The 2014-15 season can't start soon enough for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Fueled by a rare Stanley Cup Playoffs appearance in which they pushed the Pittsburgh Penguins to six games in the Eastern Conference First Round while captivating Ohio's capital city, the Blue Jackets are eager to show last season was not a fluke.
"The playoffs in the past have been the exception," center Mark Letestu said. "We're trying to make that the rule here. The playoffs are the starting point. The expectations are to compete for a Stanley Cup now. Maybe that's what's changed. Maybe in the past it's been a little more unrealistic than it is now.
"We have a lot of good players, some great players. Everybody fits well. It's a good group. There's a real opportunity to make something special happen here."
Columbus qualified for the postseason for the second time in 13 seasons by setting team records for wins (43) and points (93).
But the Penguins exposed flaws that Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards set out to correct in a directive to the players before they went into the offseason: play faster.
"It's got to be structure and organizing better coming back in our zone," he said. "We'd like to get our defensemen going back for pucks on breakouts so we can break out with three forwards.
"We've got to do things quicker with our legs and quicker with our minds. How can we get in the offensive zone quicker? How can we transition quicker? How can we get out of our own zone quicker? We believe with more structure."
The pieces seemed to be in place for one of the youngest teams in the NHL to have a better season, but the Blue Jackets encountered several bumps entering preseason play.
Foremost, of course, is the holdout of center Ryan Johansen, who led the Blue Jackets in scoring last season with 33 goals and 63 points.
Although Columbus set a team record with 231 goals scored (a 2.8 average) that was 12th in the League, general manager Jarmo Kekalainen is confident the Blue Jackets will find the production to replace Johansen if he is out for an extended period.
"You know what? The year before we had a leading scorer who didn't play with us the next year and we did just fine," Kekalainen said.
He was referring to the trade of Rick Nash to the New York Rangers in July 2012. The Blue Jackets responded by coming within a point of making the playoffs in 2012-13 after having the fewest points in the League during Nash's final season in Columbus.
The other issue is the continued injury saga for right wing Nathan Horton. After signing a seven-year, $37.1 million contract in the summer of 2013, he had five goals and 14 assists in 36 games. He had shoulder surgery shortly after signing and needed half a season to recover before sustaining an abdominal injury.
Horton then injured his back this past summer and his status for the start of the regular season is unknown.
No matter how the roster evolves, president of hockey operations John Davidson said the tone has been set.
"There's been an identity established by the Blue Jackets that we're a hard team to play against," he said. "As we move along and get a little more skill in the lineup it will be helpful. We're still young, but that's a good thing. The young guys have handled it very well."
Richards' task is to find a No. 1 center in Johansen's absence.
"That job's open," Letestu said. "There's going to be the opportunity for a few guys to grab it."
One of them might be second-year player Boone Jenner, who as a left wing had 29 points (16 goals, 13 assists) his rookie season.
Letestu, Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov are the other centers, giving the Blue Jackets strength down the middle and depth among the forwards despite missing Johansen.
"We're a team and we're not run by one player," Davidson said. "He's a tremendous player but we have to [think], as far as our group goes, if he's not here, he's not here. Period."
Last season Jenner and defenseman Ryan Murray were the rookies who cracked the lineup and there are several forwards who could step in this season. Center Alexander Wennberg, the 14th pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, appears the most NHL-ready after scoring 21 points (16 goals, five assists) in 50 games last season for Frolunda in the Swedish Hockey League.
"He can play center, he can play wing," Kekalainen said. "He's responsible defensively, but he's also very gifted offensively."
Left wings Marko Dano and Kerby Rychel, and right wings Oliver Bjorkstrand and Josh Anderson, should also get serious looks but the Blue Jackets don't feel the need to rush any of their recent draft picks.
Columbus expects to benefit from the first playoff series for young players such as left wing Matt Calvert, whose overtime goal in Game 2 against the Penguins gave the Blue Jackets their first postseason win in history, and right wing Cam Atkinson.
"We made some really good strides last year," Atkinson said. "It was a great learning experience us making the playoffs and having some success with Pittsburgh, but now we know what it takes to win and take it to the next level."
The Blue Jackets made one major offseason move when they traded RJ Umberger to the Philadelphia Flyers for left wing Scott Hartnell, who at age 32 is the oldest player on the team. Hartnell had to approve the trade and did so after experiencing firsthand last season how the Blue Jackets played against their Metropolitan Division rival.
"To rewind a bunch of years ago when Columbus came into the League and I was in Nashville, you knew you were going to come in and get a win," he said. "It was getting two points and head back to Nashville.
"Especially the past few years playing Columbus, the way these young players have come up and developed, it's 'You're not getting two points unless you're playing one of your best games of the season.'"
