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Blue Jackets Take Steps, Enter New Phase

by David DiCenzo / Columbus Blue Jackets

Those doing an autopsy on the Columbus Blue Jackets' 2007-08 season will look at some key figures in determining whether or not the year was a success or failure.

Detractors might argue that 80 (the total number of points earned), 13 (their rank in the Western Conference) and 193 goals (30th in the NHL) say everything there is to say about a disappointing Blue Jackets' campaign.

But numbers don't always tell an entire story. In the 82 times that head coach Ken Hitchcock's team took the ice this season, they were bears to play against in all but a few. It takes effort to be a winner and the Jackets' clearly took that step.

"As a coach, all you want is effort," Hitchcock said after the season finale at Nationwide Arena last Sunday. "Night after night, this team poured its heart out, game after game.

"We weren't good enough. We didn't have the competitive depth to sustain."

The good news is that depth can be added, especially given the generous bankroll that first-year GM Scott Howson has to work with as the organization enters what's sure to be a defining off season. What's more important is that the foundation for the Jackets on the ice is in place. Even with an influx of AHL players that made appearances with the big club throughout the year, Columbus played meaningful hockey up until the last week or so of the season.

A crippling November (4-7-3, 11 points) and a post All-Star break mini swoon following a stretch in which the Jackets played some of their best hockey ultimately denied the team a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"Obviously, we wanted to have a better season," says Rick Nash, who proudly accepted the Columbus captaincy following Adam Foote's departure at the trade deadline. "I don't think people expected us to do what we did.

"We've got to move on, look at it as a positive and start worrying about next year. I think individually as players, we have a lot of work to do, a lot of areas to get better."

The Jackets showed they had taken a step forward right off the hop of the new season. They went 7-3-1 in the opening month, playing a gritty, stifling style that combined with solid goaltending, had them flirting with top spot in the Central Division, a perch annually gift wrapped for the Detroit Red Wings. November was a struggle but 16 points in December brought the Jackets back to respectability and had them in the hunt for a playoff spot.

But from January on, Columbus, struggling with some injuries and establishing a new identity after Foote and fellow veteran Sergei Fedorov moved on, played under .500 hockey.

"We're a team throughout the season that needed to earn everything we got," says Michael Peca. "We weren't going to be able to have easy nights and have games where we were going to get the power play going and get us to two or three goals and win 6-1.

"We just seemed to lose a little confidence along the way towards the end of the season."

"You can look back at a season and easily find 10 or 12 points that we should have had, just not closing out a game in the third, letting teams come from behind," says center Manny Malhotra. "Shootouts alone, we lost a lot of points. You can look back and throw out a lot of 'ifs' and 'what ifs' but ultimately it comes down to what we did and we weren't able to win enough games."

"We've shown playing against top teams in the league, we have the ability to compete and we have the ability to win. Those are always bright spots."

The Jackets do indeed show up for the NHL's elite. Until the last few meetings in the season, Columbus seemed to have Detroit's number. They pounded the defending Cup champion Ducks on opening night, beat the powerhouse San Jose Sharks in a tight 2-1 win at Nationwide and after having troubles away from home for much of the season, went out and defeated the Wings, Ottawa Senators and Montreal Canadiens in a crucial road trip in mid February.

The key to future success is playing that same brand of focused, disciplined hockey against every other team.

"I don't think that (knowing how to win games) has ever really been the problem," Malhotra adds. "We've known that for a while. We have our systems in place and it will work well when executed. The main thing is consistency. We went through hot and cold streaks where our power play was firing and the penalty kill was throwing 'O's out there and we were scoring five-on-five, dominating. Then we went through cold slumps where we couldn't find the net to save our lives.

"It's just a lot of inconsistency that needs to be cleaned up."

Individually, some of the Jackets' personnel had seasons to remember. Nash poured in 38 goals, while shedding his tag as a one-dimensional offensive player as Hitchcock used his young horse in every important situation imaginable. The former first overall draft pick constantly showed his worth on a strong Columbus penalty killing unit, even netting four shorthanded goals.

Pascal Leclaire

In addition, super skilled forward Nikolai Zherdev, despite a slow second half of the season, displayed the amazing vision, hands and finish that make him a rising star in the league. Pascal Leclaire produced excellent numbers between the pipes, going 24-17-6 with a 2.25 goals against average and a .919 save percentage, to go along with nine shutouts (second among goalies in the NHL), each of which he humbly credited to the men in front of him. Off-season acquisition Jan Hejda may not have scored a goal in his first year with Columbus but he sure did prevent a bunch, as his team-high +20 rating in 81 games would suggest. And there was no one in the league more willing to drop the gloves with oversized opponents than rookie Jared Boll, a player who definitely made a name for himself in 2007-08.

As a team and organization, the Jackets certainly made strides. They may have not been reflected in the overall record or the fact that a seventh season has passed without playoff hockey.

But a poll of Columbus opponents would find that the Jackets turned a corner this year. The edge they showed all season long suggests that these players aren't just happy to be in the NHL. They have a purpose, which is essentially to be playing hockey when the weather, and the competition, heats up.

"We've entered a new phase and the phase is 'win now,'" Hitchcock says.

"That's a whole different mind set, completely different than what we've had here before."

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