Jeff Carter

2011-2012 season preview: Columbus Blue Jackets

2010-2011 record: 34-35-13, 81 points; 5th in Central, 13th in West

Playoffs: Did not qualify

After another last-place finish in the Central Division and losing a ton of money last season, the Blue Jackets management knew they needed to do something to shake things up this offseason. Mission accomplished. They went out and acquired a bona fide top-line center in Jeff Carter and signed pending unrestricted free agent James Wisniewski to help bring points and mobility from the back-end. The good news is that there’s much more buzz around the team than your average 13th-place team. The bad news, of course, is that they were the 13th-place team in the West last season.

Offense

Offense should be the strength in Ohio’s capital this season. Jeff Carter joining Rick Nash gives the Blue Jackets one of the best pure scoring duos in the entire league. In fact, over the last four seasons, Carter and Nash are among the league leaders in goals (5th and 6th respectively). Any right wing the team chooses to put on the top line with the pair should instantly become one of the more feared lines in the league.

It’s not just the top line either. The center situation in Columbus is better than ever with the Carter addition, Derick Brassard possibly making the permanent move to center, and Ryan Johansen making the jump to the NHL. Youngsters Matt Calvert and Cam Atkinson will join veterans Kristian Huselius, Antoine Vermette, and R.J. Umberger to give the Blue Jackets some decent forward depth this season.

Defense

The Blue Jackets think they answered their defensive questions for the next few seasons by bringing in James Wisniewski and Radek Martinek to man the blue line. They also were able to sign Marc Methot to a four-year extension in the offseason to keep the puck out of their own net as well. As long as the Jackets understand that Wisniewski is not a shutdown defenseman and put him in the position to succeed as an offensive blueliner, they should be happy with what he brings to the table. They haven’t had an offensive blueliner with Wisniewski’s skill set to take care of the point on the power play in a while — maybe ever; Wisniewski will join Grant Clitsome to create offense. The major question at this point is whether the stay-at-home defensemen will be able to hold their own throughout the season. Methot and Fedor Tyutin will be key to the Blue Jackets success.

Goalies

This is the biggest question mark in Columbus — maybe the biggest question mark in the entire Central Division. Steve Mason was once again handed the keys to the car this offseason. With Mathieu Garon leaving town via free agency, it’s the former Calder Trophy winning goaltenders team to lead. Since the Blue Jackets went out and signed unproven Mark Dekanich to a one-way contract as their back-up, it’s clear that it is Mason’s job to lose.

Everyone will be happy in Columbus if Mason can rediscover the form that showed he was a legit No. 1 goaltender in the league. His 2.29 goals against average is almost a full goal lower than his 3.02 goals against average he’s posted in the two seasons since. Simply put: the difference between the 2008-09 goaltender and the last two years, is the difference between a team fighting for a playoff spot and one fighting for a top draft pick.

Coaching

Scott Arniel wasn’t the most successful guy in his first season with the Blue Jackets, but most around the team will tell you that it wasn’t his fault. He’s been able to get the team to buy into his system and play hard on a nightly basis. The problem was that last season the team simply didn’t have the talent or consistent goaltending to win on a nightly basis. As most people will tell you: a coach is only as good as the players he has on the ice. With the high-profile acquisitions and increased expectations, Arniel must find a way to put more wins on the board.

Breakout candidate

The boom-or-bust candidate is unquestionably Johansen. The No. 4 overall pick has made the team out of training camp and will be in the lineup on opening night. The coaching staff has also said that Johansen’s training camp is ongoing and they haven’t closed to door to sending him back to the Portland Winterhawks (WHL) for another season in juniors. If he sticks with the big club, he could push for a role on a scoring line before the end of the season. He’s a big, rangy center with spectacular vision that has impressed just about everyone who has seen him play. With the talent the Blue Jackets should have on the wing this season, Johansen could be racking up the points in no time.

Best-case scenario

If everything falls right for the Blue Jackets, they could fight for a playoff spot. Carter and Nash will have to prove their styles can work together (both shoot a ton) and Wisniewski will have to prove that he can be responsible on both ends of the ice while playing big time minutes. If the newcomers produce to the level management expects and Mason can find the game he’s lost the last two seasons, the Blue Jackets will have a shot at one of the final playoff spots.

Reality

The Blue Jackets have a lot of questions they need to answer before we can call them playoff contenders. Martinek needs to figure out a way to be health, Brassard needs to take advantage of the opportunity as second-line center, and Clitsome and Methot need to prove that they can be top-four defensemen for an entire season. Even if all of those questions are answered, the season still will hinge on Mason’s ability to stop the puck. If he can’t, there is no safety net to speak of. Those are a lot of questions for a team playing in one of the most difficult divisions in the NHL. They should do better than last season, but the playoffs still look like they could be out of reach.

Kucherov won’t report to Bolts until he’s signed

TAMPA, FL - APRIL 16: Nikita Kucherov #86 of the Tampa Bay Lightning is checked by Danny DeKeyser #65 of the Detroit Red Wings in front of Petr Mrazek #34 in Game One of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Amalie Arena on April 16, 2015 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)
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Nikita Kucherov will not report to Tampa Bay Lightning training camp until he’s signed. The 23-year-old winger is not currently under contract, though as a restricted free agent he is partially under club control.

