Published September 24, 2013
| Sports Network
The Columbus Blue Jackets were one slow start away from just the second playoff appearance in franchise history.
That is the bar the Blue Jackets will look to hop over in 2013-14 and they will do so with a returning Vezina Trophy winner in net, a full season of Marian Gaborik on the wing and eventually, a proven winner in Nathan Horton in the locker room.
Hey, Bob Newhart finally won an Emmy, so anything is possible, right?
The Blue Jackets have not made the postseason since they were swept out of the first round in 2009. However, they were a mere tie-breaker away from returning to the playoffs last season, matching the Minnesota Wild for eighth place in the Western Conference with 55 points, only 10 fewer than they had in a full season the previous campaign.
However, the Wild had three more non-shootout victories, sending the Blue Jackets home early yet again.
Things don't get easier for the Blue Jackets this season as they shift to the Eastern Conference and the new Metropolitan Division that features heavyweights in the New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals.
That will make a fast start this season paramount and Columbus needs to look no further than the previous campaign to know why. The Blue Jackets wrapped the shortened season 19-5-3, but that came after a 5-12-4 start. Just one more point in that opening 21-game stretch would have put the club in the postseason.
With success also comes a bit of stability. Unlike last offseason, when the Blue Jackets dealt unhappy star forward Rick Nash to the New York Rangers, Columbus did not suffer any big losses this past summer and added skill in Horton.
Sensing they are close to something, the Blue Jackets dished out $37.1 million over seven years to net Horton, though he isn't expected to be ready for game action until around December due to offseason shoulder surgery.
Columbus also had to pay the price for Sergei Bobrovsky's successful season in net last year. He hit the market as a restricted free agent after winning the Vezina Trophy and with a possible threat of the Kontinental Hockey League making a play for his services the Jackets ponied up $11.25 million over two years to keep him in the fold.
FORWARDS - The Blue Jackets got a huge boost when they signed six-time 20-goal scorer Horton, but the biggest contribution needs to come from Gaborik.
Gaborik has hit the 40-goal mark three times in his career, including as recent as 2011-12 with the New York Rangers. However, he fell out of favor in the Big Apple and had just nine goals and 19 points in 35 games last year before getting dealt in-season to the Blue Jackets for a trio of contributors in Derick Brassard, Derek Dorsett and John Moore.
The 31-year-old winger had eight points in 12 games with Columbus, so he'll need to rebound. He is also expected to be healthy after having surgery in May for an abdominal injury.
The full season of Gaborik and addition of Horton, who had 19 points in 22 playoff games in the spring, gives additional scoring depth to the top three lines. They'll need it as 38-year-old Vaclav Prospal, currently a free agent, led the Blue Jackets last year with 30 points.
Two former Rangers acquired in the Nash deal give the Blue Jackets strength down the middle. Artem Anisimov was on pace for his first 20-goal season after potting 11 goals in 35 games last year, while Brandon Dubinsky is a two-way forward who leads by example and matched for the club lead with 18 assists.
The Blue Jackets are stocked at right wing with the addition of Horton to Gaborik and Cam Atkinson. The 24-year-old Atkinson is the most likely of the three to move to the left side once Horton returns.
R.J. Umberger is another two-way forward with 20-goal capability and the Blue Jackets will also hope that center Ryan Johansen, the fourth overall pick of the 2010 draft, and Matt Calvert can take a step forward this year.
Twenty-year-old Boone Jenner could crack the lineup and join the likes of Mark Letestu and Jared Boll as depth after notching 45 goals and 82 points in 56 games with the Oshawa Generals of the Ontario Hockey League. He added another three goals in five games with Springfield of the American Hockey League.
DEFENSE - Columbus is hoping its two top defensive pairings will include Ryan Murray by season's end as he tries to bounce back from a lost campaign.
The second overall pick of the 2012 draft suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in November during the lockout, giving his development a hit. He could open the season on the final pairing with the high-priced James Wisniewski, a veteran who can create offense from the blue line.
Columbus' top grouping of Jack Johnson and Fedor Tyutin can log minutes and combined for 41 points a season ago.
Nikita Nikitin is also solid in shutting down opposing offenses and could pair with Dalton Prout, who led Columbus with a plus-15 rating over 28 games as a rookie last year. The 23-year-old did sustain an abdominal injury during the offseason, but is ahead of schedule and should be ready by the start of the season.
Tim Erixon, a 22-year-old former first-round pick in 2009, played in 31 games last year and will serve as insurance if Murray is not ready or capable.
GOALTENDING - The big question will be if Bobrovsky can maintain last season's success of a full schedule.
He made 52 starts and an additional two appearances in relief with the Philadelphia Flyers as a rookie in 2010-11 and put up solid numbers at 28-13-8 with a 2.59 goals against average and .915 save percentage. However, he slipped to a 3.02 GAA and .899 save percentage in 29 games the following season and was dealt to Columbus for draft picks.
After eventually taking over full time for Steve Mason, who was coincidentally dealt to Philadelphia by season's end, "Bob" won eight of his final nine starts down the stretch and put together a 21-11-6 campaign with a 2.00 GAA, .932 save percentage and career-high four shutouts.
Columbus won and lost with Bobrovsky this year, taking a sizeable cap hit to keep the Russian netminder, but for only two years. It will be worth it if he maintains last season's success.
The Blue Jackets are banking on it as the expected backup is 30-year-old Curtis McElhinney.
Set to play for his fifth team, McElhinney spent last season in the AHL with Springfield and put up solid numbers at 29-16-3 with a 2.32 GAA and .923 save percentage with nine shutouts.
WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The good thing about the Blue Jackets' move to the Eastern Conference is that it will cut down on the club's travel time, which could be a plus down the stretch.
And don't make too big of a deal of the new competition in the Metropolitan Division. After all, Columbus' former Central Division foes included some powerful teams in the Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings and St. Louis Blues.
Columbus has a lot of questions going in, including what kind of season Bobrovsky will have and just how much it will get out of Gaborik and Horton for an offense that ranked 24th in the NHL last year. But the Blue Jackets are finally starting to accumulate the depth needed to contend for a playoff spot and should avoid taking a step back.