COLUMBUS, Ohio – Everywhere Rick Nash goes, the Columbus Blue Jackets all-star forward bumps into exuberant fans who can’t wait to talk about the club’s new look.
“There’s a buzz around town. There’s a buzz around the dressing room,” the team captain said during a workout after a pre-season game. “We made some huge pickups in the off-season and it’s definitely been a positive summer.”
Even though Nash is only 27, he is entering his ninth year of scoring goals and carrying the load in Columbus. He’s enthused and upbeat about what he sees.
Yes, he said, this is the most talented Blue Jackets team he’s ever been on.
“On paper, for sure,” he said. After a slight hesitation, he added, “But that doesn’t mean much until we do it.”
Hopes have risen and fallen in the franchise’s 10 previous seasons marked by just one, quick trip to the playoffs that lasted the minimum four games in 2009. But the off-season addition of Philadelphia goal-scoring star Jeff Carter, puck-moving defenceman James Wisniewski, sniper Vinny Prospal and steady blue-liner Radek Martinek has given a downtrodden fan base some hope.
The moves made by general manager Scott Howson—after a year in which he made almost no additions to a team that cried out for help—have meant that the faithful are seeking him out.
“Most people are really kind to your face even in the worst of times,” he said. “But a number of people have come up to me and said, ‘Thank you, very much, for the Carter trade. We were waiting for something like that.’ There have been lots of comments like that.”
Ever since the late team founder and majority owner John H. McConnell first plunked down $80 million to bring one of the four major sports to the nation’s 15th largest city, the Blue Jackets have badly needed a Robin to Nash’s Batman along with a right-handed shot at the point on the power play. Howson finally checked those items off his shopping list this summer by trading promising forward Jakub Voracek and first- and third-round draft picks to the Flyers for Carter and trading for the rights to Wisniewski and then signing him.
A sturdy, dependable scorer, Carter has averaged 36 goals and 69 points over his career. And at 26, he figures to be a running mate for Nash for years to come.
“It’s going to be great. I was pretty lucky in Philly to play with some pretty good players, but I think Rick’s on a whole ‘nother level from those guys,” said Carter, at first shattered by the trade to Columbus but who has since embraced the city. “He’s one of the top players in the league for past years for a reason. I’m definitely looking forward to getting it going.”
The Blue Jackets have finished in the bottom third of the NHL on the power play in eight of their 11 seasons and it has cost them dearly. One of the big reasons for the lack of production was there was no triggerman. Wisniewski will be given every chance to take that role and be a top-two defenceman.
Of course, Wisniewski’s impact will be delayed until the ninth game of the regular season. He was suspended Monday for a hit to the head of Minnesota forward Cal Clutterbuck.
Prospal was signed as insurance when top-line winger Kristian Huselius was sidelined until December with a torn chest muscle. Martinek adds depth and a veteran hand to an otherwise young defensive corps. In addition, one of the stars of camp has been Edmonton castoff Alexandre Giroux, who has seen a lot of time on the first line with Nash and Carter.
Several top prospects might just stick with the club, adding to the hype and hope. Forwards Ryan Johansen and Maksim Mayorov and defencemen Nick Holden, David Savard and John Moore will contribute, sooner or later.
Asked if the additions have changed the personality of his team, second-year coach Scott Arniel said, “I hope so. The biggest thing I’m seeing here right now is that competition is bringing out some pretty good play from a lot of people. Our older guys are playing a little bit better and our younger guys are doing a great job. You’re getting people pushing each other.
“It just makes everybody play at a very high level.”
The Blue Jackets also have several important role players that can star on any given night: wings R.J. Umberger, Antoine Vermette, Derick Brassard and Samuel Pahlsson and defencemen Marc Methot and Fedor Tyutin.
Of course, the fix-up job elsewhere is all for naught if goaltender Steve Mason plays like he has the last two years (three games under .500, more than 3 goals allowed per game). During the playoff season, he won the Calder Trophy for the league’s top rookie, going 33-20-7 with a 2.29 goals-against average and an NHL-best 10 shutouts.
“Everybody would like to go up and shake (Howson’s) hand for everything he did this off-season,” said Mason, still only 24. “Yes, there is pressure on me to perform moreso now than ever. The fans deserve it and the organization as a whole really took some big steps forward. Now it’s just time to do it on the ice.”
Instead of on paper.