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Forward Horton among Blue Jackets' five questions

by Craig Merz

Optimism has always been anchored by realism for followers of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

When the Blue Jackets reached the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in 2009, it was due to the outstanding play of rookie goaltender Steve Mason. But Mason couldn't match that performance in 2009-10 and coach Ken Hitchcock was fired 10 months after leading Columbus to the postseason.

Scott Arniel replaced him and promised better, but failed to deliver and was fired in January 2012. Only since Todd Richards took over have the Blue Jackets found their way.

They barely missed the postseason in 2013, but qualified for the first wild card following a move to the Eastern Conference last season before losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games in the first round.

More importantly, there is now a culture of winning; since Feb. 26, 2013, the Blue Jackets are 62-37-12 for the eighth-most points in the NHL.

Here are five questions facing the Blue Jackets as they try to make the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time:

1. How do they take the next step? -- Getting a team-record 93 points last season was nice and making the postseason was great, but that's not sufficient anymore.

"We've got to be faster," Richards said. "It's not that we're going to change everything. Pittsburgh elevated their play. Through four games, and even in Games 5 and 6, we were there with them. But when they cranked it up, there were points in the game where they played faster than we play."

One thing is certain: Columbus is no longer an easy game on the calendar.

"We're not going to catch anybody off guard anymore," defenseman James Wisniewski said.

2. Will Nathan Horton rebound from shoulder and abdominal surgeries? -- Limited by injuries to 19 points in 36 games last season, Horton's first season with the Blue Jackets was abbreviated and showed little to warrant his big seven-year, $37.1 million contract.

If he's healthy, it will be as if the Blue Jackets added a new player who won the Stanley Cup for the Boston Bruins in 2011.

"We're going to see a different player than we had [last] year," general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. "We're going to see the player who contributed to a Stanley Cup and took that team to the Stanley Cup Final [in 2013]."

3. Who will vie for spots on the fourth line? -- The Blue Jackets parted ways with Matt Frattin, Derek MacKenzie, Blake Comeau and Jack Skille from their checking line, but they re-signed Corey Tropp and added Jeremy D'Amigo from the Toronto Maple Leafs and former Penguins forward Brian Gibbons.

Jared Boll is also back in good health after playing 28 games last season and Mark Letestu is coming off a productive 2013-14 season in which he scored 12 goals and 22 assists.

4. Can the Blue Jackets avoid another slow start? -- They buried themselves at the beginning of the 2012-13 season with a 5-12-2 start. Not even a 19-5-5 finish was enough to qualify for the playoffs.

Last season, Columbus started 5-10-0 and chased teams in the standings for months before clinching a playoff berth with two games remaining. With so many teams in the East improving this summer, the Blue Jackets will need a quality start.

"We don't want to have to keep going through the last months playing playoff hockey just to get into the playoffs by the skin of our teeth," Wisniewski said.

5. Who will represent the Blue Jackets in their own rink for the 2015 NHL All-Star Game? -- Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and center Ryan Johansen are the early favorites and Wisniewski and defenseman Jack Johnson could be in the mix when the NHL's top stars descend on Columbus on Jan. 25. Forwards Brandon Dubinsky and Scott Hartnell may also be considered.

Second-year players Ryan Murray and Boone Jenner could elevate their games and make cases too.

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