2010-2011 was another season of futility for the Blue Jackets, as young players such as Derick Brassard, Jakub Voracek and especially Steve Mason failed to develop on schedule. The club had hoped that group would gel into a solid supporting unit for star winger Rick Nash, but it didn't happen. A constant state of rebuilding has led to one lone playoff appearance in franchise history and drained the enthusiasm of the fan base, but to his credit general manager Scott Howson got busy in the offseason rather than staying the course. He splashed some money around to sign James Wisniewski, supplying the power play with a big shot off the point that the roster sorely lacked, and traded Voracek and draft picks to the Flyers for the suddenly-available Jeff Carter.
While the talent upgrade is dramatic, there are still some questions the Blue Jackets need to answer. Carter and Nash are both primarily snipers who look for their own shot first rather than setting up their teammates, and while the hope is that their styles of play complement each other and that together they can make life miserable for opposition defenders it's possible that they will have to be on different lines - leaving Nash once again without a center who can keep up with him. Wisniewski has had only one season so far in his career as an elite-level offensive contributor, and if he can't come close to last year's pace the Jackets could once again be weak with the man advantage. Most importantly, Mason needs to find some way to regain the swagger he had as a rookie and put the last two inconsistent seasons behind him. If he's still allowing a bad goal or two every game, the offensive improvements may not be enough.
Despite those question marks, there's more optimism in Columbus than there has been in a few years. The next wave of prospects is almost due to arrive, headed by Ryan Johansen, but the club is in a solid enough position that the youngsters will have to earn their way into the lineup rather than being thrown into the deep end out of desperation. More importantly though, the club seems to finally be emerging from its shell and moving forward with a plan beyond “Let's play the kids and see what happens.” For once, postseason action seems like a realistic goal rather than a pipe dream for the Blue Jackets.
THE BIG GUNS
Rick Nash (LW): After he busted out for 40 goals three seasons ago Nash seemed poised to become an elite sniper and a perennial Rocket Richard Trophy challenger. The two seasons since have been mild disappointments though, mainly because the Blue Jackets have never provided him with a linemate who can match his talent level. The acquisition of Jeff Carter solves that problem though, and while he's not the pass-first center Nash might have preferred the two should be able to create a lot of havoc together in the offensive zone. If Nash is ever going to cash in on the promise of his 2008-'09 campaign, this is the year.
Jeff Carter (C/RW): Carter may have been heartbroken after being traded out of Philly, but landing on a line with Rick Nash has to be pretty solid consolation. After averaging 36 goals a season over the last four years he brings an impressive resume to Columbus, and while he looks for his own shot more often than not his well-rounded game should mesh well with Nash's own bulldozer style of play. Even if the duo get split up Carter should still have linemates with enough skill to keep him in the 30-goal range, but much more is obviously possible if the two All-Stars develop any chemistry. The big worry is whether Carter, who faced criticism as a Flyer for his sometimes wavering effort level, will give his all on a nightly basis for a club that's still a long way from being a Stanley Cup contender, but the reward is more than worth that relatively small risk.
James Wisniewski (D): Everything fell into place for Wisniewski last season, as he exploded for 51 points despite a midseason trade. He moves over to Columbus with a big contract and big expectations, but he's also a perfect fit for the point on the Blue Jackets' beleaguered power play, and with Rick Nash and Jeff Carter ready to pounce on any rebounds he can generate it's hard to see him falling much below the 40-45 point range. There are certainly safer bets among fantasy defensemen, but he's really just one more good season away from joining the ranks of those safer bets so don't wait too long at the draft table to grab him.
ON THE RISE
Derick Brassard (C): It almost feels like we're putting Brassard on this list out of habit. Every season he looks like he's on the cusp of a breakout, and every season he comes up short. The Jeff Carter deal would seem to close the door on any sleeper status Brassard might have, as it shuts him out of regular duty on the Rick Nash line, but there are a couple of reasons to keep him in mind. For one, the addition of Carter bumps one more quality player down to the second line, and if Brassard skates with the likes of Antoine Vermette and R.J. Umberger, or with a young sparkplug like Cam Atkinson, he'll still have plenty of opportunities to hit the score sheet. It's also possible, given the similarities in their styles of play, that Carter ends up anchoring a second scoring line instead of riding shotgun for Nash, in which case Brassard would be poised to feed either one of them with a steady diet of passes. He'll still only be 24 when the season starts, scored 47 points last season in a ‘disappointing' campaign and has managed to be mostly healthy the last two years. It's far too early to write him off yet.
Matt Calvert (LW): Calvert didn't come into last season as one of the Blue Jackets' top prospects, but he worked his proverbial bee-hind off to make the NHL and shows no indication of letting go of a job now that he's got one. On a roster that seems littered with players who leave question marks about their effort level, Calvert stands out as a overachiever, and as such will get opportunities when more talented teammates coast their way down the depth chart. All that's not to say that Calvert lacks skill: his shot, foot speed, and all-round offensive game are very good, if not quite great, and he's shown throughout his career in the juniors, minors and now the NHL that he will jump all over any chance he gets to show what he can do. If you're looking for a late-round wild card pick who could pay nice dividends (and also be very easy to root for), Calvert's your man.
TWO TO AVOID
Vinny Prospal (RW): Prospal was a late signing by the Blue Jackets after Kristian Huselius injured himself rehabbing from hip surgery, and he's expected to start the season skating alongside Rick Nash and Jeff Carter. That makes him a very intriguing sleeper pick, but there are some major caveats. Prospal's now 36, and for the first time in his career missed significant time last season due to injury. He's never been an elite player, and if he's starting to break down his decline could be steep. Huselius is also set to return in 2-3 months and has a history with Nash, and could easily bump Prospal down to the second or third line upon his return. In leagues with deep benches, it could make sense to draft Prospal and try to cash in on any early production he gives you, but if you don't have a solid insurance policy behind him he becomes a very risky player to roster.
R.J. Umberger (LW): The Blue Jackets love Umberger. He is almost the prototypical North American player, a completely unselfish teammate who gives his all in all three zones, but it's that very unselfishness that makes him a possible fantasy liability. As the talent level on the roster improves, Umberger is one of the more likely candidates to slip off a scoring line and be asked to concentrate on the other aspects of his game. He's been a consistent 20-25 goal, 50-55 point scorer the last couple of seasons, but without consistent top-line duty that range starts to look more like a ceiling than an average.
Ryan Johansen (C): Johansen lacks blazing foot speed, but otherwise has everything you'd want in an impact NHL center. Coming off an impressive WHL campaign he heads into training camp with a shot at winning an NHL job despite his remaining year of junior eligibility. The Blue Jackets won't need him in a scoring role though, for once having a wealth of options at center, so even if he does win a job he'll be brought along slowly. 15 goals and 30 points thanks to a placement on a line with someone like R.J. Umberger or Antoine Vermette would be about the ceiling on what you can expect from him as a rookie.
David Savard (D): Savard looked very good in his first season at the AHL level and may have passed John Moore on the depth chart as a result. Savard has a lethal shot and a tremendous all-around offensive game, and he answered some questions about his defensive play last season at Springfield. If he cracks the top-six he'll likely see some second unit power-play duty, and could chip in 15-20 points as a result.
Cam Atkinson (RW): Atkinson is your prototypical overachieving waterbug of a player who seems to excel no matter what level (or size) of competition he's matched up against. Coming off back-to-back 30-goal efforts in college and then a point-a-game pace the first time he dipped his toes in the AHL pool, Atkinson is already a fan favorite in Columbus and could break camp on an energy line. He's had a knack for finding the back of the net throughout his playing career, but expecting more than 10 goals and 20 points as a rookie is probably asking too much.