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Jackets motivated by lost season that "never got started"

by Craig Merz / Columbus Blue Jackets

COLUMBUS - The Columbus Blue Jackets missed qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for a second straight season, but there was a different vibe Monday compared to a year ago when the players headed to the offseason optimistic about the future.

"The season's been a disappointment," president of hockey operations John Davidson said. "I've been trying to find an analogy. Basically it's been a kick in the teeth for us."

Expectations have been lowered following a 34-40-8 season, including a 0-7-0 start that cost coach Todd Richards his job.

"The season that never got started," captain Nick Foligno said.

Columbus ended the 2014-15 season on a 15-1-1 run but there was suspicion the Blue Jackets played well because they were out of the playoff push and under no pressure.

Those fears were realized in October and the Blue Jackets quickly crumbled under the weight of high expectations.

"We had a lot of optimism for this year," center Brandon Dubinsky said. "The way we came out of the gate just snatched it all away."

The Blue Jackets traded All-Star center Ryan Johansen to the Nashville Predators on Jan. 6 but got defenseman Seth Jones in return. The 21-year-old Jones and Ryan Murray, 22, likely will anchor the defense for the foreseeable future.

There were other bright spots among the young players. With Brandon Saad scoring 31 goals and Boone Jenner 30, it marked the first time Columbus had two 30-goal scorers in a season. Saad is 23 and Jenner 22.

The letdown for new coach John Tortorella came from established players such as oft-injured goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and Foligno, who in his first season as captain saw his goal total drop from 31 the previous season to 12.

Rookie goalie Joonas Korpisalo pushed Bobrovsky for ice time the final few weeks but Tortorella made the order clear going into training camp.

"[Bobrovsky] is our No. 1 goalie," he said.

Columbus went 34-33-8 with Tortorella in charge and finished with three straight wins, although Tortorella said momentum from one season doesn't carry to the next. The 2015-16 Blue Jackets were a testimony to that.

"We embarrassed ourselves this year with all the hype before the season whether we we're going to be right there at the end," forward Scott Hartnell said.

WHAT THEY SAID: "I don't think it's a full reset mode here. Obviously there's some alarms but not a cause for panic. I think we're a good team.

"When you lose, everything's going to be evaluated. I wouldn't be surprised if there's big changes, but I still believe in the core group here. I hope that nothing too drastic is done, but in saying that, we need to win and we need to win now." - forward Nick Foligno.

THE BURNING QUESTION: The Blue Jackets have to find a No. 1 center with the departure of Johansen. Dubinsky (17 goals, 48 points) filled in admirably but he's a second-liner. Jenner moved from the wing to center the final month of the season and it may be a permanent move. The best outcome is drafting center Auston Matthews but Columbus has a 9.5 percent chance of winning the lottery so a trade may be in the offing.

INJURIES: Defenseman David Savard underwent surgery on his foot Monday to repair a chipped bone in his ankle. He can resume training in six to eight weeks and will be ready for training camp, general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said.

WHO COULD GO: Forward Rene Bourque and defenseman Justin Falk are unrestricted free agents. Bourque had three goals and eight points in 49 games. Falk had four assists in 24 games but spent the majority of the season in the American Hockey League.

WHO COULD ARRIVE: Defenseman Zach Werenski, the eighth pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, signed a three-year entry level contract on March 29 and is expected to make the Blue Jackets' roster next season. Werenski, 18, played two seasons at the University of Michigan. Rookie forward Oliver Bjorkstrand had four goals and eight points in 12 late-season games with Columbus to make a favorable impression.

2016 DRAFT PICKS: Columbus has five draft picks; one in each of the first three rounds and one in the sixth and seventh rounds.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM: There were bright spots, especially among the bevy of young players that permeated the lineup, but the focus for Tortorella next season is developing a winning culture and "arrogance" as he likes to say.

Jenner, Saad and Cam Atkinson (27 goals) had career years and young Swedish centers Alexander Wennberg and William Karlsson showed marked improvement.

The defensive corps is maturing but Bobrovsky needs to return to a level near that of 2012-13 when he won the Vezina Trophy.

"We've got a good team," Hartnell said. "You look at our youth. You look at our goalies and our D is getting better as well. I believe the pieces are here. It's a matter of putting it all together and consistency is probably the biggest thing for us."

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