The Columbus Blue Jackets, ranked second to last in the West in SB Nation's Preseason Power Rankings, could be at a turning point in the history of their franchise. Up-and-down inconsistency has been the trademark of the first 10 years of hockey in a city where the sports culture is dominated by college football, and that's not the way to endear fans to your cause.
Still, the future is bright in Columbus. Nikita Filatov is back after a short exile in Russia, there's a new head coach at the helm and a young core is ready to lead the team back to the playoffs. Could it happen this year? With help from our Jackets bloggers at The Cannon, as well as some other great Jackets bloggers from around the Web, let's take a deeper look and find out.
By Mike MacLean and Matt Wagner, The Cannon
After finally experiencing the postseason in 2008-2009, the Blue Jackets opened the 2009-2010 season at a torrid pace, at one point running as high as 2nd place in the Central Division and 5th place in the Western Conference 20 games into the season. Pundits began to ask if Columbus would find themselves in the playoffs once again behind captain Rick Nash and Calder trophy winning goaltender Steve Mason, but soon after, the wheels first began to wobble.
Eventually, they would violently fall off.
As talented winger Nikita Filatov returned to the KHL under a cloud of complaints about playing time and feeling neglected on the team's fourth line, injuries to defensemen Rostislav Klesla, Jan Hejda, and Mike Commodore exposed issues with both goaltender Steve Mason and backup Mathieu Garon.
The power play, that at one point had been ticking along at a league leading 24 percent, began to falter. After going 3-10-7 over the next 20 games, including 2-9-5 in the month of December, GM Scott Howson made the decision to fire head coach Ken Hitchcock just prior to the Olympic Break, replacing him with assistant Claude Noel for the remainder of the season.
Following an Olympics where captain Rick Nash won gold in Vancouver, the team returned to Columbus with a directive from their interim head coach to "Find joy" in their play, but it was not enough to salvage a season that had been lost in the space of two terrible months. The Blue Jackets would coast to a lottery pick, ending up with the fourth overall selection (used, unexpectedly, on OHL standout C Ryan Johansen) and facing the prospect of searching for their fifth head coach since the lockout.
That search would stretch well into June, with interviews given to successful AHL coaches Scott Arniel, Guy Boucher, and Kevin Dineen before the team tendered an offer to Boucher, who turned them down before accepting the head coaching position with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Undaunted, GM Scott Howson next turned to former Winnipeg Jet Scott Arniel, then coach of the Manitoba Moose, who would accept the position and fill out his coaching staff with former Manitoba assistant coach Brad Berry, recently retired NHLer Dan Hinote, strength coach Kevin Collins, and surprise hire Bob Boughner, then head coach of the back to back Memorial Cup champion Windsor Spitfires.
With a new coach and new, more up-tempo system in place for 2010-2011, the mood around Nationwide Arena is one of a fresh start. Coach Arniel has spoken frequently of the team cleaning the slate and stepping forward fresh in the new season, while players like Steve Mason, Rick Nash, and RJ Umberger talk of "redemption" after the disappointing step backwards.
With Filatov back from Russia and mending fences more than a month before the start of training camp, and much of the team working out in Columbus throughout the offseason, the team seems to have come together into a much tighter-knit group. It remains to be seen if the team will step forward once again, or find themselves unable to respond to the new coaching scheme quickly enough to keep pace with an incredibly competitive Central Division.
Now, with help from some of the best Blue Jackets bloggers around, we attempt to answer five burning questions surrounding the team as they prepare for the 2010-11 season.
1. Steve Mason: franchise goalie or one-year wonder?
Mike & Matt, The Cannon: Though it's clear Mason suffered a "Sophomore Slump" in 2009-2010, he appeared to rebound towards his Calder-winning form, posting a .934 save percentage and a 2.23 GAA after Hitchcock's firing. Conditioning issues were cited by the team and Mason himself as contributing to his struggles, and he worked to correct that with a will, dropping 15 pounds and coming into training camp in "exceptional" shape according to goaltending coach Dave Rook. If this improved conditioning allows him to maintain that late season performance throughout the 2010-2011 season, expect him to be back in the conversation of top level NHL goaltenders once again.
2. What can the Blue Jackets franchise expect from the fans?
Lee Auer, TheJacketsBlog.com: As an obsessed fan, as all bloggers are, its hard to know what to expect night in and night out from Blue Jackets fans. It has been in the news lately that the Jackets were down to about 7,300 season ticket holders for the upcoming season. As one of those that remains, I doubt we can expect much of an uptick until the CBJ are performing well on the ice beyond the months of October and November. The biggest issue that faces the team when they play poorly in December and January is that the attention in Columbus turns from the Buckeyes to other sports, and if things aren't going well in CBJ-land, well, they might have a hard time attracting any attention.
