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Taste of success leaves Blue Jackets craving more

by Craig Merz

The Columbus Blue Jackets last season got a taste of the Stanley Cup Playoffs after a five-year absence, and even a first-round exit has not dampened their enthusiasm and expectations for 2014-15.

In fact, moves such as signing center Brandon Dubinsky to a six-year contract extension and trading for left wing Scott Hartnell have the Blue Jackets thinking big.

"On paper we stack up against any team in the East," Hartnell said.

That's the kind of attitude general manager Jarmo Kekalainen wanted when he traded left wing R.J. Umberger to the Philadelphia Flyers for Hartnell on June 23.

"He has respect from the room right away because of his career, what he's done in this League," Kekalainen said of Hartnell.

Yet, the Blue Jackets realize for all the hope and hype they have much to accomplish despite coming off the best season in franchise history.

Columbus finished fourth in Metropolitan Division with a 43-32-7 record. The Blue Jackets finished with 93 points, earned the first wild card in the Eastern Conference and a postseason matchup against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Penguins advanced in six games but the Blue Jackets pushed them, splitting the first four games, all by 4-3 scores. Even in a 4-3 loss in Game 6, the Blue Jackets nearly overcame a four-goal deficit with three goals in the third period.

"I'm really proud about the effort, the no-quit in our team and the identity we've established," Kekalainen said. "Now the Blue Jackets are known through the League for the identity we've built, which is a hard-working, hard-to-play-against, no quit, blue-collar team. I'm really proud of that.

"But let's not be satisfied here. It makes me really excited about the players we have, the potential we have."

The player with the biggest upside is also Kekalainen's biggest concern. Restricted free agent Ryan Johansen had a breakout season in 2013-14 on the final year of his rookie contract and has yet to re-sign.

Talks continue and there's little chance Johansen will not be wearing a Blue Jackets uniform this season, but the sticking point is a two-year offer from Kekalainen; Johansen would prefer double that length.

Johansen, 22, was the youngest 30-goal (33) scorer in the regular season and had two goals and four assists in the playoffs.


2013-14 record: 43-32-7, 93 points, 4th in Metropolitan Division, 7th in Eastern Conference
2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Lost 4-2 to Pittsburgh Penguins in Eastern Conference First Round
Additions: F Scott Hartnell, F Brian Gibbons
Subtractions: F R.J. Umberger, F Blake Comeau, F Derek MacKenzie, F Jack Skille, D Nikita Nikitin, D Nick Schultz
Pending free agents: F Ryan Johansen (RFA)
Promotion candidates: F Simon Hjalmarsson, F Alexander Wennberg, F Kerby Rychel, F Marko Dano, D Will Weber, G Anton Forsberg
Top 2014 NHL Draft picks: F Sonny Milano (No. 16), D Ryan Collins (No. 47)

Kekalainen's focus wasn't just on Johansen. He kept busy this summer retaining restricted free agents defensemen Tim Erixon, Cody Goloubef, Dalton Prout, David Savard and Will Weber and forwards Sean Collins, Corey Tropp and Dana Tyrell.

Columbus also signed former Pittsburgh Penguins forward Brian Gibbons, who scored twice against the Blue Jackets in Game 2, to a one-year, two-way contract.

The Blue Jackets continued their youth movement when they did not bring back unrestricted free agent defensemen Nikita Nikitin and Nick Schultz and bottom-six forwards Blake Comeau, Derek MacKenzie and Jack Skille, although goalie Curtis McElhinney signed a new contract.

There could be open slots for a bevy of candidates from the NHL Draft class of 2013 to make the jump to the Blue Jackets, just as defenseman Ryan Murray and forward Boone Jenner went from junior hockey to solid rookie seasons in 2013-14.

Centers Marko Dano and Alexander Wennberg and left wing Kerby Rychel have been allowed to nurture their games at a pace that allows them better shots not to be overwhelmed by their first NHL experiences.

Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards said coaching young players has its advantages.

"They're sponges, they want to soak it up, they want to get better and improve," he said. "It's not to say older players don't want to get better and improve, but a lot of times their games are really established."

The Blue Jackets' depth means they don't have to rush their top picks in the 2014 NHL Draft. Center Sonny Milano (No. 16) is expected to enroll at Boston College while defenseman Ryan Collins (No. 47) heads to the University of Minnesota.

They're players for the future. It's Richards' job to make sure the current roster doesn't get complacent. After all, the Blue Jackets are still searching for their first playoff series win.

"In the end we finished 15th out of 30 teams," Richards said. "It is moving up, and that's what we want to do, but it's still just middle of the road. It's mediocre. We want to keep pushing, keep getting better."

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