We're eating our words about Columbus ... and checking in with Big Al

January, 15, 2009
The last time we checked in on the Columbus Blue Jackets for you puckheads was about a month ago, when we predicted dire things for the NHL club after it lost sensational rookie center Derick Brassard.

Ah, the egg is on your blogger's face right now.

The Jackets have not only survived, but they have also found a way to gain traction in the tough Western Conference standings, sitting in the last playoff spot by one point before NHL action Thursday night.

And that's despite losing Brassard to a season-ending shoulder injury along with a half-dozen other bodies for a period of time, including star winger Rick Nash. The Jackets have gone 7-3-0 in their last 10 games despite the injuries.

"When we lost all the forwards here, we were able to survive," Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock told ESPN.com Thursday. "We gained some competitive confidence because of that. We were able to get points and win games despite the injuries.

"There's times in a season where you literally go into survival mode. You simplify the game. You just compete at a high level. A lot of these guys that have come up from [AHL] Syracuse have really done a good job."

Hitchcock was also quick to praise rookie goalie Steve Mason, who has been sensational. Not only is he the leading candidate for the Calder Trophy as this point, but perhaps has an outside shot at the Vezina, as well.

In the meantime, there's help on the way.

"We've got three or four guys coming back here over the next two games," said Hitchcock.

Nash, who has missed three games with a lower-body injury, was back on the ice Thursday.

"He practiced full today and we're going to decide whether we play him tomorrow or Sunday," said Hitchcock. "But we're looking for him to be back no later than Sunday."

Winger Raffi Torres, out six weeks, should be back in the lineup Friday night against the Devils. Forward Andrew Murray will be back either Friday or Sunday in Vancouver.

"And Jason Chimera skated for the first time today and felt OK, so he'll come on the road trip with us and we'll see," said Hitchcock, whose team plays in Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary before the All-Star break.

Jackets GM Scott Howson also made Hitchcock's life a little better by acquiring forward Jason Williams from Atlanta on Wednesday. Williams can play either wing or center and also the point on the power play, which is where he was in practice Thursday.

"We know Willy from playing against him when he was in Detroit and Chicago," said Hitchcock. "We need that type of element with us. With the loss of Brassard, we have to have someone that can fill that hole. We were missing players at center ice. He brings an element on our team, especially on the power play, being a right shot, that we don't have."

What the last month has also taught Hitchcock is that, regardless who is in his lineup, the Jackets have finally become a team after searching for an identity over the first two months of the season.

"I think what's happened here is a really good lesson for me and for everybody else," said Hitchcock. "Accountability takes time. It doesn't happen overnight. We made a lot of good changes over the summer for our team moving forward. But just because you add a bunch of guys to the locker room doesn't mean you're a team. I think what's happened is the grind of the schedule and the adversity we've gone through has helped make us more cohesive. Our team is starting to realize we can win games if we just become the sum of parts."

The one person Hitchcock didn't mention in all of this was the coach. We'll take care of that. Once again proving he is indeed one of the elite coaches in this league, Hitchcock has found a way to squeeze juice out of a rock over the last month. If the Jackets somehow make the playoffs, he should be considered for the Jack Adams Award.

Checking in with Big Al
A certain Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman was kind enough to add his voice to the Shea Weber story that was posted on the site today. Al MacInnis, who knows a thing or two about great defensemen, says he's enjoying life as the vice president of hockey operations with the St. Louis Blues.

He's another voice in front office that also includes president John Davidson, GM Larry Pleau and vice president of player personnel Doug Armstrong.

"It's been great," MacInnis told ESPN.com. "Obviously, it's about who you work with. Larry and JD and bringing Doug on board, it's been terrific, a lot of fun. I'm involved in a little bit of everything."

He enjoys the player development side.

"I go out and watch the kids we've already drafted, whether they're in junior or college," he said. "I talk to them and see how they're getting along. I'm also in the office and talk to these guys and I really enjoy it. It's kept me busy and keeping me involved in the game."

Like the rest of the front office, MacInnis just can't believe the bad luck that has hit his team this season, when it comes to serious, long-term injuries.

"Oh boy. I haven't seen something like this in a long time," said MacInnis. "I haven't been on a team where you see a lot of your top-end players out for that long a period. It started with the golfing accident in August [knee injury to Erik Johnson] and just snowballed from there. You can't replace top-end guys like that. It's hard when you have guys like [Paul] Kariya and [Andy] McDonald and Erik Johnson and Eric Brewer out."

The Blues' season is lost, but the future isn't too shabby. Another high draft pick will add another gem to a good young core. Just stay out of the hospital next season!

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer



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