September's finally here. And given how slowly teams are coming together, we decided to put off the previews until September this time. We go in alphabetical order because hey, why not? We'll be doing this until September ends. With that said here we go.
And now, the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Team M.O.: Historically regarded as a defense-first team, these guys look like they're opting to go with a "run and gun" type game built around a good young goalie, some astounding prospects at forward, and an excellent captain in Rick Nash. What they lack is consistency in winning, and while that was understandable during the pre-lockout era of Detroit Red Wings dominance, the expectations are higher in the salary cap era, especially after finally making the playoffs in 2008-09.
Last Season: Fourteenth in the Western Conference and out of the playoffs. The team was teetering around the .500 mark until a disastrous slide in December. In the end it cost Ken Hitchcock his job but didn't necessarily lead to GM Scott Howson blowing up the team. A good season will make the coaching changes look brilliant; a losing season could mean the ax for another GM (or maybe not considering how long Doug MacLean managed to stick around since getting canned in favor of Howson.)
Offense: Rick Nash is relied on heavily for just about everything; it would be nice if he could be relied on purely for goal scoring considering that's what he's best at (and he's one of the best goal-scorers, too.) Antoine Vermette had a career season and while playing with Rick Nash helps, he's definitely taking steps forward to become a more complete two-way player. RJ Umberger has the tools to effectively compliment a scoring line but he'll want to tighten up his attention to defense to raise his game to an elite level. Jakub Voracek took some significant steps forward last season and looks poised to become a first-line forward at the ripe old age of 21. Derick Brassard definitely experienced a sophomore slump last season but it was his first full NHL season after missing the second half of 2008-09 with injuries; he should improve this forthcoming season. Kristian Huselius provides the team with an effective scoring winger that should provide leadership for the blossoming crop of young talent. Nikita Filatov will be returning to the team this year and should get a better look-see under Ariel than he did with Hitchcock.
Getting to the grinders and muckers, Chris Clark was acquired halfway through the season and while he isn't shy about dropping the mitts, the team has other guys on the roster capable of doing that so it would be best to stick to being a solid checker and great leader. Sammy Pahlsson struggled at first with the team, but became his usual self as the season went on and should give the team a high-end defensive forward capable of winning faceoffs. Ethan Moreau was acquired over the waiver wire and will be expected to thrive in a checking and penalty killing role for the team. As has been the case for the past couple season, Jared Boll and Derek Dorsett will exist to rile up and bruise the competition while keeping their star players protected. Michael Blunden appears ready to challenge for a checking role while Ben Guite will hope to round out the group of forwards and get back to having a regular NHL job.
There's nothing more the team can do at forward that they haven't done already; their components will now be responsible to take the steps necessary or risk playing elsewhere next season.
Defense: Fedor Tyutin managed to appear in more games than anyone else (he was the only defender to appear in more than 75 games) and was only two points off from his career season; he'll definitely be counted on to start the action up the ice. Jan Hejda had a disappointing season but to his credit, he battled injuries and played on a not-so-great squad; when healthy he's a great defensive/shutdown defenseman. Marc Methot is developing in a role similar to Hejda's while Kris Russell is coming along similar to Tyutin and give the team some solid young players to use in either in a second or third-pairing role. While Mike Commodore is a solid defensive player and leader for the youth in the dressing room, his salary doesn't justify what he's providing the team and could be a hindrance to them acquiring better players. Anton Stralman had a breakout year for the Blue Jackets, notching 34 points, but he'll need to tighten up his defensive play if he's wishes to become more than a power-play specialist. The team might wish to use Rostislav Klesla enough to justify his salary but given the fact that he's only appeared in 60 games through the past two seasons, you can't help but wonder if starting him off in a depth role could be better for both his health and the betterment of the team. Grant Clitsome and Nate Guenin will likely be the guys coming up from the minors for fill in duty when needed.
I would love to see this team trade for another veteran defender who can play top-four minutes but it I don't see it happening before camp. In fairness, if everyone can stay healthy, this season could be an improvement.
Goaltending: It kinda sucks when the expectations of a franchise fall on the shoulders of a young guy who's 22 and went from junior to NHL with no stop between, but unfortunately these things occur when you're a starting goaltender in the NHL. The team is going to wholly expect Steve Mason to have a bounce back year while detractors are going to hope that they didn't rush his development by having him play too early too soon. Though Mathieu Garon appeared in 35 games, he only started in 27 of them; frankly I think he can and should handle a higher work load and split start duties with Mason. The team has no depth issues in net.
Management: I'm not a fan of how Howson put this team together but if Ariel manages to make it work; then great on them. Still, what they've paid certain players since he's taken over has boggled my mind and I never though I'd see the day where the team's potential checking line is making an average of over $2M a player.
Prediction: Fourth in the Central Division and out of the playoffs.
I think they're a better team than the Nashville Predators this season but I have absolutely no confidence the coaching change will help the franchise start winning; not until I see how it works. They had plenty of guys take steps forward but an equal number of guys who may face a sophomore slump or injury issues. Setbacks can always occur to other teams and guys can have breakout seasons, but a lot will have to go right for these guys for them to even be a bubble team.