2007-08 Team Preview: Columbus Blue Jackets
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The Starting Line
By Scott BurnsideSo, you've been in the NHL for six seasons and haven't come within a country mile of a playoff berth. What do you do? Well, you get the biggest incendiary device you can find, and when the dust clears, you start from scratch. That's sort of what the Blue Jackets have done over the past year, first with the firing of overmatched coach Gerard Gallant and the subsequent offseason dismissal of the mess' architect, GM Doug MacLean. Ken Hitchcock now will have a full season to impose his considerable will and hockey smarts on the team, while new GM Scott Howson will try to sort out exactly what he's got in terms of talent. It won't be pretty this season, but by next summer, we wager the Blue Jackets will be a completely different team. OFFENSE
The Blue Jackets finished in a tie with Chicago for the second-lowest goal total in the NHL, and while there's always room for improvement, it's hard to imagine the offense will do anything more than stagger forward. Rick Nash remains the club's future up front, and Hitchcock immediately tried to turn the forward into a complete hockey player (killing penalties, playing in key situations). Nash produced 27 goals in 75 games. Even though Hitchcock will tell him it's not about point production, Nash has to produce more than that if the Blue Jackets are to compete. Gilbert Brule could be The Franchise Part II, but the sixth overall pick in 2005 has some ground to make up after a 19-point performance as a rookie. There's room for improvement up and down the roster, though, including Dan Fritsche and winger Nikolai Zherdev, who saw his goal totals plummet from 27 two years ago to 10 last season. Yes, Zherdev had off-ice problems, but it's time for the talented Russian to start earning his keep. He might start the season playing center. Speaking of earning his keep, what next for Sergei Fedorov, the former MVP and Red Wings superstar, who had 18 goals? Look for Howson to search high and low for a taker for Fedorov and his $6 million ticket. His contract is up at the end of the season. DEFENSE
What happened to the talented, young defense the Blue Jackets were supposed to be building with all those top draft picks they inherited from all their lousy finishes? Good question. Rostislav Klesla will never be the player fans were hoping for when he was selected fourth overall in 2000. The rest of the crew, led by veteran Adam Foote, are not particularly speedy nor are they particularly smooth puck-handlers. Gee, that doesn't sound like a recipe for success in the new NHL does it? Look for Howson to try to move Foote as the season moves on, especially if players like Duvie Westcott, impressive before injury cut his season short, and Ole-Kristian Tollefsen start to mature under Hitchcock. In terms of team defense, the Blue Jackets will welcome multiple Selke Trophy winner Michael Peca, who signed when Alexander Svitov bailed and signed in Russia. Peca will also help the 21st-ranked penalty-killing unit. GOALTENDING
For such a horrible team, the Blue Jackets' goaltending wasn't all that bad. Pascal Leclaire showed signs of being the goaltender the team hoped for when it selected him eighth overall in 2001. His ability to bounce back from a knee injury will say much about his future in Columbus. Fredrik Norrena stepped in as the team's starter admirably, turning in a 24-23-3 record with a 2.78 goals-against average and .904 save percentage in his first NHL season. COACHING
Ken Hitchcock is one of those coaches who offers a living, breathing course in hockey theory every day he comes to the rink. He prepares meticulously and cares passionately about coaching and the game. He can drive players crazy and he's been known to push a button here and there (just ask Brett Hull), but he is a winner. Unfortunately for him, this team is not and Hitchcock will have to coach his brains out to get anywhere near .500. Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
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• Record: 33-42-7
• Division: Fourth in the Central
• Conference: 11th in the West
• Playoffs: Did not qualify
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Where is the Repentigny, Quebec native's head at after an injury soured what was to be his coming out party as an NHL starter? Defenseman: Duvie Westcott
The slight 5-foot-11, 197-pound Winnipeg native had four goals and 10 points in 23 games. Could he be the power-play quarterback for whom the Blue Jackets have been searching? Forward: Derick Brassard
Speaking of top picks with potential, Brassard had 25 points in 14 games for Drummondville of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League before injury ended his season. The sixth overall pick in 2006 will get a chance in training camp to show it doesn't matter.
MORE FROM BURNSIDEBuzz Cut
The buzz around Columbus is already about next season. With Hitchcock in charge for a full campaign and with the team looking forward to getting out from onerous contracts (Foote, Fedorov), the theory is the Jackets will make a big splash in the free-agent market next summer and hope to take the next, big step in 2008-09. Where They Will Finish
The Blue Jackets will finish fifth in the Central Division and 14th in the Western Conference.
SPORTSNATIONWhere do you think the Columbus Blue Jackets will finish this time around? Who will lead the Jackets in scoring and what's your take on the man behind the bench? Vote now!