Besides the rookie forwards, the most scrutinized player will be 25-year-old right wing Simon Hjalmarsson. He had 27 goals and 57 points last season for Linkopings of the Swedish Hockey League and has a good chance of making the roster.
Forward Brian Gibbons, a free agent signee from the Penguins, is also in the mix. He had five goals and 12 assists in 41 games for Pittsburgh last season.
"Brian Gibbons played on the same line with Sidney Crosby in the playoffs," Kekalainen said. "That's a pretty demanding position to fill for any player."
There are few uncertainties on the blue line. Other than not re-signing Nikita Nikitin and Nick Schultz, the Blue Jackets have everyone returning beginning with the top pairing of Jack Johnson and Fedor Tyutin.
Johnson said the Blue Jackets need to help the defense to avoid the slow starts of the past two seasons.
"We've got to score more goals in those first few games," he said. "We've actually been good defensively and played well as a team. It's just scoring some more goals.
"We need to create more offense. It's tough to ask a team to win 2-1 or 1-0 every night. That's a lot of pressure on yourself. If you can score three or four goals it helps your chances dramatically."
Veteran James Wisniewski and Murray meshed last season and provide some offense. Wisniewski matched his career best with 51 points (seven goals, 44 assists) and finished ninth in the League with 28 power-play points. Murray had 21 points (four goals, 17 assists) in 66 games.
David Savard and Dalton Prout provide stability for a defense that was 13th with a 2.6 goals-against average. Tim Erixon, acquired in the Nash trade, may finally be ready to have a permanent spot in the NHL.
Sergei Bobrovsky (32-20-5, 2.38 GAA, .923 save percentage) didn't match his numbers from the previous season when he won the Vezina Trophy, but the Blue Jackets have no complaints with the member of Russia's 2014 Sochi Olympics team.
"We have one of the best goalies in the League who will keep us in every game every night," said Hartnell, who played with Bobrovsky in Philadelphia.
Curtis McElhinney (10-11-1, 2.70, .909) filled in for Bobrovsky but if each sustains an injury, which happened in December, the Blue Jackets are thin on experienced backups because they did not re-sign Mike McKenna or Jeremy Smith.
Swedish goaltenders Oscar Dansk, 20, and Anton Forsberg, 21, are expected to start the season with the Springfield Falcons of the American Hockey League.
B. Jenner - B. Dubinsky - N. Horton
S. Hartnell - A. Anisimov - C. Atkinson
N. Foligno - A. Wennberg - M. Calvert
B. Gibbons - M. Letestu - S. Hjalmarsson
Extras: J. Boll, J. D'Amigo, C. Tropp
F. Tyutin - J. Johnson
R. Murray - J. Wisniewski
D. Prout - D. Savard
Extras: T. Erixon, C. Goloubef
ADDITIONS: Scott Hartnell, F (trade, Flyers); Brian Gibbons, F (free agent, Penguins), Jerry D'Amigo F (trade, Maple Leafs); Simon Hjalmarsson F (free agent, Linkopings - Sweden)
SUBTRACTIONS: Blake Comeau F (free agent, Penguins); Derek MacKenzie F (free agent, Panthers); Jack Skille F (free agent, Islanders); Matt Frattin F (trade, Maple Leafs); Nikita Nikitin D (free agent, Oilers); Nick Schultz D (free agent, Flyers); Mike McKenna G (free agent, Coyotes)
PROMOTION CANDIDATES: Kerby Rychel, F; Josh Anderson, F; Marko Dano, F; Oliver Bjorkstrand F
BLUE JACKETS AMONG FANTASY 275
The 2014-15 season is drawing closer by the day, so NHL.com has you covered with all the fantasy hockey advice you'll need on draft day.
Below are Columbus Blue Jackets players who qualified for NHL.com's top 275 fantasy list. Each player's aggregate spot was determined by averaging the individual rankings of Matt Cubeta, Pete Jensen and Matt Sitkoff. Also listed are each player's Yahoo position eligibility and any offseason NHL.com fantasy content that breaks down projected value for 2014-15.
36. Sergei Bobrovsky, G (Top 50 breakdown)
52. Ryan Johansen, C/RW (Mock draft analysis)
104. Brandon Dubinsky, LW/C (Category hogs)
110. James Wisniewski, D (Specialists)
134. Scott Hartnell, LW (Fantasy Spin blog)
184. Nathan Horton, RW (Cubeta's sleeper)
198. Jack Johnson, D (Positional ranks)
212. Ryan Murray, D
241. Cam Atkinson, RW (Cubeta's sleeper)
257. Nick Foligno, LW (Positional ranks)
Author: Craig Merz | NHL.com Correspondent