Blue Jackets: 10 Things You Need To Know
By Pierre LeBrun
The Columbus Blue Jackets have made the playoffs once in their franchise history and that decade-plus futility mark has left a dent in once promising market that needs salvaging immediately.
"We feel the pressure every year no matter what we spend," Howson told ESPN.com. "You got to get in [the playoffs]. The West is tough. It's going to be hard, but we feel we're a legitimate team to compete for one of those spots, and it's going to be up to us to go out and prove it."
The stakes are high in Columbus. Jobs are on the line. Did the Jackets do enough to make the playoffs?
"I don't see any reason why we can't be in the playoffs," the newly acquired Carter told ESPN.com. "I think Scott has a done a good job adding some good veteran players to the young group they had here. I think you put everything together here and we should be alright."
1. Nabbing that No. 1 center
For years, we would chat with Howson about his team's dire need for a true No. 1 center. They don't grow on trees, we'd both say. Finally, the call was answered when Howson sprung the blockbuster deal for Carter.
"We've just needed a top center here for so long," said Howson. "And really, after the season ended, we thought about Rick [Nash] turning 27 years old. He's a franchise player and legitimate superstar in the league and we just felt it was time to try and maybe move the program forward a little bit and get him a better forward to play with -- to get Rick and our team a more legitimate and proven player, and we got that in Jeff."
2. Carter embraces new surroundings
It was obvious on the first day of training camp. Carter was pumped at having the chance to play with Rick Nash.
No one in Columbus, he said, should read anything into his silence in the days that followed his stunning trade from Philadelphia to Columbus.
"Me being quiet had nothing to do with Columbus," said Carter. "I was obviously upset with how things went down [in Philadelphia] in the weeks leading up to the trade and then when it happened. I just wanted to take some time and collect my thoughts before I said anything."
3. All eyes on Mason to bounce back
Mason's third season in the NHL couldn't have gone much worse. His 3.03 goals-against average ranked 65th among NHL netminders; his .901 save percentage was 58th.
Enter a new goalie coach the Jackets hired in Ian Clark (formerly of the Vancouver Canucks), and the hope is that Mason will bounce back after two subpar seasons.
"What Steve did his first year was pretty phenomenal," Howson said of the 2009 Calder Trophy winner. "Things came quickly to him; things came easily. He's not the first one to go through this. You look at [Carey] Price, even as far as back as [Tom] Barrasso and [Grant] Fuhr. They all came in and played great that first year and then had a bit of a dip before bouncing back. So the talent is there with Steve. The ability is there. He's mature. And we've hired Ian Clark as our new goalie coach. We know Steve is going to be a good goalie. We just have to get it out of him. Unfortunately, you can't predict when that's going to come, but he's proven he can be an elite goalie in the league."
There's so much riding on Mason this season. The Jackets, perhaps not wanting Mason to react negatively, didn't bring in any real kind of insurance in goal. There's no real competition. It's his job to lose. If he can't perform, the Jackets are in trouble.
4. Blue line better but still a question mark
Wisniewski (suspended for the first eight regular-season games) and Martinek were solid additions to a blue-line group that sorely needed help.
"Both those players are an upgrade on our puck-moving ability," said Howson. "Radek is a great skater; he can defend. We got to try and keep him healthy because that's been his issue. He can play against the top players. James has a big shot, and hopefully he'll be a piece of that power play. Because that power play has been in the bottom third of the league since I've been here. And part of it has been that we feel there's been no defensemen back there that teams respect with their shot. So they can cheat down low. James will give us that. We just feel better about our defense and we also have some good ones coming."
We still view the blue line as an issue, and if we had to bet, that's the area Howson will try to improve before the trade deadline if the Jackets are in the playoff hunt.
5. Johansen's challenge for the Calder
Ryan Johansen, 19, was the fourth overall pick in the 2010 entry draft. He could possibly get second-line minutes this season although the Jackets want to be careful not to overload him or rush him.
He arrives with a sparkling pedigree.
"You couldn't have written down a better year for him last season," said Howson. "I was just hoping he'd make the [Canadian] world junior team and he ended up being a tournament all-star. Then he got the WHL playoff scoring title. So he had a tremendous year last year. So with Ryan, it's going to be about strength and maturity. He'll get as much as he can handle if he makes the team. At least we're in a position now where he's not going to be counted on for a real prominent role at this point."
6. Brassard has room to grow
Derick Brassard was thrust into a No. 1 center job before he was ever ready for it. Now with Carter's arrival he can grow into his role.
"Yeah I think it's been a little bit unfair to Derick what we've done to him the last 2-3 years," said Howson. "We've pushed him higher than really he should have been pushed. He played with Rick a lot and faced all the top checkers and all the top defensemen pairings. So this should benefit Derek, he gets to play a bit lower in the lineup and still play with good players. We'll see where he takes off from here."
7. Vermette can play anywhere
Remember that big Antoine Vermette-for-Pascal Leclaire trade? It's kind of fizzled on both ends, but Columbus still got the better end of it. Vermette is, perhaps, not a big offensive star but at least a dependable two-way player who can play wing or center on all top three lines.
