President of Hockey Operations John Davidson filled the vacant GM spot with highly respected Finn Jarmo Kekalainen, and something began to click with the hardworking on-ice product. Beginning with a 2-1 OT win over Colorado on March 3, the Jackets closed out the final 27 games of the season with a scorching 19-5-3 record, including an 8-1-0 run in their last nine.
Despite the torrid finish Columbus missed out on a postseason spot when they lost out on a tiebreaker with the Minnesota Wild, who also finished with 55 points.
Netminder Sergei Bobrovsky came into his own, giving a sometimes faceless franchise an identity that had been sorely lacking since the departure of Rick Nash.
The head of steam that has been building over the last six months for the Blue Jackets would get a big boost if Bobrovsky’s stellar play continues, while Marian Gaborik and Nathan Horton should help a traditionally offensively-challenged attack.
Columbus’ total of 115 goals last season was 25th-overall in the league. Despite not re-signing leading scorer Vinny Prospal, this could be the best offensive attack the club has ever possessed. Gaborik gives the club a true game-breaking presence, and Horton – who is slated to return from offseason shoulder surgery sometime around the New Year – has notched 20-goals or more in six different years. The pair has had injury issues in the past, but join an ever-improving cast that includes R.J. Umberger, Mark Letestu, Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky, Nick Foligno, as well as youngsters Ryan Johansen, Cam Atkinson, Matt Calvert, Michael Chaput, and Boone Jenner
Three to watch:
Following abdominal surgery and entering the final year of a contract that pays him $7.5 million, big things are expected from Gaborik in the upcoming campaign. He’s hit the 40-goal mark three times and reached the 30-goal plateau on seven separate occasions, and should be a dynamic offensive spark. Gaborik posted three goals, eight points, and a +5 rating in the 12 contests after being acquired by Columbus at the trade deadline.
There are no doubts regarding Horton's ability to score, only if he can stay healthy enough to contribute. He's proven himself to be valuable at crunch time, playing integral parts in both the Bruins' 2011 Cup win and their run to the Final in an eventual six-game loss to the Blackhawks this past June. At 28, Horton is entering what is traditionally considered to be the prime years of his career. Inked for the next seven years at an annual cap hit of $5.3 million, the Blue Jackets had better hope that ends up being the case.
The defensively-sound Dubinsky has emerged as one of the team leaders and could also be key in the offensive scheme of things in Columbus this year. He formed chemistry with linemates Atkinson and Calvert late last season, and has been centering an extremely productive line with Gaborik and Jenner in the exhibition season. Even though he managed just two goals in 29 games last year, Dubinsky is a two-time 20+ NHL goal scorer.
Despite the lack of presence of big name defenders, Columbus’ game plan has always revolved around keeping the puck out of their own net. With steady performers in Jack Johnson and James Wisniewski, and the likely addition of 2012 second-overall pick Ryan Murray, the blue line is looking pretty good. Murray scored an OT game-winning goal against Pittsburgh in the first preseason contest, and didn’t look out of place while paired with Wisniewski during the exhibition season. Averaging just under 25 minutes per contest last year, Johnson is the unit’s anchor. Dalton Prout returned ahead of schedule following abdominal surgery and should be good to go, and Nikita Nikitin returned after suffering a bruised foot earlier in the preseason. Solid Fedor Tyutin also lends a steady veteran presence.
Two to watch:
With four years remaining on his six-year contract, Wisniewski is hoping for better luck health-wise this year. “Wiz” missed a good portion of both of the last two campaigns with a broken ankle, broken foot, and a pair of concussions. He’s been one of the offensive forces from the blue line and would help a struggling power play unit. Wisniewski has been one of the team leaders and young defensive partner Murray could stand to benefit from the experience of playing with the 29-year-old.
Murray just turned 20 at the end of September and is in a battle with Ilari Melart, Cody Goloubef, and David Savard for the final roster openings. He showed both flashes of brilliance and rookie mistakes in the preseason, but still appeared to have an inside track at having a spot on the opening night Blue Jackets' roster. The mobile blue liner was hoping to stick last season but sustained an injury while skating with the WHL's Everett Silvertips, requiring surgery in January which coincided with the end of the NHL lockout.
Bobrovsky finished the year with a 21-11-6 record and picked up an important piece of hardware at season’s end. The 25-year-old Russian, bolstered by a 10-3-0 mark down the stretch in which he allowed two goals or less the entire way, took home the Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goaltender. All eyes will be on Bobrovsky this year to see how he handles the pressures of a being an NHL starter over the course of a full 82-game regular season schedule. If all goes according to plan, Bobrovsky should see the lion's share of work for the year.
Curtis McElhinney, who has seen mostly AHL work over the past two seasons, will serve as Bobrovsky's backup. McElhinney is close to returning from a preseason injury, but if he's not ready on opening night either Mike McKenna or Jeremy Smith would serve as Bobrovsky's backup to begin the year.
The Blue Jackets’ 28th-ranked power play was one of club's the major shortcomings in 2012-13, and may have cost the team a spot in the postseason. This is an area that's likely to improve greatly over a full season with the likes of Gaborik and Horton up front and Johnson and Wisniewski on the points. Expect a lot more offensive creativity from the unit, and a much better success rate.
The penalty killing unit fared much better last season, holding opponents off the board on 82.6% of their man advantages. Behind Bobrovsky, a lunch pail crew of defensively-sound forwards, and a hard-working defensive corps, this unit should once again thrive in the upcoming campaign.
Having changed conferences due to realignment and playing in the Metropolitan Division, the Blue Jackets find themselves with a whole new set of rivals. Columbus’ grind-it-out style should bode well in their new surroundings, especially since they now have a couple of bona-fide snipers in Gaborik and Horton that can change the complexion of a game in a hurry. The biggest question marks surrounding the duo center around if they can remain healthy through the rigors of the regular season.
Many have wondered if Bobrovsky can keep up the level of play exhibited last year over the course of a full NHL season. He remains the key piece to Todd Richards’ puzzle, and another outstanding campaign from Bobrovsky is a must for the Jackets to succeed. Having to face Philadelphia Flyers, new division foes and the team that gave up on him in order to placate the since-departed Ilya Bryzgalov, should bring added incentive for the Vezina winner. As if anything further was necessary to act as a catalyst.
The infusion of several youngsters into the mix and Horton's addition midway through the campaign should provide the club with a tremendous amount of momentum -- and added offensive output -- with which to build for a successful season.
A second postseason berth in team history -- and the first since 2009 -- appears to definitely be in the cards this year in central Ohio.
David Strehle is the Philadelphia Correspondent for The Fourth Period.