NHL Pre-season Predictions: Metropolitan Division – No. 4 Columbus Blue Jackets

THN’s PRE-SEASON PREDICTION: Fourth in Metropolitan Division.

2013: 24-17-7. Ninth in West.

KEY DEPARTURES: Vinny Prospal, Adrian Aucoin.

KEY ADDITIONS: Nathan Horton, Jack Skille.

THN’s TOP PROJECTED SCORERS: Marian Gaborik (65), Brandon Dubinsky (45), Artem Anisimov (44).

PROS: The Blue Jackets finished with the same amount of points as the eighth place team in the West last season, despite having the 25th ranked offense in the league. But it’s a shortcoming the team addressed with the acquisition of Nathan Horton (in the off-season) and, especially, Marian Gaborik. The two (when healthy) will bring a level of veteran goal scoring to complement the collection of team-first, non-all-star players that make up the base of the forward unit. The defense, though still in need of improvement, is not as bad as it looks on paper and could even get a boost this season by Ryan Murray, if the 2012 second overall selection makes the team. The biggest thing this team has going for it is Sergei Bobrovsky, who surprised everyone with a Vezina contention season. Columbus barely scored, but Bobrovsky’s play kept their GF/GA levels even. If he truly is the long-term fix between the pipes he’ll pick up from where he left off last season and the Blue Jackets will keep growing in talent and confidence around him.

CONS: Despite the fact Horton and Gaborik are just the types of offensive infusions the Jackets need, both require the qualifier “when healthy” attached to their potential contribution. Horton is already recovering from off-season surgery, which will keep him on the sidelines until at least December and Gaborik, who’s been healthy two years in a row, seems due for down time. If those two are out of the lineup, Columbus will be right back to where it was on offense last season. And for as good as Bobrovsky was last season, he was also surprisingly solid for the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010-11, but took a sharp turn down in 2011-12. He’s played 54, 29 and 38 games in three NHL seasons, so he still has to establish himself as a legitimate No. 1 goalie, who brings consistency and durability year after year.

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X-FACTOR: The story of Columbus’ 2013 season centered around its goalie, Sergei Bobrovsky. Any questions about whether or not this team can sustain and build on last season’s momentum are undoubtedly tied to Bobrovsky’s year over year consistency. Is he the real deal, or will he revert to his 2011-12 self, when his save percentage dropped to .898 from .915? Scoring does need to improve now and over the long term for this team to be a consistent playoff threat, but any post-season hope begins and ends with last season’s team MVP. For the record, we have Columbus missing out on the playoffs to crossover seed Toronto.

PERIPHERAL PREDICTION: Combined, Nathan Horton and Marian Gaborik will miss more games than they play (Horton is expected to miss the first two or three months of the season already).