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Blue Jackets want to get back on playoff track

by Adam Kimelman
To celebrate their 10th season, the Columbus Blue Jackets hope a new coach can bring back old success.

It was only a year ago the Blue Jackets were celebrating the high of the franchise's first-ever playoff berth. There was no follow-up, though, as the team crashed to last place in the Central Division and 14th in the Western Conference.

Goalie Steve Mason looked nothing like the previous season's Calder Trophy winner, and the Jackets lost 14 of 16 games in December while plummeting from ninth in the League in goals allowed (223) in 2008-09 to 24th (249) last season. On Feb. 3, coach Ken Hitchcock was fired, and over the summer Scott Arniel became the seventh coach in franchise history.

Arniel had a highly successful four-year run as coach of the AHL's Manitoba Moose, averaging 45 wins per season and taking the Moose to the 2009 Calder Cup finals.

"Scott Arniel possesses all the qualities we were looking for in a head coach and we are very pleased to have him join the Blue Jackets organization," GM Scott Howson said when Arniel was hired.

The team Arniel leads this season won't look much different than the one Hitchcock and interim coach Claude Noel guided last season to the fourth-fewest points in the League. Obviously, the hope is the players who backslid last season can turn around their fortunes under a new regime.

Roster-wise, it's been a very quiet summer for the Blue Jackets, as the only people who seem to be leaving are coaches.

Rumors, however, surround the organizational future of 2008 first-round pick Nikita Filatov. The Moscow native wasn't getting the ice time he wanted in Columbus, which led him to spend most of last season in Russia. According to Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch, Filatov told the team he planned on arriving six weeks ahead of training camp to begin preparations for the coming season.

Filatov was used sparingly under coach Ken Hitchcock early in the season, which precipitated his move home in November -- which Howson was on board with. Filatov had 22 points in 26 KHL games, and has gotten stronger in the offseason -- something else Howson has liked.

Arniel doesn't know all of what happened between Filatov and Hitchcock and said he doesn't care. All he knows of the 6-foot, 185-pound left wing is what he saw coaching against him when Filatov was with AHL Syracuse.

"He's a dynamic player, a real high skill set," Arniel told The Sporting News. "The big thing with him is sitting him down and having a real good talk with him. … He's got some bridges to rebuild here with his teammates. He didn't go out on the best note. Our core group has to allow him back into the group. We're going to have a conversation. But he's a guy who can be a game-breaker."

The biggest arrival might be volume. From the new coaching staff to the team's lone big summer pick-up, the change in culture has been about the biggest change in Columbus.

Arniel and new assistant coaches Dan Hinote, Bob Boughner and Brad Berry all played more than 200 NHL games based more on guts and toughness than skill. The same can be said of Ethan Moreau, whom the Jackets picked up on waivers from the Edmonton Oilers.

In 11 seasons in Edmonton, Moreau had gained a reputation for strong, smart play, and he had been team captain since the 2007-08 season began.

"What I know of Ethan is that he's an honest player," Derek Dorsett told the Columbus Dispatch. "He's very vocal and he's straight to the point, and I think he will be a good addition."

All the talking in the world, however, won't get the Jackets back into the playoff mix. But Arniel believes the first step to good results on the ice is creating a good mix off the ice.

"It's about sticking together as a group and how much you care about each other," Arniel said. "It all starts in here (the locker room); it doesn't start on the ice in the games."

So which team is the Columbus Blue Jackets? Are they the club that finished seventh in the Western Conference two seasons ago? Or the ones that bottomed out in the Central Division last season?

A big part of determining that will be the play of Mason. En route to being named the League's best rookie in 2008-09, he won 33 games with a 2.29 goals-against average. Last season, however, he dipped to just 20 wins and a 3.06 GAA, and at times lost his role as unquestioned starter.

With the defensive system Arniel plans on installing, Mason should have a bit of an easier time regaining the confidence in his game.

Karl Goehring, who played goal for Arniel last season in Manitoba, told the Blue Jackets' website, "There is accountability in the defensive zone. If the system is played correctly, most of the shots come from the outside, where you can see them. That alone makes the goalie's job much easier."

Defense isn't the only place improvement is needed. Up front, the Jackets need to be better than 20th in the League in scoring. Only three of the 16 teams that made 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs scored fewer than the Jackets' 214 goals.

Part of that rests on Nash, who dipped from 40 goals and 79 points in 2008-09 to 33 goals and 67 points last season. Also, some of that offensive load needs to be carried by Jakub Voracek and Derick Brassard.

In his second NHL season, the 20-year-old Voracek, the club's 2007 first-round pick, nearly doubled his goal total, from 9 to 16, and he went from 38 points to 50. While he looks primed to climb another developmental step this coming season, more is needed from Brassard. The 22-year-old 2006 first-round pick had 25 points in 31 games before a season-ending shoulder surgery. Healthy last season, however, he had just 9 goals and 36 points in 79 games. Their ability to support Nash in the offensive zone will go a long way toward determining the team's playoff viability.

Then there's Ryan Johansen, the fourth pick in the 2010 Entry Draft. The 6-foot-2 center has good size and skating ability, and could develop into the center that finally best complements Nash. However, Johansen has played just one season in the WHL, and could need more time in junior hockey to fill out.

Then there's the enigmatic Filatov. He scored a goal in his first NHL game and a hat trick in his sixth, but the first time he hit a patch of adversity, he went back to Russia. His skill is obvious, and if he's bigger, stronger and more committed, that also could go a long way toward the Jackets' success.

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