Finally armed with some playoff experience, the Columbus Blue Jackets are looking for more. First, though, they'll have to wade through a loaded division that some believe is the best in the NHL.
Just a few years ago the Central Division was the Detroit Red Wings and everyone else. This season, all five teams have bought into the postseason-or-bust philosophy, and the Jackets, who were swept out of their first Stanley Cup Playoffs by those Wings less than five months ago, believe they're on the verge of something special.
Their confidence soared even higher this summer when Rick Nash
, the captain and face of the franchise, signed an eight-year extension that should keep him in Ohio's capital city until he's at least 33 years old. Nash would have become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2009-10 season, but his trust in the organization led him to signing the extension.
Nash said at the time that his contract security hopefully will convince some of his teammates to sign long term deals, and just a few weeks ago center Derick Brassard
, who could be Nash's middle man this season, signed a four-year extension. Derek Dorsett
also signed a new two-year deal earlier this month.
"(Nash) made a statement," Columbus GM Scott Howson told NHL.com this summer. "It shows that he's serious about winning and we're serious about winning. We're going to have a chance to win."
For his part, Howson did little this offseason for fear of upsetting the chemistry the Jackets had last season. He made a series of small moves highlighted, by signing checking-line center Sammy Pahlsson to a three-year contract.
Pahlsson gives the Jackets added depth at center, a position the Jackets seemingly always have been trying to upgrade throughout the franchise's eight-year history. He also brings a Stanley Cup ring and an Olympic gold medal with him to Columbus.
"No longer will a playoff berth and out in the first round be acceptable," Howson said. "We've got to raise the bar."
It won't be easy, but Howson and Nash are confident the Jackets can ride the confidence and experience gained in their breakout season to an even deeper run into the spring.
It starts with Nash, who had 40 goals and a career high 79 points last season. He also played a key role on the penalty kill, scoring 5 shorthanded goals. Unless something goes terribly wrong, Nash will be in Vancouver in February playing for Team Canada.
Nash, though, never has played with a bona fide No. 1 center. It remains to be seen if Brassard can be that player, but the second-year player from Hull, Que., will be given the opportunity between Nash and Kristian Huselius
. Brassard had 25 points in 31 games last season before a suffering a season-ending shoulder injury Dec. 18.
At the time of his injury, Brassard was leading all NHL rookies in points. He also ranked second in goals and assists and was third in plus/minus rating at plus-12. He also was the League's Rookie of the Month in October for scoring 9 points in 10 games.
Huselius and Nash complemented each other last season. Huselius, who signed a four-year contract last summer, was second on the team with 56 points.
Howson is pleased with the Jackets' depth at center. Beside Brassard and Pahlsson, they also have Antoine Vermette, who came from Ottawa at the trade deadline last season and seemed to develop chemistry with R.J. Umberger
With Pahlsson likely playing behind him, Vermette can concentrate on playing a more offensive role, or at least a two-way game. It should suit him nicely, especially if Umberger plays the wing like he did last season. They combined for 12 goals and 12 assists in the final 17 games of the season after the trade deadline.
Who plays with them remains a mystery, but it's possible Nikita Filatov could jump into the mix. The Jackets, in fact, are hoping that's exactly what happens, but Filatov, the sixth pick of the 2008 Entry Draft, will have to earn his spot.
Provided he does, the Jackets' top six will feature four players (Huselius, Vermette, Umberger and Filatov) that Howson has acquired in the last 15 months. Huselius is the only one who played in the NHL prior to the work stoppage.
Those six forwards also will be charged with improving the Jackets' dismal power play, which was an NHL-worst 12.7-percent last season. It has to be at least respectable if Columbus wants to challenge Detroit and Chicago in the Central Division.
Pahlsson was signed to play his usual shut-down role. He could be joined on the third line by Jason Chimera and Fredrik Modin.
Second-year wing Jakub Voracek also has the skills to play a two-way game and the versatility that should allow Hitchcock to put him anywhere in the lineup. He could play on the second line if Filatov isn't ready.
Where Raffi Torres plays will be determined in camp, but he could replace Chimera on the third line or drop to the fourth line, possibly with Dorsett and Jared Boll
. Andrew Murray is in the mix, too, as are Alexandre Picard and Stefan Legein.
The blue line remains an area of concern for Howson and coach Ken Hitchcock. The GM had hoped to address it this summer, but never found a deal he liked. He insists he's still looking, but right now Howson said he is content going into the season with what is in place.
That's because neither the GM nor the coach believe the defense will be a major liability this season.
The only difference in Columbus' 2009-10 blue line as opposed to last season is Ole-Kristian Tollefsen is gone. Tollefsen, though, played in only 19 games during an injury-plagued 2008-09 and the Jackets finished with the League's ninth-best defense (2.72 goals-against per game).
While a portion of that success is due to the play of goalie Steve Mason
, who won the Calder Trophy last season, the Jackets go six deep on defense and Howson believes the only missing element is a true puck-mover on the back end.
Kris Russell could develop into that player, but as of now he's still a little green. Fedor Tyutin
, who has proven to be a steal since being acquired from the Rangers for Nikolai Zherdev, also has those skills. Neither, though, ever will be confused with Scott Niedermayer.
Still, Tyutin is a solid two-way player who got experience last season filling the role of power-play quarterback. Mike Commodore, Jan Hejda and Rostislav Klesla all are experienced and each can be punishing defenders. Marc Methot
likely will be given more playing time this season as Hitchcock likes the maturation in his game.
The key to this unit is depth, because the Jackets might have tired down the stretch last season due to the extended minutes Tyutin (23:30), Commodore (22:53) and Hejda (22:22) played. Hitchcock has said he might want to spread those three onto different pairs this season to give his defense more balance through the lineup. Russell and Methot will have to step up to make that work.
Here is one position the Jackets are hoping they don't have to worry about for the next 15 years or so. Mason is locked in as the No. 1 goalie, with Mathieu Garon signed to be his backup.
Mason faded a bit toward the end of last season and definitely in the playoffs, but a lot of that had to do with the fight he was having with mononucleosis. He said it sapped a lot of his energy and strength, but he pushed on to play through it.
He's 100-percent healthy now, though, and is ready to build on his impressive debut season, when he won 33 games, had 10 shutouts and posted a .916 save percentage and 2.29 goals-against average.
If all goes to plan, Garon, who won the Stanley Cup as Marc-Andre Fleury's backup last season in Pittsburgh, will play 20-25 games to keep Mason fresh for what the Jackets believe will be an inevitable playoff chase.
Garon has been in the League since the 2000-01 season and won a career-high 31 games with Los Angeles in 2005-06, and won 26 games with Edmonton in 2007-08. With Pascal Leclaire out last season, Mason didn't have much in the way of help, but he's got it now.Contact Dan Rosen at email@example.com.
Author: Dan Rosen | NHL.com Staff Writer