Key Offseason Losses:Manny Malhotra, Michael Peca
Key Offseason Additions:Nate Guenin, Ethan Moreau, Kyle Wilson, Nikita Filatov
Last Season Ranking: 14th, West
Offense:It’s all about Rich Nash for the Blue Jackets. One of the most talented players in the league, he needs some help in order to succeed in Columbus. He had help when they made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history two years ago, but that’s slowly going further out the rear-view mirror. There’s signs of potential offensive talent surrounded around him this time around. Despite struggling last season, Antoine Vermette is coming off his career-best season when he scored 27 goals and 65 points. They have the potential to have a functional top six outside of Nash and Vermette, with R.J. Umberger playing on the right side of the top line and the second line of Kristian Huselius, Derick Brassard, and Jakub Voracek. If Brassard can get atleast 50 points (he had 36 last season), then the Blue Jackets finally will have depth at forward. Also look for additions Nikita Filatov and Ethan Moreau to provide depth in the third-fourth lines. The X-factor will be Chris Clark. Clark was captain of the Capitals when he was traded to the Blue Jackets last season. He helps provide veteran leadership in the locker room despite Nash wearing the C. The big question for him is, was he the benefit of playing on a good team (15 pts in 38 games in Washington, and 5 pts in 36 games with Columbus) or does he have the skill set to contribute on a less talented team with a full season with them?
Defense:This is a defensive unit that doesn’t move the puck very well. They will get some points from time to time, but just about all of them are stay-at-home defenders. Anton Stralman was the top scoring defenseman with 34 points last season, but the downside to him and just about the rest of the team is the poor +/- rating. Stralman and Brassard had a team-worse -17 rating last season. Only third line defenseman Kris Russell had a plus-rating out of the top six defenseman and he only had a +3 rating in 70 games. Look for the team to make trades during the season to get someone who can possess and move the puck to help in the transition game.
Goaltending:There isn’t a player whose stock dropped further and faster last season than Steve Mason. Mason won the Calder Tophy and was a candidate for the Vezina Award in 2009 when he led Columbus to the playoffs. Last season, he was one of the worse goalies in the league. Opponents eventually figured him out and they lit the lamp a lot as he had a 3.04 GAA last season. He can only help the team if he can be half or two-thirds of the goalie he was his rookie season. He will carry majority of the playing load, and if he struggles they have one of the more reliable backups in the league in Mathieu Garon. Expect Mason to enter this season with better conditioning, focus and a sense of humility after falling back to Earth last season. Should he rebound and play better in goal, you heard it here first.
Season Outlook:It’s hard expecting this team to make the playoffs because they play in arguably the hardest division in the league. The division winner has advanced to the Western Conference Finals each of the last four seasons, producing two Stanley Cup champions in the process. With everyone else in the division getting better and the Blue Jackets being one of the lesser-spending teams in the league, the deck is stacked against them to begin with. They have the talent up front and in goal to compete, but the defense is what will doom them. Expect them to finish last in the division and maybe even the conference.