2010-2011 NHL season preview: Columbus Blue Jackets

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ricknash2.jpgLast season: (32-35-15, 79 points, 5th in Central Division,14th in Western Conference) To put it bluntly, the Blue Jackets were not good. They fired Ken Hitchcock halfway through the season and let Claude Noel ride things out the rest of the way. They were disjointed, they were bad defensively and they couldn’t score a lick. At least they scored a solid first-round draft pick out of that mess in Ryan Johansen.

Head coach: Scott Arniel takes over as coach and with that he’s going to try and bring in a puck-possession style, transitioning Columbus from a lock-down defense-first team to a team meant to keep the puck and pressure offensively. That doesn’t usually go too well as it takes time to play things out and get the players that fit the system best. Just ask the Minnesota Wild how they’re doing in the post-Lemaire era. Arniel will have his hands full negotiating through a system change. Hopefully GM Scott Howson can be patient with him through it.

Key departures: None. Seriously, they didn’t lose anyone of significance.

Key arrivals: F Ethan Moreau, F Nikita Filatov. Moreau comes over from the Oilers via waiver claim while Filatov returns from Russia after being essentially exiled by Hitchcock. The offensively-starved Blue Jackets could use a guy like Filatov breaking out and fulfilling his potential.

Under pressure: I’m going a little off the radar here and picking on Derick Brassard. When Brassard broke in, he had immediate chemistry with team leader Rick Nash. One injury later, Brassard hasn’t been the same player he appeared he was going to be and on a team that’s in desperate need of having a playmaker on the first line with Nash. Brassard’s regression (36 points and just seven goals last season) was a huge letdown. He’s making $3.2 million against the cap for the next four seasons so it’s high time he steps up and plays like a guy meant to earn that.

stevemason1.jpgProtecting the house: The Blue Jackets will again roll with Steve Mason and Mathieu Garon in goal. The 2009 Calder Trophy winner is coming off a nightmarish season, giving new meaning to the term ‘sophomore slump.’ His save percentage went from .916 in his rookie season to .901 and his goals against average went from 2.29 to 3.06 while recording only half as many shutouts (five compared to 10 the season before). While he benefited from Hitchcock’s system two years ago, he struggled behind it last season and was often left in games to take a beating. If his confidence is shaken, Mason’s struggles could resurface again. Garon is just a backup goalie at this point and if they need to fall back on him to save the team, the Jackets are in big trouble.

Defensively, this team is as weak as it gets. They lack a true shutdown defenseman, they lack a true power play quarterback offensively and while they’ve got nice role fillers they have no absolute presence here. Mike Commodore is a solid defensive defenseman and Anton Stralman has a good shot from the point, but after that things get really iffy. Jan Hejda, Kris Russell, Fedor Tyutin, and lifetime Blue Jacket Rostislav Klesla round out the pack. Marc Methot and Grant Clitsome help fill in when needed. If the team wasn’t concerned with finances they’d likely make a move for a guy like Sheldon Souray or Tomas Kaberle to improve things.

Top line we’d like to see: Let’s get creative. Filatov-Brassard-Nash. Nash has been working out some in camp at right wing so why not give him the playmaker he once had chemistry with in Brassard and a dangling potential star in Filatov and just let them run wild on the ice to see what they can create. This team desperately needs something exciting out on the ice and the slick skating of Filatov mixed with the skill and power of Nash could be a lot of fun. If Filatov isn’t your cup of tea, change it to Jakub Voracek and let them get rough and tumble out there with a wrecking ball-ish line.

Oh captain, my captain: Nash is the captain and much like Jarome Iginla in Calgary, he’s the whole show and the whole reason people want to watch their team. On a team severely lacking in offense last season, Nash still scored 33 goals to lead the team. He tries to lead by example doing everything he possibly can to help the team win and God love him, but there’s only so much a single man can do. The only thing left to wonder about this season is how many alternate captains will Nash have as his executive committee. The current Blue Jackets roster lists off six players as wearing the ‘A.’ That’s just goofy.

jaredboll1.jpgStreet fighting man: If there’s anything the Jackets have been good at over the years it’s fighting. Whether it was Jody Shelley back in the day or David Ling getting the call out of the minors to run around and be a maniac, they always had fighters going for them. Now it’s up to Jared Boll to be the one to show them the way of the fist. Last season, Boll had 21 fighting majors and with a holy terror like Derek Dorsett running around and creating havoc, Boll’s job is a tough one. Not that Dorsett has anything against dropping the gloves — he had seven fighting majors last season — but Boll is the heavyweight with Dorsett the cruiserweight.

Best-case scenario: If Brassard can regain his form and abilities with Nash, they both can have huge seasons. With Antoine Vermette, Kristian Huselius and Voracek doing their part as well. Columbus can have two solid scoring lines. The forwards play the way they look like they can and all play their roles to the max and get strong, serviceable play from the defense while Mason regains his rookie-season form, the Blue Jackets could push for a playoff spot. That’s a lot of ifs and variables, however.

Worst-case scenario: Brassard continues to struggle and Nash goes without a guy that can help set him up. Filatov and Voracek have middling seasons while guys like Vermette and R.J. Umberger check in with average seasons that seem better in comparison because the team is struggling. The defense plays as bad as advertised and Mason plays more like he did last season and the Blue Jackets are instant front-runners for the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft.

