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Goals, special teams among questions in Columbus

by Davis Harper

A year ago, Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson acquired Jeff Carter, James Wisniewski, Nikita Nikitin and Mark Letestu and made it clear the team was done rebuilding.

This summer, it looks as if the rebuilding process has only just begun.

After kicking off 2011-12 with the worst start in franchise history, coach Scott Arniel was replaced by assistant Todd Richards. Months after arriving, Carter was shipped to the Los Angeles Kings at the trade deadline, and rumors of captain Rick Nash's trade loomed over the Jackets throughout the spring.

Following their lowest point total (65) since 2003-04, the Jackets continued to shake up the roster this offseason. In July, Columbus finally traded Nash to the New York Rangers. With the face of the franchise gone, Columbus faces more question marks than ever with October fast approaching.

Let's take a look at the six most pressing questions facing the Blue Jackets heading into the 2012-13 season:

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1. Who will score?

When Carter departed for Los Angeles at the trade deadline, Columbus lost one of its two players who scored at least 30 goals in 2010-11. Nash was the other, and his 30 goals in 2011-12 led a team that struggled to score all season.

R.J. Umberger is now the roster's leading scorer, with 20 goals last season and 143 for his career. While the defense is one of the League's most promising, the lack of a natural goal-scoring threat will be an obstacle the Jackets must overcome.

With Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov and Nick Foligno all arriving this summer, the potential for goals is in place, although the trio totaled just 41 goals in 2011-12. Young forward Cam Atkinson also possesses a goal-scoring pedigree and finished the season with five goals in the final two games.

"I'm really excited about what the new guys can bring," Howson told Blue Jackets TV. "We took 30 goals out of the lineup (with Nash), but we brought in with Foligno and Dubinsky and Anisimov and maybe a full year from Cam Atkinson. I think there's a lot of potential there."

2. Who takes the captaincy?

Drafted with the first pick by the organization in 2002 and named captain in March 2008, Nash has led Columbus both on the ice and off it for the better part of five seasons. But his clear desire for a move away from Columbus – and the ever-present trade rumors throughout the spring – did nothing for team unity. More than ever, a committed captain is needed to refocus the troops and redefine the team's identity.

Currently the longest-tenured Jackets player is Jared Boll, who made his debut in 2007. But as a third- or fourth-liner, Boll isn't likely to get the "C" come October. The safe pick would be current alternate captain Umberger, who is entering his fifth season in Columbus. From nearby Pittsburgh, Umberger has been a consistent 20-goal, 30-assist performer, although his production dipped last season.

There's a chance that fellow American Jack Johnson could leapfrog Umberger in training camp. Despite only joining the Blue Jackets at the trade deadline, Johnson is a proven leader who captained the U.S. team at the World Championships in May. It's also worth noting that since Johnson joined Columbus, the Jackets did not lose a game when leading after two periods.

3. What has Columbus done to shore up its special teams?

Last season, the Blue Jackets finished dead last in the League on the penalty kill (76.6 percent) and were 24th in power-play conversion rate (15.5 percent). Those numbers are commensurate with a team that struggled on both sides of the puck, and Howson used the offseason to build a team better suited to odd-man situations.

While Nash scored six power-play goals and two shorthanded in 2011-12, odd-man scoring wasn't an issue for the Blue Jackets. Columbus tied for eighth in power-play goals (49) and ninth in shorthanded goals (seven), meaning production was a team effort.

Nash was once a force on the penalty kill, but had seen less time in shorthanded situations of late. In the swap with New York, Columbus picked up Brandon Dubinsky, a physical presence who was one of the most-used Rangers on the penalty kill.

Re-signing Nikita Nikitin was key, as he and Fedor Tyutin should again be the top defense pairing, and the addition of Sergei Bobrovsky adds vital stability in the crease.

Cam Atkinson
Cam Atkinson
Right Wing - CBJ
GOALS: 7 | ASST: 7 | PTS: 14
SOG: 66 | +/-: 1
4. Can Cam Atkinson maintain his end-of-season form?

As a rookie in 2011-12, the former Boston College standout quickly became a fan favorite when he joined the Jackets for good in late February. An undersized forward – Atkinson is 5-foot-7 and 172 pounds – he first turned heads with his highlight-reel shootout winner past Miikka Kiprusoff on March 18. For an encore, Atkinson scored five goals in the final two games of the season, giving hope to an organization desperate for a consistent threat.

"This year was a huge learning experience, since it was my first year as a pro, so I wasn't really too sure what to expect going into the season," Atkinson told reporters after the season. "But it's held up really great. My expectations for me are going to be really high next year."

By all accounts, "Cam-sanity" will continue to grip Nationwide Arena next season when Atkinson should see time in a top-six role.

5. Will Sergei Bobrovsky blossom or bust?

It was a tale of two seasons for Sergei Bobrovsky in Philadelphia. As a rookie, he started from day one and finished with a 28-13-8 record and a 2.59 goals-against average. After a subpar postseason saw him replaced by backup Brian Boucher, the Flyers signed Ilya Bryzgalov to a 10-year contract and Bobrovsky was relegated to a relief role in 2011-12. He struggled, going 14-10-2 with a .899 save percentage.

Which Bobrovsky will show up for the Blue Jackets?

With slumping Steve Mason his only real competition for the No. 1 spot, Bobrovsky should gain confidence as the go-to guy in Columbus. "Bob" will also benefit from an arguably stronger blue line in Columbus than he had down the stretch with the Flyers. Perhaps most importantly, a solid group of his countrymen – Nikitin, Tyutin and Artem Anisimov among them – should aid in the Russian's transition.

6. Can Todd Richards help Columbus forge a new identity?

While there were plenty of on-ice distractions in 2011-12, Columbus' struggles were due in part to inconsistencies behind the bench. Following the worst start in franchise history – 1-9-1 through 11 games – it was just a matter of time before Scott Arniel lost his job. He was eventually relieved of duties on Jan. 9, with Columbus sporting an 11-25-5 mark.

Richards stepped into the fold, acting as interim coach for the remainder of the season. After leading the Jackets to a respectable 18-21-2 record, the interim tag was lifted for good May 14.

The team seemed to find its strengths in the face of adversity over the final three months, and that trend will need to continue in the post-Nash era.

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