There is one certainty of what to expect this season from the fans in Nationwide Arena, plenty of visitors. The last couple seasons have seen relatively decent home crowds for the Jackets. Last year when the Buffalo Sabres came to town, it was an exciting night with plenty of visitors from Up-state New York to make it more interesting. Per usual, guys at The Pensblog were able to secure a Blue Jackets ticket pre-sale code to share with the masses of Pittsburgh fans who will unfortunately try to take over Nationwide Arena. I have no problem with The Pensblog sharing this code with their fans, I'd try to do the same if the CBJ had the following the Pens do, but the type of fan that shares their private pre-sale code just makes my stomach turn. I'm sure the Blue Jackets as an organization would rather see opposing sweaters in seats as opposed to un-sold spots, but as a hardcore fan, there's no way I'm okay with turn-coat fans helping Pittsburgh, Detroit, or any other regional rival.
The Blue Jackets need to win, and win badly, to quiet those that want them to fail and move, I have faith that when the deserved product is on-ice, then the deserved amount of fans will be in the seats. Go Jackets.
3. What should we really expect from Nikita Filatov?
The Green Seat View: One of the first posts ever over at The Green Seat View was me posting some pie in the sky thoughts about how Nikita Filatov was coming back to Columbus to be a goal scoring machine. In that post I hypothesized how he could become a 70-100 point scorer. Now that the initial excitement of knowing such a raw talent is headed back to Columbus has had time to fade, I'd like to temper the expectations a bit. I haven't had a total change of mind and I still am in the heavily optimistic camp, but the more I've thought about it the more I realize that his impact may be more than just him putting up points.
I still think he has the potential to be a lethal scorer in this league. Filatov can score from anywhere on the ice. He has the intensity to crash the net and the moves to score, but also the ability to shoot from farther out with deadly accuracy. I think that this ability to score from any area on the ice will expand his impact to more than just goals and assists. I think that we should still expect him to put up a respectable point total as you have to assume he's playing in the top 6, probably at least around 50 just to throw a number out there. I also think that we should see an increase in points for anyone who's on his line.
I think that defenses will respect his versatile scoring ability, and that will translate into more opportunities for his line-mates. Bottom line is; if he shows up to camp with the right attitude and has really bulked up as has been reported, I see no reason not to have high hopes. Whether it's him scoring points or creating the opportunity for others to score, Filatov is going to have a big time impact for the CBJ this season.
4. Will the young core finally emerge?
Tom, Dark Blue Jacket: One of the few positives of continually drafting high over a number of years is a nucleus of highly-touted young talent. For the Columbus Blue Jackets, I'm talking about forwards Derick Brassard, Jakub Voracek and Nikita Filatov; defenseman Kris Russell and goalie Steve Mason. Brassard and Russell are entering their fourth seasons in the NHL, Voracek and Mason their third. Filatov has had cups of coffee in two consecutive seasons and now is pushing to stay in Columbus for the duration.
When CBJ general manager Scott Howson determined that the team as composed "maxxed out" after getting swept in the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs first round by Detroit, he began to systematically jettison veteran players. Nearly all of his eggs are now in the kids' basket - and it's time for this group to live up to the hype that made them top draft picks and cherished prospects.
Based on last season's performance, Voracek appears to be on a star trajectory and should open a lot of eyes this season (fantasy hockey owners take note). Look inside the numbers, and you can see that Mason started getting his act back together in the first half of last season. Blue line injuries and lack of goal support were insurmountable obstacles, however. If new head coach Scott Arniel is to be believed, Russell finally is going to be in a system that plays to his strengths as an "offensive defenseman." Filatov and Brassard - who knows - they have tons of promise and even more questions.
5. Is Scott Arniel the right man for the job?
The Cannon: When Columbus began their search for a new head coach, many fans expected that former Blue Jacket Kevin Dineen was the guy most likely to take over the reins. Dineen, currently the head coach of the AHL's Portland Pirates, was one of the first candidates to interview and seemed to have the inside track early. However, by late May it was clear that the team would conduct a thorough search, including several interviews with Arniel, then Hamilton head coach Guy Boucher, and interim head coach Claude Noel.
In early June, Columbus would offer the job to Boucher, who turned them down in favor of the Lightning, and moved onto Scott Arniel. A proven AHL coach regarded as a gifted communicator and motivator, his promise to bring the team a higher tempo "puck-pursuit" style of play should mesh well with offensive talents like Rick Nash, Jakub Voracek, and Kristian Huselius, but many question if the team's defense, outside of speedy blueliner Kris Russell, can cope with the increased demands to push up ice and pressure opponents in the offensive zone.
Thanks to all the great Jackets bloggers who stepped up and helped out. You can find Tom at Dark Blue Jacket, where he's running his "Time To Step Up" season preview series, find Lee at TheJacketsBlog.com, and be sure to head over to The Green Seat View.
For more on the Jackets, check out a big, in-depth team preview over at The Cannon. Also, From The Rink has a look at the entire Central Division.