The Columbus Blue Jackets' fast finish last season wasn't quite enough to make up for their poor start, leaving them still with only one appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since entering the NHL in 2000.
The Blue Jackets' near-miss and the team's move to the new Metropolitan Division of the Eastern Conference have fans in Columbus buzzing. But with all the anticipation comes increased expectations -- merely getting close to the playoffs won't be good enough.
General manager Jarmo Kekalainen and coach Todd Richards hope the improvement shown in the second half of last season is real, and that the addition of power forward Nathan Horton and 2012 first-round pick Ryan Murray will help put the Blue Jackets into the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
Here are three items to keep an eye on as Blue Jackets training camp progresses.
1. Can Sergei Bobrovsky do it again? -- The Blue Jackets took off when Richards installed Bobrovsky as the team's No. 1 goaltender. He finished with a 21-11-5 record, a 2.00 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage, winning the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's top goaltender.
He also gave the Blue Jackets the kind of confidence in their goaltending that had been missing since 2009, when Steve Mason led them to the playoffs. They went from hoping to win to expecting to win.
"Sergei had a great year," Richards told NHL.com. "He was great himself, but what I think gets lost in the mix is how the guys played in front of him. He made some highlight-reel saves, and I think through the course of the season most goalies do that. He was real solid for us, but I think the guys in front of him played a good game.
"There's a different mentality when you're coming to the rink hoping to win or expecting to win. Coming down the stretch, without a doubt there were a lot of factors, and one of them was Bob and the way that he played. We were a team that expected to win each night."
It will be up to Bobrovsky to play to that level again this season. If he doesn't, the Blue Jackets' playoff hopes will take a major hit.
2. Which Marian Gaborik did the Blue Jackets get? -- Columbus acquired Gaborik, one of the NHL's top snipers, from the New York Rangers at the NHL Trade Deadline in April. He contributed three goals and eight points in 12 games, capping a disappointing season that started with offseason shoulder surgery and ended with abdominal surgery in May.
When healthy, Gaborik is one of the NHL's fastest and most dangerous offensive players. He's had 40 or more goals three times in the past six seasons, alternating between big years and injury-plagued, not-so-big ones. If the pattern holds, he's due for another big season -- and he has the added incentive of playing for a new contract.
Richards is excited to see what Gaborik can do for a full season, not only because of the numbers he can put up but because of the space he can create for teammates.
"We're excited to have him for a full season," Richards said. "We saw a little bit of what he can do last year. He can pick the puck up in his own zone, carry it down the ice and score a goal.
"Because of the threat, because of his speed and his danger in the offensive zone, opponents cheat a little more toward him or they cheat a little bit back into their own zone. That creates more space for us, so we can play a better offensive game."
3. Is Ryan Murray ready for the NHL? -- The Blue Jackets have never had a stud on the blue line. That's why they took Murray with the second pick in the 2012 NHL Draft. But Murray's hopes of cracking the NHL were delayed by the lockout before being terminated when he suffered a shoulder injury that needed season-ending surgery.
The good news is that Murray is bigger, stronger and healthy. He had a strong showing at the Traverse City rookie tournament and then scored the overtime winner in the Blue Jackets' first preseason game. Though Murray is eligible to be sent to the minors, he's giving every indication that he's ready for the NHL.
"There's a lot to be really excited about with him," Richards said after Murray's OT winner against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Veteran James Wisniewski, who's been paired with Murray in camp, is also impressed.
"He's a very smart kid," he said. “He knows the game well. He could have been a little nervous, but he shows the poise of a 10-year veteran. If they pair us up throughout the season, I'd love to work with him. I'm really impressed with his play."
Author: John Kreiser | NHL.com Columnist