The Columbus Blue Jackets became the NHL's lovable underdog last season, and their mad dash for a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs after a slow start to the shortened season came up just short.
What looked like a long-term rebuilding project for new general manager Jarmo Kekalainen might not be now with a Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender, a potentially deep defense corps and a couple of new frontline talents at forward. Marian Gaborik arrived before the trade deadline, and Nathan Horton joined him as one of the marquee free agent signings.
Beyond signing Horton to a seven-year, $37.1 million contract, it has been a remarkably quiet offseason in Columbus. The Blue Jackets didn't add any players on one-way contracts or lose anyone to a one-way deal to another team. They had three first-round picks at the 2013 NHL Draft and ended up staying put and making each of the selections.
Horton isn't likely to be ready for the start of the season after shoulder surgery, and there is some regression expected. A productive year for Gaborik, or breakthrough seasons from Ryan Johansen or Cam Atkinson could divert some of that regression.
The Blue Jackets are moving to the new Metropolitan Division, where the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers look like the class of the group on paper, but the other six teams all seem like plausible candidates to finish anywhere from third to out of the playoffs.
Here is the projected 2013-14 lineup for the Blue Jackets:
Cam Atkinson - Artem Anisimov - Marian Gaborik
RJ Umberger- Ryan Johansen - Nathan Horton
Matt Calvert - Brandon Dubinsky - Nick Foligno
Blake Comeau - Mark Letestu - Jared Boll
Jack Johnson - Fedor Tyutin
Nikita Nikitin - James Wisniewski
Ryan Murray - Tim Erixon
NOTES: The three forwards expected to be the team's top goal-scorers (Gaborik, Horton, Atkinson) are natural right wings, and a shift to the other side didn't work so well for Gaborik in New York. When everyone is healthy, expect Atkinson to be the one who makes the move.
Until Horton is healthy, it is certainly possible Atkinson stays on the right side and Dubinsky is the likely candidate to move into the top six with Letestu sliding up to No. 3 center. Boone Jenner could force his way into the lineup during training camp.
Murray, the No. 2 pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, missed a huge chunk of last season with a shoulder injury. Whether or not he is ready for the NHL after missing the development time will be a story to watch during camp. There are some options if Murray isn't ready; David Savard, Cody Goloubef and Ilari Melart could compete with Prout for that opening in the top six.
There will be plenty of focus on Bobrovsky trying to repeat his amazing 2012-13 season. McElhinney could see some competition for the backup spot from free agent signing Mike McKenna.
Follow Corey Masisak on Twitter at: @cmasisak22
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2013-14 FANTASY PREVIEW: JACKETS
Under-valued: Marian Gaborik -- Since 2005-06, Gaborik has been extremely productive every other year: 38 games, 66 points in '05-06; 42 goals, 83 points in '07-08; 42 goals, 86 points in '09-10; and 41 goals, 76 points in '11-12. The in-between years haven't been quite the same, but 2013-14 falls on the good year -- expect 35-plus goals and 70-plus points while Gaborik finds comfort playing for a new coach in Columbus.
Over-valued: Sergei Bobrovsky -- Bobrovsky's breakout campaign last season was no fluke, but it's still questionable whether he'll be a top-five goalie this year. Columbus as a team has certainly improved, but to replicate -- or even come close to -- the 2.00 goals-against average and .932 save percentage he had last season is unrealistic. Think more like a 2.35 GAA and .920 save percentage, which is still impressive.
Sleeper: Artem Anisimov -- At 25 years old, could this finally be his breakthrough year? After dealing with concussion issues last season and finishing with 11 goals and 18 points in 35 games, Anisimov should be on the top line alongside Gaborik, and he might just put it all together in 2013-14.
Author: Corey Masisak | NHL.com Staff Writer