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CBJ Season Preview: Forwards

by Rob Mixer / Columbus Blue Jackets

Goal scoring was hard to come by for the Blue Jackets in 2012-13.

Had they netted a few more, would they have made the Stanley Cup playoffs? That's hard to say (so we won't), but there is no denying that boosting the offense was priority No. 1 heading into the summer.

Faced with an obvious need and some salary cap room to work with, Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen went after the top guy on his list and arguably the top scorer available on the free agent market in Nathan Horton. With a seven-year contract signed shortly after free agency opened on July 5, the Blue Jackets had obtained a 28-year-old power forward and proven winner who wanted to be in Columbus and hop on board with a group that many feel is headed for better days.

But the big piece acquired over the summer isn't the only exciting part of what the Blue Jackets are building up front; they return a cadre of young players who are expected to bring a more mature, complete game in 2013-14 and help chip away in the goal-scoring column. Players like Matt Calvert, Cam Atkinson, Ryan Johansen, rookie Boone Jenner and others - these players are huge components of the Blue Jackets' present and future and are going to be entrusted with expanded roles this season. 

Atkinson, hindered down the stretch in 2012-13 by an ankle injury, reported to camp at 100 percent and was flying in the team's exhibition games. He skated briefly on a line with Marian Gaborik and Artem Anisimov, but this past week, has slotted on right wing with Johansen at center and Calvert on the left. The so-called "kid line" has all the elements you're looking for in a scoring line: a strong player on the walls and energetic forechecker (Calvert), an explosive sniper who can score in bunches (Atkinson) and a big body in the middle of the ice who can win face-offs and drive play (Johansen). 

Then there's the top line, which to the start the season will be held down by Jenner on left wing, Brandon Dubinsky in the middle and superstar Marian Gaborik on the right side. The trio was dynamite during the preseason and had a couple of dominant performances in Carolina and Pittsburgh, and Richards said he wasn't going to mess with that combination to open the season. 

Behind the No. 1 unit, things get a little murkier. Where does RJ Umberger fit? What about Nick Foligno, Anisimov, Mark Letestu or Blake Comeau? At least to kick things off, Letestu may skate on the wing with Anisimov at center which gives Anisimov a solid option to dish the puck to - and a guy in Letestu who's not afraid to shoot the puck or make a play. In practice this week, Comeau was the right winger on that line and they seemed to have some good chemistry - but as we all know well, anything can change either before opening night (or during the game).

Bottom line for the Blue Jackets: offense was a group effort a year ago and they're going to need more of the same, at least until Horton is ready to return from shoulder surgery. A healthy and re-energized Gaborik is going to be a big shot in the arm, along with breakout scoring performances from guys like Atkinson and Johansen. If everyone chips in a little more than they did a year ago, that whole "goal scoring is a problem" argument might not have much of a case at all. 

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