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Blue Jackets hope offense will be a group effort

by Craig Merz

R.J. Umberger felt he was a step slower and a stride behind some of the other players, especially those who had played in Europe during the lockout, and never made up the difference during the 2012-13 season.

The Blue Jackets left wing elected not to play competitively during the work stoppage and instead spent much of his time until the season resumed in January training with and helping as a volunteer assistant coach at his alma mater, Ohio State.

Umberger's drop in goals was a byproduct of his decision.

He scored eight times while playing all 48 games (.166 goals per game), well down from his average of .259 in 2011-12 when he had 20 goals in 77 games.

"It was way more difficult than I expected to jump into the season from the physical standpoint of just being on top of your game," he said. "Also, more from a mental standpoint it was hard to go from not doing anything and not knowing what was going on to all of a sudden going full swing into a half-season that quick."

If the Blue Jackets are going to make a serious run at making the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second time in club history without having to depend solely on Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky, then Umberger is among those who will need to make a bigger contribution.

The Blue Jackets were 25th last season in scoring with 2.40 goals per game (the same number they allowed), but did not re-sign Vinny Prospal, who was second on the team with 12 goals, behind Mark Letestu's 13.

While Columbus made an offseason splash by signing former Boston Bruins forward Nathan Horton, a six-time 20-goal scorer, he likely won't return from shoulder surgery until December at the earliest.

That leaves Marian Gaborik, acquired in a trade with the New York Rangers on April 4, as the team's only big-time scorer. He had three goals in 12 games for Columbus (12 in 47 games overall) while battling through an abdominal injury that required surgery in May.

He's healthy now and that's a good thing for the Blue Jackets because they will need help from all comers.

"It has to be goals by committee," Letestu said. "I wouldn't say there are prolific goal-scorers up and down [the roster], but there's certainly guys that can score and a lot of 20-goal scorers will make up for one guy that can get 50."

Letestu believes he will be a factor if given a chance. It's no coincidence his highest goal total (14) came when he played a career-high 64 games for the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2010-11. That he came within one of his best scoring mark in just 46 games last season has him thinking bigger.

"I'd like to play the full season and see what it comes out to," he said. "That's my goal, to stay healthy and give myself a chance to get to 20 [goals] or higher."

As coach Todd Richards looks over the roster, he sees many players who could be more productive.

Center Brandon Dubinsky, a 24-goal scorer for the Rangers in 2010-11, was stymied by injuries and had two goals in 29 games last season. Another ex-Ranger, center Artem Anisimov, could be on the verge of a breakout season after scoring 11 goals in 35 games. In three prior full seasons with the Rangers, he had 12, 18 and 16 goals, respectively.

Then there's left wing Nick Foligno, who had six goals in 45 games last season but put in 17 for the Ottawa Senators in 2008-09.

"Everybody can score," Umberger said. "Gaborik's going to score a ton. You'll see Mark score on a consistent basis. [Dubinsky] and I have scored in the past and will continue to score."

Richards also is anxious to see how young players like right wing Cam Atkinson (nine goals in 35 games last season), left wing Matt Calvert (nine in 42 games) and center Ryan Johansen (five in 40 games) will respond.

"Our young guys are going to step up," Richards said. "Everyone's got to contribute; everyone's got to chip in."

That includes getting goals from the blue line as well as improving a power play that was 28th last season with a 14.2-percent conversion rate.

"That's been a focus of training camp," Letestu said. "Generally when you win or tie special teams battles you give yourself a real good chance to win.

"Our penalty kill was real strong last year [11th in the NHL at 82.6 percent], hopefully that will continue. We know the power play's got to be better, win us some hockey games -- just as many as Bob (Bobrovsky) will steal for us."

There's reason for optimism that the offense will click based on the 19-5-5 run to finish last season, although the Jackets' 24-17-7 record left them a point shy of qualifying for the playoffs.

Over the final 15 games they scored at least three goals 11 times and Calvert attributes that to a host of new players finally jelling.

"Once we meshed, we started scoring by committee," he said. "We had a new line every night step up. That's how it's going to have to be this year.

"We have a lot of talent here. A lot of people might not think so, but we have a lot of guys we know can score goals."

If all else fails he hopes Gaborik can show some of the form that carried him to 41 goals as recently as the 2010-11 season with the Rangers.

"He's an elite talent," Calvert said. "To have a guy that has that offensive ability, when we do need a big goal in the last minute, if he gets the puck on his tape he's going to put it in the back of the net.

"That's always reassuring and the rest of us will chip away and help him out and help take the pressure off his back."

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