A team that’s never been close to making the playoffs – 73 points last season were only two more than the 71 from the 2000-01 expansion season – has new direction. New GM Scott Howson, plucked out of Edmonton, was hired this summer while head coach Ken Hitchcock, who took over last November, now gets to run his first camp with the team and get things started from scratch.
“Both Hitch and I have an urgency to get better and get better now but we want to be patient with our younger players,” Howson told The Canadian Press on Tuesday.
Veteran centre Michael Peca was the lone notable addition to a roster the Jackets hope can stay healthy and get rebound years from several players.
It starts with star winger Rick Nash, who has gone backwards since his scintillating 41-goal 2003-04 campaign, dropping to 31 goals in an injury-plagued 2005-06 season and then down to 27 last year.
“The challenge for Rick is to play the way he did in the last two and half months last season and through the world championships,” Hitchcock said Tuesday. “If he does that, I think he’s going to be a dominant player in the National Hockey League.”
Nash was named tournament MVP at the IIHF world championship in Moscow after putting up 11 points (6-5) while leading Canada to the gold medal. As Hitchcock points out, he’s still only 23.
“He’s a young pup in the league,” said Hitchcock. “Everybody talks about a frustrating year that he had – he still scored 27 goals.
“He did a lot of damage in games towards the end where he really started to become a leader on this team.”
Nash, the first overall pick in the 2002 NHL entry draft, is entering the second season of a US$23.5-million, four-year contract.
“We’re asking a lot of him, we’re asking him to be a good player, we’re asking him to be a good leader, and I think he’s ready to meet that challenge,” added Hitchcock.
While Nash appears on track after a late-season surge, another key to the fortunes of the Jackets is Nikolai Zherdev. The enigmatic Russian winger clashed with Hitchcock and the coaching staff last season while playing uninspired hockey.
A meeting in Ottawa this summer with Howson helped smooth out some issues and the Jackets hope to recoup what is a vastly talented player. The 22-year-old dropped from 27 goals and 27 assists in 2005-06 to 10 goals and 22 assists last season.
“In order to get good players to play well, you have to build relationships with them,” said Hitchcock. “We’re trying to do that right now, we’re trying to build a good relationship with Nicky so that he feels comfortable to go out and perform.
“At the end of the day, he’s going to have to play better than he did last year – in all aspects.”
Which means also improving on a team-worst minus-19 rating (tied with Ron Hainsey).
“He’s come back here in a great frame of mind,” said Hitchcock. “He came back to North America early, he trained in Ottawa, he came here a couple of days ago, he’s really engaged with everybody.
“He was embarrassed by the way he played last year and he wants to make amends.”
In goal, meanwhile, the No. 1 job is up for grabs between Pascal Leclaire and Fredrik Norrena. Hitchcock barely got to see Leclaire play after the 24-year-old suffered a knee injury last season.
“I can tell you one thing, he’s shown up, he’s healthy, he’s in tremendous shape, he’s had all kinds of time to condition himself and he feels like it’s his turn and his time,” said Hitchcock. “The competition we’re going to have for the starting position is going to be terrific.
“We’re just going to let it sort out. It might take two months, it might take six months, we don’t know, but we’re hoping we got 1 and 1A here.”
In the big picture, this figures to probably be another year out of the playoffs in the tough Western Conference but look for the Jackets to make strides under one of the game’s top coaches while Howson continues to put his imprints on a rebuilding roster.
“I learned from some good people in Kevin Lowe in Craig MacTavish (in Edmonton),” said Howson. “Step by step you just try to build the team in the right way.”