EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a three-part series breaking down the Blue Jackets’ 2014-15 season by positions, with separate installments including forwards, defensemen and goaltenders.
The process has been in place for a few years now, and it began with former Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson: the Blue Jackets wanted to change up their mix of forwards, and it’s been a fairly drastic turnover.
They traded Rick Nash for two key pieces in Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov. Before that, defenseman Marc Methot was traded to Ottawa in exchange for someone you may have heard of, a guy named (All-Star captain) Nick Foligno. With three first-round picks in the 2013 NHL Draft, the Blue Jackets and GM Jarmo Kekalainen selected three forwards: Alexander Wennberg, Kerby Rychel and Marko Dano. They also selected a forward, Sonny Milano, with their first pick in last year’s draft.
When RJ Umberger asked for a trade after the 2013-14 season, Kekalainen flipped him to Philadelphia and picked up a player who added a needed element up front. Scott Hartnell came over from the Flyers and chipped in just shy of 30 goals in his first year with the Blue Jackets.
The Blue Jackets finished this season with three 25-goal scorers (Foligno, Johansen, Hartnell) for the first time in franchise history, and to expand it further, they had four 20-goal scorers (add Cam Atkinson to that mix) for the first time, as well.
Not bad, right?
So it’s safe to say that the Blue Jackets have a full cupboard both now and in the years ahead when it comes to forwards. They finished the season with a balanced, four-line attack that played a big role in their 15-1-1 finish (12-0-1 in the last 13 games) and gave coach Todd Richards plenty of options in assembling his lineup each night.
Here’s how they finished the season:
Jenner – Johansen – Atkinson
Anisimov – Dubinsky – Foligno
Hartnell – Wennberg – Dano
Calvert – Letestu – Morin
Johansen was the hot topic of conversation all through the summer and into training camp, as contract negotiations between his representation and Blue Jackets management dragged on. He signed a three-year deal two days before the Jackets departed for their season opener in Buffalo, and in the 82 games that followed, all he did was set a new career high with 71 points (26 goals, 45 assists) and the first of what figures to be many All-Star game appearances.
No training camp, no problem – and it didn’t really surprise Richards, who thinks Johansen can be one of the best players in the NHL.
“You see those moments where he dominates the game and makes a great play, the great players -- doesn’t matter what sport you’re talking about — golf, tennis, football, the great ones have that drive -- the inner drive, the inner push to win championships, and to be the best,” Richards said. “And again, (Johansen) has all the tools, and this will be a really good summer for him to train and come back and to take the next step.
“Not only to be a better player, and be one of the best players in the league, but he has the potential based on his talent level and the things he can do to put the team on his back and carry the team.”
Then there’s Foligno, who opened eyes around the NHL this year was a thunderous breakout campaign: 31 goals, 42 assists, named captain of the home team at the NHL All-Star Game and on New Year’s Eve, he signed a six-year contract extension to cement himself as one of the Jackets’ bricks going forward.
Foligno is certain to be a fixture in the top six – perhaps on the top line – next season and his chemistry with Johansen is undeniable. Making it even more exciting for the Blue Jackets is the instant chemistry Foligno found with Anisimov and Dubinsky down the stretch, as those three teamed up to form one of the team’s best trios in the final 15-20 games.
Columbus got significant contributions from young players like Wennberg and Dano who were thrust into prime roles under tough circumstances. Jenner, Dubinsky, Calvert, Letestu and Anisimov (this is a short version of the actual list) missed large chunks of the season due to injury, making it a necessity for the kids to step in right away.
Wennberg’s play got better and better with each passing game – particularly so after his recall later in the season – and Dano was a spark plug on a successful line with Hartnell and Wennberg. Their rookie seasons gave them a solid foundation with which to work, but as Kekalainen said in his season-ending press conference, the last thing those two should do is think they have it made and get comfortable.
They have a handful of veterans to help guide them, and many of them do so by example. Watching Dubinsky play every night with his energy and competitive fire is what coaches want the young players to see, and the consistent, 200-foot games of guys like Anisimov, Letestu and Jenner are a good indicator of what it takes to be a successful pro.
We also can't forget David Clarkson, who was injured in his first game with the Blue Jackets and had to miss the rest of the season, and Rene Bourque, acquired at the deadline and who chipped in four goals in eight games before being sidelined with a back injury. Both players figure into the Jackets' plans next season, adding to the possibilities and combinations even further.
Whether they line up in the fall as they did on Apr. 11 remains to be seen, but Richards isn’t afraid to admit that it’s difficult to ignore how strong that lineup was.
“We had some success, and you have to look going into next season on what’s happened this year as far as combinations,” Richards said. “And you might lean that way, but for me it's coming into camp and giving guys opportunities, and using that as motivation for ice time and healthy competition.”
John Davidson wasn’t kidding when he said the Blue Jackets currently have more internal competition than at any point in the franchise’s 15-year history. With no fewer than 15 forwards in the mix for jobs (and with potential for more changes as we enter the offseason), this is one area that will draw plenty of attention for its depth and talent in the years ahead.