Up next, the tragically inept Columbus Blue Jackets. The Jackets have missed the playoffs almost every season, until 2009, when a unexpectedly huge season from rookie Steve Mason helped carried the team to its first playoff berth. The Blue Jackets came back to earth with a thud last season, and ended up just above the Edmonton Oilers at the bottom of the Western Conference. An era has passed in Columbus with the firing of ultra-defensive Ken Hitchcock, and for that reason an accurate prediction is hard to come by. How will Rick Nash perform in a more offensive system? Can Steve Mason regain his rookie form behind a system that doesn’t have quite the crack down on opposing offenses?
The answer to those questions last season appeared to be… not so much. When Hitchcock was replaced by Claude Noel temporarily, the Blue Jackets responded relatively well, but not nearly well enough. Despite a minor “surge” near the end of the season, the team stumbled to a #14 finish in the Conference, and a top 5 draft pick (#4 actually). It was an unfortunate finish for a team that was looking to build off the first franchise playoff appearance the previous year, and the question now is what’s next for a collection of guys that has remained largely the same since last season.
Rick Nash, Steve Mason, Kristian Huselius, Nikita Filatov
Here is where the replacement of Ken Hitchcock may have the biggest impact. Hitchy was known for an ultra-defensive strategy, which hasn’t yielded much in the way of real results. So will taking the reigns off their offensive players be more successful? It’s hard to say, but in all likelihood it will be an uptick in points from Rick Nash and some of his compatriots. Despite trying for virtually the entirety of the franchise, the Blue Jackets have yet to secure a real top-notch center to place with Nash. At the moment most of the scoring will need to come from his likely line-mates Kristian Huselius and Antoine Vermette. There’s not much else on the roster, though Nikita Filatov may prove to be an effective spark on the second line.
The Blue Jackets have never had the most talented of blue lines, but they have thrived generally with a team-style defense that has limited opposing opportunities. Two years ago, that strategy was a big benefit to Steve Mason’s stats, but last season it didn’t seem quite as effective. Rostislav Klesla is arguably the most talented player on the blue-line, but he’s been injury plagued and largely unable to reach his potential. Fedor Tyutin is another talented player, but isn’t quite at a top level that one might hope for their team to posses. The biggest mystery has to be Steve Mason. As a rookie he nearly snagged the Vezina Trophy. Last season, he was not even close. Going from 2.29 GAA to 3.05 GAA is not a positive step. Mason will have to regain his earlier form if the Jackets are going to have any chance to hang with the big guns (hell, even the medium guns) in the West.
I’d imagine Mason will play better than last season, but I would be surprised to see him get to the lofty heights of his rookie year. The offense should be more potent than the last few years, but frankly I see that being counterbalanced by a weaker team defensive mindset. In short, this could be another rough year for Blue Jackets fans. One thing is certain though, they’ll be a less miserable team to watch next season.