After struggling to return to the form that had earned him the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie during the 2008-09 season, all eyes will be squarely on Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Steve Mason this season.
Mason, who also was a nominee for the Vezina Trophy in his first season on the job, finished 20-26-9 with a 3.06 goals-against average and .901 save percentage in 2009-10. Word was out that his glove side was a weakness and it showed, but Mason is determined to rebound from the sophomore jinx.
First-year coach Scott Arniel has liked what he's seen in Mason since his arrival in Columbus during the last week in August.
"I think the biggest thing I've noticed is he's taken on his conditioning, taking it to another level, and he's worked hard this summer," Arniel told NHL.com. "He spent time with goalie coach Dave Rook in London (Ont.) and he got in here early and looked good. I think after that success in his first year, he got very busy in the offseason and probably didn't delegate the right amount of time to his training and it might have affected him early on in the season with the injuries. But he recognized that and it's one area he's looking after.
"I've told the guys that they need to control what they can control and to me that's being in tip-top shape and working your butt off. From everything I've heard and seen so far, Steve has done just that."
The one other issue Arniel will be forced to deal with is what to do with the organization's top prospect, 2008 first-round pick Nikita Filatov. The young Russian has played just 21 NHL games over two seasons after falling out of favor with former coach Ken Hitchcock. He spent most of last season on loan to CSKA Moscow in the KHL.
"Nikita has to come in here and earn a spot on our hockey team," Arniel said. "There were some ruffled feathers last year by his departure to go back to Russia, and it certainly didn't work out the way he had hoped. He didn't have the success he thought he was going to have and I think he got humbled a little bit by it. I've had a really good talk with him and he wants to play here, he wants to make this work for him. He knows that if he doesn't make the hockey team that he'll go to Springfield (in the American Hockey League). We can use his offense if he comes in and buys in to what everyone else is doing."
-- Mike G. Morreale
Scott Arniel isn't promising any miracles -- not a bad idea for the first-year coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets, a team that missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs last spring and posted a losing record for the eighth time in the franchise's nine seasons.
"I don't want to put expectations and say, all of a sudden, we've got to get into the playoffs or be here by January," Arniel told NHL.com. "I'm going to move forward and take things day by day. Guys are going to know their job and their role and what I expect them to do and how I want them to play. There won't be any secrets; I have to let things evolve and allow these players to go out and show me in person."
In Arniel, the Blue Jackets should become more of an up-tempo, puck-possession team. That's precisely what general manager Scott Howson is hoping for in the ultra-competitive Central Division.
Arniel, the fifth coach in franchise history, joins the Jackets after spending four seasons as coach of the Vancouver Canucks' AHL affiliate, the Manitoba Moose. He led the team to a 181-106-33 mark from 2006-10, winning a pair of North Division titles and advancing to the 2009 Calder Cup Finals.
He also was named the winner of the 2008-09 A.R. Pieri Memorial Award as the AHL's best coach after guiding the Moose to a 50-23-7 record.
"One of my biggest assets is my people-skills, my ability to relate to the players," Arniel said. "I know what they're thinking and how they're feeling. I think that I'm very open. My door is always open, and I'm not a guy who hides in my office from 6 a.m. until 5 at night. I love to be out and interact with the players, and I've expressed to my assistant coaches to do the same. I want these players to realize we're here to help them and we need to come together as a group to be successful."
Arniel was a second-round pick (No. 22) of the Winnipeg Jets during the 1981 Entry Draft and played parts of 11 seasons in the NHL, from 1981-92, producing 149 goals and 338 points in 730 games with the Jets, Buffalo Sabres and Boston Bruins. He helped his teams qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in eight of those seasons, but his best year as a player was 1983-84 when he set career highs with 21 goals, 35 assists and 56 points in 80 games with the Jets.
Arniel played three seasons of junior hockey with the Cornwall Royals of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, scoring 92 goals and 217 points in 153 games, and helped the Royals win back-to-back Memorial Cup championships in 1980 and 1981. He also played for Team Canada at the 1982 World Junior Championships in Minnesota, helping the Canadians to their first-ever gold medal in the tournament.
"Every Christmas, I watch the Canadian team play in World Juniors and it brings back great memories," Arniel said. "If I see Gord Kluzak, Carey Wilson or James Patrick, or anybody from that team, it's instant memories. It's one of those things that stay with you for the rest of your life. I won two Memorial Cups and they were special moments, but to win it for your country means so much."
Arniel, though, knows his experience as a player likely won't affect how his players view him.
"There are a lot of great coaches who haven't played in the NHL -- I played for Scotty Bowman in Buffalo," Arniel said. "Really, it's how you deal with these guys day to day. That's the biggest thing and that will make or break your success. These guys have to really respect you and believe what it is that you're trying to do for them, individually and as a group. It doesn't matter what sort of background you come from. You just have to be a guy who's honest, straight forward and who cares."
Canucks defenseman Nolan Baumgartner, who played for Arniel in Manitoba, always was impressed with his coach's ability to communicate with his players.
"He knows how to handle guys," Baumgartner told the Winnipeg Sun. "Some guys need to be kicked in the butt and some need to be coddled a bit. He knows how to address those types of players and how to get through to guys. He doesn't beat around the bush and he tells it like it is. It's coming from his heart, and that's how he coaches."
The Moose never finished lower than third overall in goals-against and were in the top half in goals scored during Arniel's first three seasons in Manitoba.
Prior to his stint with the Moose, Arniel spent three seasons as an assistant coach under Lindy Ruff with the Sabres. Ruff, the NHL's longest-tenured coach, was a big influence on Arniel.
"Lindy gave me a long leash and allowed me to work the power play, the forwards, and enabled me to try different things," Arniel said. "I played with him (in Buffalo) and knew his personality, but never knew him as a coach. Really, the way he handled the media, his players in certain situations, I really respected the way he went about his business. There's a reason he's the longest-serving coach in the League -- he gets the most out of his players without driving them over the edge and that's very important."
Arniel is satisfied with the veteran corps at his disposal on a team that is full of intriguing prospects, including forwards Nikita Filatov, Ryan Johansen and Matt Calvert and defenseman John Moore. The veteran group consists of captain Rick Nash and fellow forwards Chris Clark, Ethan Moreau, Samuel Pahlsson and R.J. Umberger, defensemen Rostislav Klesla and goalie Mathieu Garon.
"You need your leaders to be the strong backbone of your team and I think we do have a really solid group but I don't want anyone to feel that they can't speak or act some way because they're intimidated by the room," Arniel said. "I want everybody to recognize that if they have something to say and needs to be said at the right time, I want them to do that."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale