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Blue Jackets excited about team's growth potential

by Rob Mixer / Columbus Blue Jackets

The Blue Jackets have no choice but to move forward without Ryan Johansen in the midst of a protracted contract dispute, John Davidson said.

And they’re prepared and comfortable to do just that.

There is no denial from anyone in Blue Jackets management that Johansen, who scored 33 goals in a breakout campaign last year, is a significant part of the team and one of the bright, emerging stars in the NHL. But this is also a team that set franchise records offensively in 2013-14, just one offseason removed from trading their former captain and scoring leader in Rick Nash.

“(The negotiations) aren’t THE story,” Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards said during the team’s annual media day luncheon at Nationwide Arena.

“It’s a story, but the real story is the team.”

With several young players and prospects that have either made the jump to the NHL or are ready to within the next year or two, the Blue Jackets are excited about their future while expressing disappointment that Johansen may not be available for the start of training camp.

But when the team takes the ice for the first practice of 2014-15 on Friday morning, all of the outside noise is going to be tuned out. The focus of Davidson, Richards and GM Jarmo Kekalainen is on the players under contract and in camp as the Blue Jackets prepare for a season ripe with expectations.

"There's been an identity established with the Blue Jackets,” Davidson said. “We're a hard team to play against, but we have to go out this season and play even better. This hockey club is like a race horse in the barn. They're ready to go and start this season.

“We have to move on. If it's not done, we're moving forward."

The Blue Jackets expect more growth from players like Cam Atkinson (who turned in a 20-plus goal season last year) and Matt Calvert, who was one of their most impressive players in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Their veteran core returns in full, after a career year from Brandon Dubinsky, a solid 22-goal season (career high) from Artem Anisimov and the addition of Scott Hartnell brought offseason excitement throughout the organization.

On the horizon, recent first-round picks Alexander Wennberg, Kerby Rychel and Marko Dano aren’t far off. All three were standouts at the NHL Prospects Tournament in Traverse City, Mich., where the Blue Jackets recently claimed their third title in franchise history and first since 2006.

They’ve also brought in players like Brian Gibbons, Simon Hjalmarsson and Jerry D’Amigo who can not only play a role in the bottom six, but also have the ability to challenge for spots higher in the lineup.

“We have a lot of good young players here and we saw that in Traverse City,” Davidson said. “We’re a team and we’re not run by one player. We have a lot of people that have worked their tails off all season long and all summer long, and that’s where I want to put our focus.”

Said Kekalainen: “We have skilled depth that can move up in the lineup, not only in the bottom six but possibly into the top six, too. Brian Gibbons played on the same line with Sidney Crosby in the playoffs, so that’s a pretty demanding position to fill for any player. We have a lot more guys that will provide us depth in the offensive roles; I’ve always said that I believe in your best defense having the puck. If you have the puck, the other team’s not going to score very often. We want to have the puck. I think we’re in much better shape in that department right now.”

And regarding Wennberg in particular, Kekalainen said they’re going into training camp with an open mind and open eyes. Wennberg spent part of his summer getting to know the city of Columbus and added muscle during an intense training program, all in an effort to give himself the best chance to make the team out of camp.

Kekalainen did say, however, that the organization’s philosophy is to put its young players in position to succeed and not put them on the team just because they could hold their own.

“Ultimately, for a young player like Alexander Wennberg or any young prospect, we’d like them to be playing to their strengths,” Kekalainen said. “If a young prospect is playing eight minutes in mostly a defensive role, that’s probably not best for his development. There’s definitely some flashes of performance in Traverse City that made you think ‘you know what? We’re going to have some more tough roster decisions.’ That’s great, and that’s the way we want it.

“This year, we made hard roster decisions with some popular players here. And whether (those spots) can be filled with some of those young players remains to be seen. Every day is going to be a test, and at the end of camp, we’ll make some hard decisions again.”

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