2013-14 NHL Season Preview: Columbus Blue Jackets

Sergei Bobrovsky Columbus Blue Jackets

The following is a guest post from Matt Wagner, who has been covering the Blue Jackets since 2007, and joined the team at The Cannon in 2009. He’s one of the co-founders of Cannonfest, the annual summer Blue Jackets fan gathering, and has also contributed long form pieces for SBNation, Hockey Prospectus, and Fanbase.com. To see more of his writing, check out The Cannon or follow him on Twitter at @bzarcher

After narrowly missing the 2012-2013 postseason, the Columbus Blue Jackets are a team with high hopes, but they are starting from a far stronger foundation than many expected.

After the roster was almost completely reshuffled by the Rick Nash trade, the team struggled to find cohesion early in the season, thanks to the lockout denying them any kind of pre-season. It would take the rise of eventual Vezina trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky to stabilize the team, and their acquisition of Marian Gaborik at the trade deadline gave them the true scoring threat that the club had been lacking. Charging down the end of the season, the team missed the playoffs due to losing out on a tiebreaker with the Minnesota Wild, but injected a great deal of energy and excitement into a fanbase that had been suffering the loss of their Captain and the cancellation of the planned 2013 All Star Game.

With such a successful late run, it’s not surprising that general manager Jarmo Kekalainen hasn’t wanted to tinker too much with a good thing, but he did make one significant overhaul in the offseason, bidding farewell (at least for now) to veteran forward Vinny Prospal, and going hard after top free agent Nathan Horton, who signed a seven year deal on July 5th.

The Jackets also made a move to add some depth by signing journeyman Jack Skille and European free agent Ilari Melart, but it appears that they are banking on the standing roster, with the possibility of a few of their promising young players cracking the lineup if they can impress in camp.


The addition of Nathan Horton promises to add a big bodied scorer who is willing to work into the “hard areas” of the ice, but the need for offseason shoulder surgery means he will be unable to contribute until late November at the earliest. Instead, the Blue Jackets will need Marian Gaborik to return to his all-star level form as a dynamic scoring threat, and a continued “lunchpail” effort from players like Brandon Dubinsky, Cam Atkinson, R.J. Umberber, and Matt Calvert.

The team also has a pair of wildcards who could provide offense: Russian forward Artem Anisimov, who contributed 11 goals in the lockout shortened season, good for third on the club, and surprising scoring leader Mark Letestu, who stepped up from his expected “plugger” role to deliver a team leading 13 goals and 14 assists in 48 games. Letestu is still expected to perform in a bottom six role, particularly on the penalty kill, but both could be valuable contributors as the club moves to the Eastern Conference.


One of the the Blue Jackets’ biggest assets has been an experienced group of relatively young defensemen, which they will bring into the 2013-2014 season to help meet the challenges of the Metropolitan division. Led by Fedor Tyutin, one of the team’s longest tenured players following the shakeup of the Nash and Gaborik trades, he is expected to pair with fellow Russian Nikita Nikitin, who has quietly built a reputation for being a strong possession player after being traded from St. Louis.

The team also expects to rely on the “Controlled Chaos” pairing of James Wisniewski and Jack Johnson, who are regarded as being excellent in driving the play offensively, but often less reliable in their own end. Johnson in particular is notorious for his…problematic…advanced statistics, but is equally respected for his willingness to play heavy minutes as needed, and to contribute in all situations.

The team’s final three slots on defense are more fluid, and could be some of the most heated battles in the upcoming training camp.

Many had expected sophomore Dalton Prout to be on the ice after a strong debut last season, but offseason abdominal surgery may keep him off the ice until the first month of the regular season. In his place, many expect 2012 second overall pick Ryan Murray to make a push for the team following his own recovery from an injury suffered in junior hockey last season, but his spot is not guaranteed. Murray is also facing competition from newly acquired European free agent Ilari Melart and several other defensive prospects, including Cody Goloubef, Tim Erixon, and David Savard.


Columbus started last season unsure of who their starting goaltender would be, or if they even had a true #1 candidate. Sergei Bobrovsky delivered a resounding answer to both questions, backstopping the club to an electric finish and capping off his season by claiming the 2013 Vezina trophy. Though more than a few analysts have wondered if “Bob” will be able to repeat his performance, his performance in Columbus and during the lockout with SKA St. Petersburg indicate that his skills have been developing beyond a simple flash in the pan. While it may be a challenge for him to earn another post-season award, it seems likely that he will provide better than league average performances for the club, something that had been distinctly lacking with Steve Mason as their starter.

Behind Bobrovsky will be journeyman backup Curtis McElhinney, who spent last season as the starter for Columbus’ AHL affiliate Springfield Falcons, where he set several AHL and team records for shutouts and save percentage during the 2012-2013 season. Once thought as a simple “throw in” during the Antoine Vermette trade, he has proven that he was willing to put in the work to earn an NHL job once again, and can provide a solid option in net so the team does not feel forced to overwork Bobrovsky to stay competitive.


With their move to the Eastern Conference, many fans in Columbus are simply overjoyed that 40% of their games no longer start after8:30pm. The club’s near-miss of the postseason generated excitement in the city that has been carefully maintained by the club over the offseason, keeping die-hard and casual fans interested in their new division and how the club will stack up against clubs like the Penguins, Flyers, Rangers, Islanders, and Capitals.

With a strong historical record against Eastern conference teams, fans expect that the Blue Jackets can and should be competitive, and that their “brick by brick” style of play will lead them to the playoffs that the club just barely missed last season. I’m personally predicting that this club is likely to place third or fourth in the Metropolitan division, likely claiming a seventh seed for the playoffs.

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