From the Tampa Bay Times, which confirmed through GM Steve Yzerman that Kucherov would not be reporting:

Kucherov, the team’s leading scorer last season, could warrant $6 million or more annually. And that makes it difficult for the Lightning, which has between $5-5.5 million of cap space remaining, per CapFriendly.com. It begs the question whether Tampa Bay may need to make another move to create room. With the season opening two weeks from today, no deal appears imminent.

Yzerman said earlier in the month that he can get Kucherov signed without making a trade, but as mentioned, no deal has been reached yet.

Kucherov is one of a handful of high-profile RFAs who remain unsigned as the regular season approaches. The others are Johnny Gaudreau, Rasmus Ristolainen, Jacob Trouba, Hampus Lindholm, Rickard Rakell, and Tobias Rieder, the latter of whom requested a trade yesterday.

Trouba has also requested a trade.

Related: Ristolainen, still without a contract, makes ‘good will’ gesture towards Sabres

Another — yes, another — blow for Dallas as Janmark spotted on crutches

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 22: Mattias Janmark #13 of the Dallas Stars looks on against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the game at Consol Energy Center on October 22, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images)
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This has been a forgettable month for the Stars.

To say the least.

Having already lost Tyler Seguin (heel), Cody Eakin (knee) and Ales Hemsky (groin) to injury — and Valeri Nichushkin to the KHL — Dallas could now be without versatile Swedish forward Mattias Janmark, who was spotted on crutches Thursday at the club’s practice facility.

Janmark missed Wednesday’s game against Colorado, and was held out of today’s training session.

After surprising onlookers by making the Stars out of camp last year — a “great story,” according to GM Jim Nill — Janmark, 23, went on to have a pretty successful rookie campaign, scoring 15 goals and 29 points in 73 games.

He also fared well in the playoffs, with five points in 12 contests.

If there’s a silver lining to any of this, it’s that Dallas has arguably the NHL’s deepest forward group. Even with Seguin, Eakin, Hemsky, Nichushkin and Janmark out of action, the Stars can still roll the likes of Jamie Benn, Jason Spezza, Patrick Sharp and Jiri Hudler, and still have one of the league’s premier point producers on defense in John Klingberg.

That said, the team really can’t afford any more guys getting hurt.

Ristolainen, still without a contract, makes ‘good will’ gesture towards Sabres

BUFFALO, NY - JANUARY 22: Rasmus Ristolainen #55 of the Buffalo Sabres makes a pass during the game against the Detroit Red Wings on January 22, 2016 at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Tom Brenner/Getty Images)
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Rasmus Ristolainen doesn’t have a contract yet, and he’s not particularly close to getting one either.

But the Sabres defenseman, a restricted free agent, doesn’t want to burn any bridges, so he arrived at KeyBank Center on Thursday as a “good will” gesture, reports The Buffalo News. He’ll practice with his teammates, head coach Dan Bylsma confirmed.

“Everyone knows how dedicated he is to his training, and he wanted to continue to build on the gains he made this summer,” Ristolainen’s agent, Mike Liut, wrote in an email to the News. “In the end, this made sense to him, at least in the short term.”

The eighth overall pick in the 2013 draft, Ristolainen had nine goals and 32 assists in 82 games for the Sabres last season.

“I still trust that we will make that contract happen,” Ristolainen told reporters a couple of weeks ago at the World Cup in Toronto, where he was representing Finland. “I like Buffalo. I want to be there as long as I can and I feel they feel the same way about me. I trust it’s going to be taken care of.”

Related: Rieder’s agent thinks trade from Coyotes is best for both parties

Wild to play Coyle at RW, likely on top line with Parise and Staal

Minnesota Wild center Charlie Coyle, right, controls the puck against Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith during the first period of Game 1 in the second round of the NHL Stanley Cup hockey playoffs in Chicago, Friday, May 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
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It’s been the ongoing storyline over Charlie Coyle‘s four years in Minnesota — center, or wing?

This year, it’ll be the latter.

At least to start.

Head coach Bruce Boudreau confirmed Coyle will begin the year playing at right wing, potentially on the club’s top line next to Zach Parise and Eric Staal.

“I think I’m built more for that game,” Coyle said, per the Star-Tribune. “Long-term, I think they like me at center, I don’t know. It doesn’t matter to me, but it is nice to be able to consistently play one place and not go back and forth.

“Mentally, once you play one place, you feel more comfortable.”

Coyle has played center quite often, most notably during the ’14-15 campaign when he finished third on the team in faceoffs taken (behind Mikko Koivu and Mikael Granlund). And while it’s obvious he’d be able to impact the game more playing down the middle rather than outside, Coyle’s attributes on the wing are hard to pass up.

Specifically, his ability to find the back of the net.

Coyle scored a career-high 21 goals last year, many of them coming while playing RW. For a Wild team that isn’t all that dynamic offensively, such production is hard to pass up.

What’s more, the Wild do have options down the middle.

Staal and Koivu are there, as is Mikael Granlund. Erik Haula‘s proven to be a quality 3C or 4C, and Coyle could always flip back to center in a pinch.

Putting Coyle on the wing would also give Boudreau more balance among his forward group. Granlund — who, like Coyle, is also versatile enough to play wing — could move to the left side on the Koivu-Jason Zucker line, which would give Minnesota a nice third unite comprised of Haula, Nino Niederreiter and Jason Pominville.