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Coach thinks Columbus not that far from ending playoff drought

NHL.com @NHL

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Ken Hitchcock - the winningest coach in the NHL over the last 11 years - is actually plotting a way for the woeful Columbus Blue Jackets to shock the hockey world.

All his players talk about Hitchcock's "system," his approach to conditioning, special-teams play, scoring, team unity and defence. As it turns out, he's also got a system to finally get the Blue Jackets to the post-season for the first time.

"We look at it from this standpoint: With the coaching change, we were a .500 hockey club, which is 85 points," said Hitchcock, whose team was 28-29-5 after he took over Columbus from the fired Gerard Gallant last year. "To get in the playoffs, we need a win a month more. That gets us in."

That must seem laughable to the 10 Western Conference teams that had more points than the Blue Jackets' 71 last year. Columbus, the only current NHL franchise to not make the playoffs, was a distant 25 points behind the eighth and final team to make the playoffs, the Calgary Flames.

And Hitchcock think it could be even harder to make the playoffs this season.

"This might be the first time in the history of hockey that - and I really believe this - you might need 100 points to get in the playoffs," Hitchcock said. "There's so many competitive teams now."

The Blue Jackets open their seventh season on Friday night when they host Stanley Cup champion Anaheim. It's their first season without the overwhelming personality of team president and general manager Doug MacLean. MacLean sold hockey in Columbus but was fired after last season and replaced as GM by Scott Howson, an assistant GM with the Edmonton Oilers. Mike Priest took over as team president.

Howson makes no bold predictions. He's in for the long haul. You can't scare him into saying the "p" word.

"The fan base here has a reputation of being pretty passionate and they've been pretty patient with the team," he said. "We're just hoping to provide them with a product that they can be proud of. If we build it the right way, then the wins take care of them itself. We're focused on being a competitive, hard-to-play-against team."

In the off-season, Howson was cautious in the free-agent market. He promises that if the Blue Jackets should get off to a good start - instead of their typical 5-18-2 over the first few weeks - then he'll seek trades to bolster a playoff chase. That's the opposite tack from MacLean, who frequently overpaid for veterans going into a season and then seldom had much wiggle room to add to the roster later in the year.

The biggest addition is forward Michael Peca, a solid professional who has been a winner at almost every stop. Two years ago, he was a rock as Edmonton made it to the Stanley Cup finals. He had 56 points for Buffalo the year that the Sabres lost to Hitchcock's Stars in the Cup finals.

The 33-year-old Peca, with more than 400 NHL points, was expected to sign with the New York Rangers this summer. Instead he picked the Blue Jackets. Why?

"You know the direction's going to be going the right way," he said. "The talent's already here - the Rick Nashes and the David Vybornys. And there's an opportunity to play. As a player, you still want to be in a situation where the team counts on you."

The top forwards are a mishmash of 20-somethings and vets: Nash (27 goals), Vyborny (48 assists), Peca, Fredrik Modin (22 goals), Gilbert Brule, Sergei Fedorov, Nikolai Zherdev, Dan Fritsche and Jason Chimera.

On defence, the Blue Jackets are hoping Ole-Kristian Tollefsen, Rostislav Klesla and rookie Kris Russell can continue to grow while working with Adam Foote, Ron Hainsey and Duvie Westcott.

Foote, Peca and Modin are battling minor injuries that might limit their playing time at the start of the year. An experiment putting Zherdev at centre between Nash and Vyborny has been shelved and now the 37-year-old Fedorov will fill that role, even though he will be playing fewer minutes overall.

After years of erratic goaltending, the team appears to finally have a solid 1-2 punch. Fredrik Norrena was exceptional last year with a 24-23-2 record - becoming the first Columbus goalie to post a winning record. Pascal Leclaire, who missed most of the year with leg injuries, will vie for playing time.

"Last year was much different that I believed it would be," said Norrena, a Finn who was playing his first season in North America last year. "Hopefully this year will be a positive surprise too."

If the Blue Jackets are a positive surprise, it'll most likely be due to Hitchcock's system of hard work, punishing defence and hard-nosed play.

Fritsche, a Parma, Ohio, native said he's obsessed with making the playoffs.

"That's all I think about," he said. "I've been here for about four years now and I live here in the summer, and I know what kind of fans we have. These fans have been here for seven or eight years now and we've had seven or eight not-so-good seasons. It just gives you the chills thinking about how this place would explode once we make the playoffs."

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