COLUMBUS, Ohio – There’s a new, gigantic scoreboard hanging over centre ice at Nationwide Arena.
The Columbus Blue Jackets, who play their games there, also have a new team president, a new head coach and six new players on the roster—and no Rick Nash.
All of those changes took place in an effort to remould the club after a disastrous season.
John Davidson, the new president in charge of hockey operations, is looking up and ahead, not down and back at the franchise’s sorry heritage.
“The main message is we’re going North,” said Davidson, who helped turn the St. Louis Blues from doormat into contender. “I know what’s gone on here in the past. It’s history, and you study history, but I’m going North.”
The new-look Blue Jackets head South to open the season at Nashville on Saturday night.
Almost no one not wearing a Blue Jackets sweater expects much from the team after last season. The club stumbled to a 0-7-1 start and never recovered. Jeff Carter, hailed as the perfect foil to the high-scoring Nash, was indifferent from the outset and eventually was dealt to Los Angeles, where he went on to collect a championship ring.
Nash had been the heart and soul of the franchise since the Blue Jackets traded up to take him with the No. 1 pick in the 2002 draft. A gold-medal winner with his native Canada in the Olympics, he led the Blue Jackets in goals the last eight years and held almost every team offensive record for a game, season and career.
But early in 2012 it was revealed by general manager Scott Howson that Nash, the team captain, had come to him to ask to be traded. Funny, but not long after that the Blue Jackets started playing better. A laughable 11-25-5 before Scott Arniel was fired as head coach, they went a respectable 18-21-2 under interim Todd Richards, who was made the head coach after the season.
After adding young defenceman Jack Johnson in the Carter deal at the trade deadline, Howson finally sent Nash, a minor-leaguer and a conditional third-round pick to the New York Rangers in late July for forwards Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov, defenceman Tim Erixon and a first-round pick—the Blue Jackets’ third first-rounder in the 2013 draft.
Now the Blue Jackets don’t have a bloated payroll, may be deeper and seem to have far more harmony and leadership in the dressing room, with Johnson, holdover forward R.J. Umberger and wily senior citizens Vinny Prospal (37) and Adrian Aucoin (39) offering leadership.
Then again, most people are looking at what it appears they’re missing: firepower, goaltending and a winning attitude.
“A lot of people and a lot of teams are writing us off,” Johnson said. “I think you’ll find this will be a team that has a real chip on its shoulder all year.”
If that’s true, it’ll be a huge step in the right direction. But there are still Zdeno Chara-sized questions that must be answered.
Who’ll score the goals for a team that already was among the least productive in the NHL—even before it traded its very best scorer?
“We’re going to have to score by committee,” Howson said. “Some of our offence is going to have to come from our defence again. That’s how we’re going to do it.”
The Blue Jackets are hoping that pint-sized Cam Atkinson can grind out goals along with Umberger on the first line, centred by Derek Brassard, who needs to step up his production after showing flashes of promise in four seasons with the team.
Dubinsky, former Ottawa Senator Nick Foligno who was picked up in a trade, Prospal and youngster Ryan Johansen also must make big contributions.
What about the defence, which is backed by two once-promising 24-year-olds who are running out of chances, goaltenders Sergei Bobrovsky and Steve Mason?
“Any team that’s successful in this league, they defend well and they make it difficult on other teams to score goals,” said Richards, formerly the head coach at Minnesota from 2009-11. “And there were times last year we weren’t a good enough team to do that. Our record indicated that. So we have to be better.”
The blue line figures to be, with Johnson and James Wisniewski, Russians Fedor Tyutin and Nikita Nikitin and Aucoin, John Moore and David Savard.
No one really knows what to expect in net. Both Bobrovsky and Mason were stellar early in their careers but have looked lost since. Both are heading into the final year of their contracts and find themselves with a lot to prove in a 48-game, 99-day season.
“There’s so many games in such a short amount of time that you can’t afford to be losing because of poor goaltending,” said Mason, who like the team got off to a dreadful start last season before playing well while the season played out. “So for a situation like this, it’s a great position for myself and for Sergei to really take the ball and run with it and be a big part of this team.”
During the team’s brief camp, none of the players seemed to be looking around for Nash to say something or do something to save the day.
The Blue Jackets have had to move on.
“A player shouldn’t be bigger than what the team is,” Davidson said. “We want a team concept, a team effort, team energy, team commitment. We want a team that’s going to stick together, that’s going to be a heavy team to play against. That’s where we’re going.”
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