COLUMBUS, Ohio – The Columbus Blue Jackets made almost no changes to their roster after missing the NHL playoffs last season.
No wonder almost no one looks at the franchise, entering its 10th season, as having a viable shot to make the post-season in 2010-11.
“I look at every national prognosis and they’re all picking us way below,” general manager Scott Howson said Monday. “That’s fine with me. It just increases the resolve we have here internally, and that’s what’s going to matter.”
The only player the Blue Jackets added is noted leader and gritty competitor Ethan Moreau, a former captain of the Edmonton Oilers.
But Howson cleaned out all the coaches, who were around for the disappointing 32-35-15 season and brought in Scott Arniel, an innovative thinker who previously coached Manitoba of the American Hockey League. Arniel added assistant Brad Berry along with former NHL standouts Bob Boughner and Dan Hinote. The new staff has provided a fresh outlook and a fresh start.
“We’re in a business where you get compensated very well,” Arniel said. “But we can’t take any nights off. We’ve got to be a hardworking team all the time. With the work ethic and the time we put in, the results will come. If our mindset is about acting like a champion, sooner or later you’ll become a champion.”
The Blue Jackets’ 79 points last season placed the team 14th among the 15 clubs in the Western Conference—a distant 16 points below the playoff cutoff.
But even though there hasn’t been a whole lot of team turnover, there is reason for optimism.
It starts with the last line of defence, goalie Steve Mason. The 2008-09 NHL rookie of the year had a subpar season and figures to be a lot better. After going 33-20-7 with 10 shutouts and a 2.29 goals-against average as a rookie, he went 20-26-9 last season with five shutouts and a 3.06 GAA.
In addition, the Blue Jackets will get back two players who could make major contributions.
Defenceman Rostilsav Klesla played only 26 games due to injury but he said he is now 100 per cent recovered and ready for a bounceback season.
Nikita Filatov, the No. 6 pick in the 2008 draft, was spectacular during a brief stint with the club two years ago. Last season, he had difficulty with then-coach Ken Hitchcock’s defensive-oriented play and eventually left the team to play for a top club in his native Russia.
Still only 20, Filitov has tremendous upside. Arniel will now try to get him to flourish in a new uptempo-style of attack.
“He’s a great player, with some great skill and great talent and he can really help this team if he’s at 100 per cent and he feels welcome,” captain Rick Nash said. “We’re going to make sure that happens.”
Centre Antoine Vermette is on a first line that will likely include Nash and Kristian Huselius.
“We have a good group here,” Vermette said. “The young guys, there’s a lot of potential on this team. I believe in them. You saw what we could do two years ago with pretty much the same group. Last year we had some struggles, but I have confidence in these guys.”
Years of high draft picks should pay off. The youngsters will push veterans such as R.J. Umberger, Jake Voracek, Samuel Pahlsson and Derick Brassard. The defence is anchored by Jan Hejda, Klesla, Marc Methot, Kris Russell, Mike Commodore, Anton Stralman and Fedor Tyutin, with 2009 first-round draft pick John Moore pushing for a spot with the big club.
Howson is convinced that Arniel was the biggest piece of the puzzle.
“Scott and I both have confidence in our team that we’re going to be better and we’re going to compete really hard and really try to crack that top eight (in the West),” Howson said. “And once you get in that top eight, then anything can happen.”