Keeping it real: With as much promise as there is with this team with guys like Voracek, Brassard and Filatov, along with a guaranteed producer like Nash, there’s reasons to be hopeful. It’s just a question of when or if it’ll be fulfilled. With the brand of hockey that Arniel wants to play, however, he doesn’t have the players in place to make that successful right away. Counting on breakout seasons for the young guys they’ve got is wishful thinking. For now, this is not a playoff team and may still end up being one of the worst in the league.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale of 1-5, with one being the worst and five being the best, the Blue Jackets are a definitive 1. They’re in no way a threat to win the Stanley Cup. They barely have a defensive unit fit to win the Calder Cup in the AHL, and their scoring depth, while loaded with all kinds of potential has to show up in a big way to clear up any kinds of doubts. Mason is coming off a terrible season that casts doubts on his ability to carry a team. Unless Arniel catches lightning in a bottle the way Joe Sacco did in Colorado last year, this team isn’t even a threat to make the playoffs.

Ducks cement Pacific lead as Getzlaf continues his mammoth March

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By the end of Sunday night, the Anaheim Ducks removed all doubt: they’re on top of the Pacific Division.

Now, it’s not the sort of substantial lead that the sliding San Jose Sharks squandered; Anaheim merely leads the Sharks and Edmonton Oilers by two standings points after beating the New York Rangers 6-3.

With everyone at 75 games played, it’s kind of nice to enjoy the clarity that comes with a clear lead (though the Sharks and Oilers will disagree):

Pacific top four (all teams with 75 games played)

1. Ducks – 93 points (38 ROW, 41 W)
2. Sharks – 91 poitns (40 ROW, 42 W)
3. Oilers – 91 points (37 ROW, 41 W)

Flames – 88 points (38 ROW, 42 W)

The Ducks are now on a four-game winning streak and managed an 8-1-1 mark in their last 10 contests.

With all due respect to Patrick Eaves‘ two goals, it’s Ryan Getzlaf who’s really playing outstanding hockey. He generated four assists in this one, giving him eight helpers in his past four games. He now has a whopping 20 points in March.

A lot going on – fight included – between Corey Perry, Brendan Smith (Video)

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If there’s one thing that’s undeniable from the clip going on, it’s that Corey Perry and Brendan Smith squeezed a lot of activity (carnage?) into a single shift.

Early on in Sunday’s New York Rangers – Anaheim Ducks game, both player delivered hits that were at least borderline dangerous. After that, they traded punches in a pretty solid fight (especially since they seemed a little tired because, again, this was a fairly elaborate sequence).

It’s way too messy a sequence to call neat, but there is something efficient about trading hits and then getting into a fight. That’s a mini-hockey feud in short order.

If you want a pretty moment to counteract all that, check out the great puck movement on this 3-on-1 goal for the Rangers:

Penguins lose to Flyers and lose another key player to injury

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PITTSBURGH — Even with a ridiculously long injured list that would be the foundation of a pretty good hockey team, the Pittsburgh Penguins still found a way to go 8-1-3 in their previous 12 games entering Sunday’s contest against the Philadelphia Flyers.

The injuries finally seemed to start catching up to them on Sunday in a 6-2 loss, extending their current losing streak to three games, matching their season long.

While the loss certainly impacts their pursuit of the top spot in the Metropolitan Division (they remain three points back of the Washington Capitals), and even their quest for home ice advantage in the first round, it is still not the worst thing to come out of Sunday’s game.

The worst thing for them would be the fact the Penguins lost yet another key player to an injury when forward Conor Sheary had to leave the game mid-way through the first period.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said after the game that Sheary is dealing with a lower body injury and that right now he is considered to be day-to-day. It was initially believed that Sheary was injured blocking a shot, but Sullivan insisted that was not the case and that it happened in the offensive zone at some point in the first period.

With Jake Guentzel still sidelined due a concussion he suffered in a recent game against the Buffalo Sabres, that means two-thirds of the team’s recently assembled top line (Sidney Crosby-Sheary-Guentzel) is now sidelined due to injury. Sheary’s injury is especially concerning given how good he has been on Crosby’s wing dating back to the 2016 playoffs. Entering play on Sunday Sheary was averaging nearly a point per game (50 points in 54 games) with almost all of that production coming at even-strength.

They had yet another scare in the third period on Sunday when defenseman Brian Dumoulin had to briefly leave the game and head to the locker room after he was elbowed in the side of the head by Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds.

On Sunday, all of the injuries finally seemed to be too much with the Flyers pretty much dominating the game over the final two periods.

The Flyers received goals from six different players (Jordan Weal, Valtteri Filppula, Dale Weise, Jakob Voracek, Radko Gudas and Shayne Gostisbehere) in the win and outshot the Penguins by a 24-15 margin over the final 40 minutes.

“That wasn’t a good effort and at this point of the season we can’t afford to have those,” said Penguins forward Matt Cullen after the game. “I don’t think that was a typical effort for us. I don’t think we had a lot of life, to be honest.”

Even more than winning games the rest of the way the biggest concern for the Penguins has to be getting their list of injured players healthy and finding a way to avoid adding to it, something that has proven to be difficult in recent weeks.

At this point, whether they win the Metropolitan Division or not, they know their path through the Eastern Conference playoffs is very likely going to have to go through both Washington and Columbus, and they are going to need their full complement of players to do it.

One of the biggest factors in winning a Stanley Cup is having all of your key players in the lineup come playoff time.

A year ago the Penguins did.

Right now they are not even close to having that.

Video: Dumoulin shakes off elbow, Sheary out day-to-day for Penguins

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Barring a major comeback, the Pittsburgh Penguins look like they’re going to lose to the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday. Their injury losses might be just as big.

On the bright side, it seems like Brian Dumoulin was able to shake off an elbow from Wayne Simmonds. You can watch the hit, which didn’t draw a penalty, in the video above.

Meanwhile, Conor Sheary has been missing since the first period with what might be a lower-body injury.

The Penguins’ list of injuries is already pretty ridiculous, so if one or both of these players miss significant time, tonight will sting deeper than a setback on the scoreboard.

Update after the Penguins’ loss: Seemingly good news, if very early and vague: