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2013 Blue Jackets Preview: Eastbound and Up

Erik Siegrist

Erik Siegrist is an FSWA award-winning columnist who covers all four major North American sports (that means the NHL, not NASCAR) and whose beat extends back to the days when the Nationals were the Expos and the Thunder were the Sonics. He was the inaugural champion of Rotowire's Staff Keeper baseball league. His work has also appeared at Baseball Prospectus.

The 2012-13 season started out as everyone expected it to for the Rick Nash-less Blue Jackets, as they shrugged their way to just five wins and 13 points through the first 20 games of the abbreviated schedule. Without their superstar, the rag-tag collection of grinders and cast-offs that made up the Columbus roster just couldn't get anything going.

Then, Sergei Bobrovsky happened.

The former Flyer was no great shakes to begin the year, but somewhere in the middle of a February road trip he found himself. First he helped steal a game in Detroit. Once back home, he dragged the club to a couple of tough overtime losses, tightened his straps, and then backstopped the Jackets to five straight victories. The team, and the city of Columbus, took notice, and infused with a sudden confidence the whole team surged into a completely manic and improbable scramble for a playoff spot that ended with eight wins in their last nine games and a heart-breaking ninth place finish due to a tie-breaker.

With that spirit of optimism still hanging in the air, club president John Davidson and new general manager Jarmo Kekalainen set about re-making the depth chart and the culture of the organization. Nathan Horton got a huge free agent contract to leave a perennial Cup contender in Boston and come show the young Blue Jackets how to win when it counts. Trade deadline acquisition Marian Gaborik, with one more year left on his own big contract, also stuck around to give a little offensive pizzazz to an otherwise pedestrian group of forwards. Even the entry draft, normally a time of gloom and second-guessing in Columbus after years of busts and fizzles, brought some applause as Kekalainen applied the scouting philosophy he'd honed in St. Louis to land a trio of talented, smart, feisty forwards in the first round.

With the club finally in the Eastern Conference where they always belonged, and freed of the west coast grinds that always seemed to kill any mid-season momentum the team might have had, the Blue Jackets suddenly have the look of hungry up-and-comers rather than empty jerseys stuck in a perpetual rebuild. With Vezina winner Bobrovsky phalanxed by an enviable platoon of defensemen, and a group of forwards built to win on the forecheck rather than the breakaway, they could be the team no one else wants to see roll into town -- whether in the regular season, or as dangerous playoff underdogs.

The Big Guns

Marian Gaborik (RW): Gaborik's production plummeted in his final season on Broadway as he and then-Rangers coach John Tortorella just couldn't see eye to eye, but a deadline deal woke him up and he managed eight points in 12 games as the Blue Jackets made a late but futile run at a playoff spot. He's got one more year left on his deal and still possesses elite sniping skills when healthy, so a contract year explosion is always possible, but he won't have a top-shelf pivot to set him up in Columbus and will likely be hard-pressed to manage another 40-goal, 80-point campaign with the blue-collar Jackets.

Sergei Bobrovsky (G): What more can be said about Bobrovsky's incredible Vezina-winning campaign? Other netminders have carried their teams with great two month runs (18 of Bobrovsky's 21 wins, and all four of his shutouts, came in March and April) but rarely have they revived an entire franchise the way last season's near-miss playoff push brought the city of Columbus out of its post-Rick Nash doldrums. Now signed to a big new contract, Bobrovsky may have a hard time living up to the myth he created last season but he's still only 24, has a ferocious work ethic and is fully capable of developing into a truly elite goalie behind a deep, young Blue Jackets blue line corps. Don't dismiss him as a flash in the pan.

Brandon Dubinsky (LW): Dubinsky just couldn't stay healthy in his first season with Columbus. That's too bad, since when he was on the ice he managed a solid 20 points and 76 PIMs in 29 games for the Jackets. He still looks every inch the future captain of the club, playing a physical, two-way brand of hockey that brings out the best in his teammates. Given his rounded skill set, he'll be far more valuable in fantasy leagues that count multiple categories than in straight points leagues.

On The Rise

Ryan Johansen (C): The fourth overall pick in 2010, Johansen split his time between the big club and the AHL last year and, while he drew some criticism for his intensity level, at times his production at Springfield (17 goals and 33 points in 40 games) provided a solid reminder of his upside. The Blue Jackets still lack an established number one center, and if Johansen can find another gear his scoring touch and physical play could yet translate into solid NHL production. He's a work in progress, but he's close to reaching his potential.

Cam Atkinson (LW): The undersized sparkplug Atkinson battled ankle injuries most of the season and managed just nine goals and 18 points in 35 NHL games, although his surprising plus-9 rating led all Blue Jackets forwards and his AHL production (17 goals and 38 points in 33 games) was outstanding. When he's healthy he's capable of supplying some big goals, but the late-season addition of Marian Gaborik and the Nathan Horton signing make things very crowded on the wings in Columbus and Atkinson could find it tough to keep hold of a top-six placement. If he does stay on a scoring line though, don't underestimate his fantasy potential.

Two To Watch

Nathan Horton (RW): Horton's gritty playoff performance (19 points in 22 games despite a shoulder injury that required offseason surgery) helped earn him a huge free agent payday, but it was still a surprise to some that he decided to leave a hockey mecca like Boston for the anonymity of a relative backwater like Columbus. His rough-and-tumble style of play seem like a very good fit for the Blue Jackets, even if it too often takes its toll on his body. While he'll probably miss the first chunk of the 2013-14 season rehabbing his shoulder, Horton should be up to full speed by Christmas, if not sooner. The big contract and shoulder injury will have him labelled as an overrated fantasy asset, but there's no reason he can't produce something close to the 25-goal, 60-point pace he usually managed with the Bruins. The biggest question with Horton in Columbus is the same as it was in Boston -- how often can he stay on the ice and out of the infirmary.

Artem Anisimov (C): Concussion issues limited Anisimov to 35 games and 18 points in his first campaign with the Blue Jackets, but when he was on the ice Anisimov was the same maddeningly inconsistent player he was with the Rangers. He's got the skills on offense to be a difference-maker and knows his way around his own zone yet too often he fades into the background rather than imposing his will on the opposition. He did show a spark alongside Marian Gaborik after the sniper arrived in Columbus (which could help Anisimov maintain a higher level of play) but most likely he is headed for another 40-45 point season and the frustrating feeling that he's capable of better.

Don't Overrate

Mark Letestu (C): Useful jack-of-all-trades forward Letestu led the Blue Jackets in goals and was second in scoring last season with 13 tallies and 27 points in 46 games. The team continues to improve its depth though, and with youngsters Ryan Johansen and Boone Jenner pushing for playing time up the middle, Letestu could see his shifts decline. Last year's pace was his ceiling, not the start of a new trend.

James Wisniewski (D): Wisniewski's second verse in Columbus was the same as the first, as the offensively-gifted defenseman just couldn't stay healthy and managed only 14 points in 30 games. He's now scored 14 goals and 41 points (with a minus-14 rating) in 78 games over two seasons with the Blue Jackets, which gives you a good idea of what he's capable of over a full campaign. Until he proves he can stay in one piece, Wisniewski's probably not worth the risk in most fantasy formats.

Jack Johnson (D): The blue line stalwart Johnson once again logged a lot of ice time (nearly 26 minutes a night) and chipped in solid production with 19 points in 44 games in his first full season with Columbus. He isn't going to be a top fantasy asset, especially on a Blue Jackets team that lacks a dynamic power play unit, but he managed a plus-5 rating over the last two months of the season and may be able to avoid being a liability in that category as the young club around him continues to improve.

Top Prospects

Ryan Murray (D): The 2012 second overall pick Murray played in just 23 WHL games last year due to a separated shoulder. Assuming he's fully recovered from surgery, he'll head into camp looking to win a spot with the big club. There are no weaknesses in Murray's game, and he's capable of making an impact at both ends of the ice with smart, steady play, but don't look for big fantasy numbers from him right away.

Boone Jenner (C): Jenner ended his junior career with a bang, scoring 45 goals and 82 points in 56 games for Oshawa (OHL) before a late-season AHL stint in which he looked right at home. He's a coach's dream, playing a fierce two-way style and backing down from no one, and it shouldn't be long before he settles into the Blue Jackets' lineup. Jenner's lack of elite offensive skills could limit him to a third-line role, but he's arguably the best faceoff man in the world outside of the NHL and that skill alone could land him plenty of man-advantage ice time once he establishes himself. He won't be a fantasy stud, but he will be a fan favorite.

Alexander Wennberg (C): The 14th overall pick in this year's draft, Wennberg has the skill, smarts and drive to make an impact in every zone on the ice once he transitions over to North America. He's still a couple of years away from the NHL, but he should adapt quickly to the pro game and become a fixture in the Blue Jackets' lineup.