NOTE: This is the weekly column of BlueJackets.com writer Rob Mixer. Follow Rob on Twitter @RobMixer, and be sure to check for his regular updates on the CBJ Today blog.
I spent 15 minutes on the phone with Brad Larsen back in June, and that's all it took for me to know he's going to be a really good head coach.
As a player, he was comprised of a lot of heart and a lot of soul -- a coach's dream. He was the kind of guy that teams win championships with, and can't win them without. An ideal "glue guy," he was the lunch pail player every night, and that's exactly what he wants his Springfield Falcons team to be like.
The first word he mentioned to me was accountability, and how he wants that sole principle to be the most prominent throughout his locker room. He talked about the Colorado Avalanche teams he played on, and how accountable players were the engine behind their success -- and when he played in Atlanta, that was the culture they were trying to create.
He's going to have an opportunity to shape a young and talented Falcons club as training camp gets under way in the next couple of weeks.
Former coach Rob Riley, now a scout with the Blue Jackets, nearly led the club to a playoff berth last year despite losing much of his roster to call-ups throughout the season. The goaltending situation was dire, the forward corps suffered through injuries and the defense seemed to always be in flux.
Despite a hectic year with several challenges, the Falcons almost pulled it off. After a strong offseason in which several positions were upgraded, there's no reason to think Springfield can't be a contender for the Northeast Division crown.
Lofty projection? Maybe, considering the Falcons were 13 points out of the top spot, but if you think about it...that's not a sizable gulf. All things considered (especially the obstacles outlined above), the fact they were able to stay in the race as long as they did is impressive.
But the coming season represents something different, if you ask me.
The young talent on the roster is its strength. Offseason pickup Jonathan Audy-Marchessault figures to be a huge part of the offense, as he put up 64 points in 76 games with the Connecticut Whale a year ago.
If he doesn't crack the Blue Jackets roster out of camp, Matt Calvert is another player to keep an eye on. He had a tough go of it in 2011-12, starting the season in Columbus before being sent to Springfield early on. The offensive production wasn't there, but there's no denying the pure scoring ability Calvert has -- we've seen it at the NHL level, and we'll see it again.
The Falcons will welcome rugged forward Dalton Smith into the fold this year, and he's sure to be a fan favorite. He plays the game "downhill" as they like to say, and is the kind of player the opposition absolutely despises. Once again: that's the type of player you win with. Smith is skilled yet combative, and possesses a versatility that will allow Larsen and his staff to slot him multiple places in the lineup.
Oliver Gabriel, a former teammate of Ryan Johansen's in Portland, is definitely one to watch. He got his first taste of the AHL last season, playing 11 games with the Falcons after finishing out with the Winterhawks. He came to Blue Jackets development camp in 2010 as an undrafted rookie with no contract, and a few months later, had done enough to earn an entry-level deal with the club. Tons of skill, a bit of edge to his game...he'll surely be an asset to the group.
And that's just the start. The goaltending figures to be stable with veteran Curtis McElhinney signing on during the summer, while Allen York and Paul Dainton will push him for playing time. The defense is solid and has a bright future; Cody Goloubef and David Savard are the key cogs, and Dalton Prout is an up-and-comer that impressed in a short stint with the big club in 2012.
This club will score goals up front, will be aided by a trio of defensemen that now know what it takes to play at the NHL level, and figures to benefit from consistency between the pipes. The ingredients to a playoff team are in place, and now it's up to the collective to make it happen.
Starting October 13, they will have every opportunity to get started on the right note. The Falcons play seven games in the month of October, and all but one of them is a home game. Their first two "three-in-threes" include two home games each, so the amount of travel is absolutely in their favor.
In the event of an NHL work stoppage, there could be additional names added to the mix that will make the Falcons an even stronger team. But as it stands right now, there's plenty to be excited about around MassMutual Center.
Haven't you heard? Bird is the word.