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Murray, Savard among X-factors for Blue Jackets

by Craig Merz

COLUMBUS – Entering the 2014-15 season, the Columbus Blue Jackets thought they would reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs in consecutive years for the first time in their history.

But injury after injury derailed all hope, and despite having the sixth-best record (36-20-3) in the NHL from Dec. 1 to the end of the season, Columbus missed the playoffs.

Here are three X-factors that will impact the Blue Jackets' postseason chances this season:

Ready, set, go: The Blue Jackets don't necessarily need a great start, but anything better than last season's 6?15?2 record through their first 23 games could be enough to make a difference.

Captain Nick Foligno said the Blue Jackets are equipped to overcome adversity after last season's travails.

"We're better prepared physically this year. We're better prepared mentally," he said. "We can't get off the rails with what happened last year."

Slow starts have been the norm for the Blue Jackets; they opened 2-12-1 in 2011-12, 5-12-4 in 2012-13 and 5-10-0 two seasons ago.

"The worst thing we can do is emphasize a fast start," Foligno said. "If we don't get out of the gates all that well, it's about maintaining and finding ways to push through, which we've done in the past."

Columbus does know how to finish. The Blue Jackets went 15-1-1 in the final 17 games last season and are 21-6-2 in regular-season games in April the past four seasons.

"Every season is a fresh start, but we want to start right where we left off," forward Cam Atkinson said. "We were the hottest team in the NHL, obviously too little too late, but we're a healthy bunch now."

Young and restless: For Ryan Murray, 22 on Sept. 27, it's been a trying two seasons with the Blue Jackets because of injuries since being the second pick of the 2012 NHL Draft.

Ryan Murray

David Savard, 24, was the 94th selection in 2009 and had been inconsistent and unreliable his first four pro seasons, most of which have been spent in the American Hockey League.

Murray and Savard could be the top defense pair for the Blue Jackets and pillars for the future; the front office did not make any offseason moves to shore up the sixth-worst defense in the NHL (3.02 goals allowed per game).

"It's showing confidence in us," defenseman Kevin Connauton said. "It makes you want to show they're right and anybody else saying negative things about us is wrong."

Murray was injured for 70 games last season but is considered the Blue Jackets' top defenseman because of his skating ability, vision and positioning. He gave a glimpse of what he could do in his rookie season of 2013-14 when he had four goals, 17 assists and a plus-4 rating in 66 games despite being hampered by a knee injury that required surgery and was still a problem into last season.

David Savard

"If he shows us what he showed that first year, that's a great addition to the club," Blue Jackets president of hockey operations John Davidson said.

Savard, who signed a five-year, $21.25 million contract extension Sept. 8, was pretty much an afterthought until emerging in 2014-15.

"He took the game seriously before, but he didn't know what level he had to take the seriousness to, and that's what he did last year," coach Todd Richards said.

Savard knew he was on short leash and used that as motivation to earn the new contract.

"Two years ago was a tough year for me, and I wanted to bounce back and have a good season, and everything from there has been positive," he said.

On the farm: Because of the rash of injuries last season, rookies Alexander Wennberg and Marko Dano made impacts for the Blue Jackets as the season progressed. Josh Anderson and Kerby Rychel also showcased their talent in brief call-ups.

The developing depth among the young forwards enabled the Blue Jackets to entice the Chicago Blackhawks with Dano in order to make a seven-player trade that brought forward Brandon Saad to Columbus.

With the likes of Anderson, Rychel, Sonny Milano and Oliver Bjorkstrand on the precipice, the Blue Jackets may swing a trade for a defenseman using their young talent as bait.

"It gives us more flexibility as an organization," Davidson said. "Last year, the only good part about the injuries is Marko Dano came up and played and was outstanding, as was Wennberg, who got better as the season went along. We were forced to play some young players because of injuries, and when that happened you're able to find a way to improve the team."

At the very least, there is unparalleled competition.

"The more the young players push the veterans, the better," general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said.

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