"He's versatile," said Howson. "He'll go anywhere we ask him to, from center to wing, and from right wing to left wing, high in the lineup to maybe lower in the lineup, if that's what we need that night. And he's good on the PK and great on faceoffs. So he's just going to be an important member of helping us win. He's going to fit at different places during the year, but he's a big fit certainly on our top nine and probably our top six."
8. Underappreciated Prospal finds a new home
Have playmaking hands; will travel. Prospal has been a productive player in all his NHL stops, and now the veteran forward sets up shop in Columbus.
When winger Kristian Huselius tore his pectoral muscle in July, Howson didn't hesitate to react and sign Prospal.
"Vinny gives us some protection there," said Howson. "He's a top-six guy; he gets points. He's a real energetic and happy guy. He's an enthusiastic guy and I think that little intangible will really help our room. He's got this almost childish excitement about the game of hockey and he hasn't lost it."
9. Umberger commits long-term
Talented two-way winger R.J. Umberger could have tested the UFA waters next summer but instead signed a five-year extension worth $23 million during training camp. The signing was Umberger's way of giving his stamp of approval to Howson's offseason moves and the future of the team.
"I would love, hopefully, to play the rest of my career here," Umberger told the Columbus Dispatch. "I'm expecting a lot of great things here in the next six years, nothing like the past. That's why I wanted to sign here, because the guys who are signed here long-term are a great group."
10. Pressure on the GM
Few believe Howson can survive in his job if the Jackets don't make the playoffs. There is huge pressure on the GM this season, especially after pushing the payroll up to just under $60 million, fifth highest in the West.
"You try and put that stuff out of your mind. You can't work in this job fearful and worrying about that stuff. It's hard enough," said Howson. "You have to put your best foot forward every day and really think about what's best for the team. That's where my focus is."
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
Experience: Entering second NHL season
Stanley Cup titles: 0
• Scott Arniel enters his second year behind the Jackets' bench. With a deeper lineup at his disposal, he can do more things with the lineup. He's also learned a lot after one year coaching in the NHL.
"I think he's going to be a little more settled, a little more comfortable," said Howson. "There is a learning curve. He did a good job last year. I think he's learned a lot. He's got a great connection with our players; our players really believe in him, and I think that's the most important part." -- Pierre LeBrun
Best bet: Jeff Carter
Carter scored at least 33 goals in each of his past three seasons (maxing out at 46) and is always among the league leaders in shots on goal. Perhaps the biggest factor to Carter's success as a Blue Jacket will be Rick Nash's adaptability. Carter does not have playmaking skills equal to his shooting and Nash has always shouldered the load as the man responsible for putting the puck in the net. If Nash can translate his on-ice vision to that of a playmaker in addition to pure scorer, Carter could exceed expectations. -- Sean Allen
Risky pick: Steve Mason
This season is make-or-break for Mason and Jackets GM Scott Howson. All-World on some nights, but In-His-Own-World some others, Mason obviously lacks the kind of consistency required for steady activation on a fantasy roster. However, once you've got your top two spots nailed down, he's worth a flier to see if he can find that most elusive of qualities -- consistency. -- Tim Kavanagh
Sleeper pick: Grant Clitsome
In a limited amount of NHL games, Grant Clitsome has made a lovely impression thus far, especially on special teams. Set to earn a fair amount of minutes with the Blue Jackets' second power-play unit, Clitsome will add to the 10 points he netted with the extra skater through only 31 games last season. -- Victoria Matiash
Who's On The Move
The offseason signings/acquisitions and departures for the Blue Jackets:
• June 10: Re-signed D Grant Clitsome.
• June 20: Named Todd Richards assistant coach.
• June 23: Acquired C Jeff Carter from Philadelphia for RW Jakub Voracek and Columbus' first- and third-round picks in 2011.
• June 30: Acquired rights to D James Wisniewski from Montreal for 2012 seventh-round pick.
• July 1: Signed D James Wisniewski, G Mark Dekanich and G Curtis Sanford.
• July 4: Signed LW Alexander Giroux.
• July 5: Signed D Aaron Johnson.
• July 5: Re-signed D Marc Methot.
• July 6: Signed D Radek Martinek.
• July 22: Signed C Vinny Prospal.
• Aug. 31: Re-signed D Fedor Tyutin.
• RW Jakub Voracek (traded to Philadelphia)
• LW Scottie Upshall (unrestricted free agent, signed by Florida)
• D Jan Hejda (unrestricted free agent, signed by Colorado)
• D Mike Commodore (contract bought out, signed with Detroit)
• G Mathieu Garon (unrestricted free agent, signed by Tampa Bay)
• C Kyle Wilson (unrestricted free agent, signed by Nashville)
• LW Nikita Filatov (traded to Ottawa)
• D Sami Lepisto (unrestricted free agent, signed by Chicago)
• C Andrew Murray (unrestricted free agent, signed by San Jose)
• LW Ethan Moreau (unrestricted free agent, signed by Los Angeles)
• RW Chris Clark (unrestricted free agent)
• D Anton Stralman (unrestricted free agent)
• D Craig Rivet (unrestricted free agent)