the NHL, especially missing the number of games and the time he missed last year because of his injury," Richards said. "But from everything I've heard, I think he's the real deal and it's only a question of when."
For all the good things the Blue Jackets did last season, they wouldn't have come near to making the Stanley Cup Playoffs if Sergei Bobrovsky didn't spend the last two months standing on his head.
Bobrovsky, acquired from the Philadelphia Flyers for a second-round pick in the summer of 2012, grabbed the starting job from Steve Mason at midseason and wouldn't let go. By the time the season ended, he owned a 20-11-6 record, a 2.00 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage -- and Mason had been traded to Philadelphia. Bobrovsky's brilliance earned him the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's top goaltender, despite playing on a team that missed the playoffs, and a new two-year contract.
Richards said Bobrovsky's play changed the team's mindset.
"The whole team can really gain in confidence from the goaltender, and it happened last year," Richards said. "He allowed our guys to go out and play knowing that if there was a mistake there was going to be a real good chance that he was going to back up the players who were playing in front of them, and he did that."
For the Blue Jackets to have any chance at making the playoffs, they'll need a repeat performance from the man known to his teammates as "Bob." Dubinsky is confident that Bobrovsky isn't a flash in the pan.
"I don't think he'll be one of those one-off guys just because of the work ethic," Dubinsky said. "There's not a guy in the League that I've seen, whether it's summertime training with guys from other teams or playing on the Rangers for six years, I've never seen anybody work as hard as he does. He has that quality that [Rangers goaltender Henrik] Lundqvist has, that focus, which is what it takes to be an elite goaltender. Tack on his work ethic on top of that and he has what it takes to be an elite goaltender."
Author: John Kreiser | NHL.com Columnist