The Blue Jackets hit the proverbial glass ceiling with a resounding thud last year, following up their first ever playoff appearance with a weak effort that cost coach Ken Hitchcock his job and sent them hurtling back towards the top of the draft. Little seemed to go right for the team. Steve Mason suffered through a huge sophomore slump, Derick Brassard stayed healthy but forgot how to play, and Nikita Filatov took his dizzying potential back to Russia.
To his credit, GM Scott Howson didn’t panic and clean house. The roster is still loaded with young players whose best days are ahead of them, and players such as Antoine Vermette and Jakub Voracek continued their development despite the malaise around them. Filatov has returned to the fold and appears to have matured during his year in exile, and all-world power forward Rick Nash continues to be patient and wait for the rest of the roster to catch up to his talent level. In many ways the team’s fortunes depend on whether Mason returns to form or proves to be a one-hit wonder, but there’s a lot to be excited about here and new coach Scott Arniel is promising an attacking system that should be more open and simpatico with the temperament of the youngsters than Hitchcock’s grind-it-out philosophy. It’s very easy to believe that last year’s dip was the aberration, and not the playoff berth from the year before.
THE BIG GUNS
Rick Nash (LW): Nash and the Blue Jackets carried high hopes into 2009, coming off the organization's first-ever playoff appearance, but neither performed up to expectations. As in previous years, Nash was saddled with a rotating cast of line mates who weren't great complements for his blend of power and skill. While his final numbers (33 goals and 67 points) were well within the margin of error he seemed to disappear for stretches, including an 11-game, post-Christmas goalless streak. 40-plus goals and 85-plus points is always going to be a tantalizing possibility for Nash, especially if new coach Scott Arniel opens up the offense more than Ken Hitchcock ever allowed, but he needs more help before he'll break through to that next level consistently.
Steve Mason (G): After his historic rookie campaign, Mason was expected to be Columbus' version of Ken Dryden or Patrick Roy, but his sophomore regression now sees him trying to avoid becoming their Carey Price. He lost 13 games and saw his goals-against average swoon by three-quarters of a goal, and while the efforts of the team in front of him didn't help matters, Mason seemed to be fighting the puck more often than not. He still has the physical tools to dominate and is far from a lost cause, as his back-to-back shutouts of the Sharks and Sabres in February demonstrated, but there have been more than enough one-hit wonder goalies in recent NHL history to sow some doubts in his ability to regain his form. To say this season is crucial for him would be a vast understatement.
Antoine Vermette (C): Vermette was arguably the Blue Jackets' most valuable player in 2009-2010. He played rock-solid hockey at both ends of the ice for all 82 games (he was one of only a handful of Blue Jacket regulars to finish with a positive plus/minus), eventually finding himself centering the Rick Nash line and enjoying a career year offensively as a result. He's not a true top line pivot and would be a better fit as the No. 2 center, but he's got brains, heart and skills (in about that order) and brings enough to the table to get the job done. Even if he gets bumped off Nash's line, Columbus has enough developing young talent on the wings to keep him productive. Draft him for another 25-plus goals and 60 points, but Vermette may not have reached his ceiling just yet.
ON THE RISE
Jakub Voracek (LW): Voracek took another step forward as a sophomore, scoring 16 goals and 50 points and establishing himself as an essential top-six forward in Columbus. He's got pretty much the entire package going for him: good size, strength, speed and skill, and he leaves everything he's got on the ice. He roared out of the Olympic break last season with seven goals and 15 points in 13 games. While he'll be hard-pressed to maintain that pace on the Blue Jackets' second line, 25-plus goals and 60-plus points should be well within his grasp, and the possibility for a much bigger breakout is there, especially if new coach Scott Arniel takes Ken Hitchcock's shackles off the offense.
Derick Brassard (C): Brassard managed to stay healthy last season, but that's about the only thing that went right for the youngster. He scored fewer goals in 79 games than he had in 31 contests as a rookie and generally collapsed in on himself under the pressure of being the team's No. 1 center. Ken Hitchcock's firing didn't seem to perk him up like it did some other Blue Jackets, and this coming season will be a crucial one for his development. At his best, Brassard has the elite vision and creativity of a top-shelf playmaker, if not the size you look for in a true modern No. 1 center, and it's very easy to imagine him being a great fit alongside Rick Nash, but it's now up to Brassard to get back on track towards being the player the Blue Jackets need him to be. If he does, 60 points is a distinct possibility.
Nikita Filatov (RW): After getting his feet wet in the AHL and scoring at nearly a point-a-game pace, plus potting four goals in eight games during a brief first look in Columbus, Filatov was expected to take a big step forward in 2009-2010. He took a big step all right, all the way across the Atlantic and back to Russia after butting heads with coach Ken Hitchcock and struggling to adapt to his button-down system. His whole season ended up being a disappointment, as he couldn't seem to get going in the KHL (although he did finish with 22 points in 26 games) or even in the World Junior Championships, but it's way too early to write him off. Filatov is still only 20 years old, and in terms of pure untapped talent is as good as any player in the world, with game-breaking speed and a dizzying arsenal of moves and shots that could make him a perennial 40-goal man someday. With Hitchcock gone he's returning to Columbus with an apparently clean slate, and if he can adapt to North America he could add an electric element to the Blue Jackets offense that the team has been sorely lacking since its inception.
TWO TO AVOID
Anton Stralman (D): Stralman led the Blue Jackets with 34 points off the blue line in 73 games and got a nice raise in the offseason, but there are reasons to think his job as the club’s top pivot is far from secure. His minus-17 was atrocious (tied for worst on the team), other young defensemen like Kris Russell and up-and-comer John Moore seem to have a more well-rounded game, and new coach Scott Arniel is already flirting with the idea of using a fourth forward on the power play. Stralman could continue to develop and take another step forward (he is only 24) but there’s a lot of risk here for a relatively modest upside.
R.J. Umberger (C): Umberger has become invaluable to the Blue Jackets in his two seasons with the club, emerging as a Swiss Army knife of a player who can fill any role he's plugged into. As the club's young studs like Jakub Voracek and prodigal phenom Nikita Filatov keep developing, Umberger may find himself more and more doing grunt work on the third line, rather than getting the sexy offensive assignments. While he has a knack for finding the net on his own, last season's 23 goals and 55 points may be tough for Umberger to top given his potentially dwindling opportunities.
John Moore (D): The Blue Jackets’ top pick in 2009, Moore has the potential to be a true offensive dynamo from the back end. He’s got top-shelf speed and acceleration, a quick release on his shot, and great vision and passing instincts. Although he’s not particularly physical he does have decent size and shouldn’t be a one-dimensional player at the NHL level either. Moore nearly made the Blue Jackets’ roster last season in camp and followed that performance up with 47 points in 61 games for Kitchener in the OHL, and an impressive playoff run with 16 points in 20 games. Columbus desperately needs offense from their defense, and if Moore looks like he’s ready they likely won’t hesitate to give him a job in the big leagues.
Ryan Johansen (C): Johansen blossomed last season as a rookie in the WHL, scoring 69 points in 71 games with Portland and adding another 18 in the postseason to lead the club. He’s big and very skilled, and is equally adept at finding the open man or finding an opening behind a goalie. He doesn’t have the foot speed to be a truly elite NHL center, but in every other facet of the game he’s capable of making an impact. He probably profiles best as a second line player, but in a year or two the Blue Jackets may be sorely tempted to try him alongside Rick Nash and see what kind of havoc those two can wreak together.