About a third of the way through the 2012-13 National Hockey League season, the sad fortunes of the Columbus Blue Jackets seemed to be right on schedule.
The Jackets entered the lockout-shortened 48-game season without superstar Rick Nash following a preseason trade to the New York Rangers.
So, the season began and looked exactly how the Jackets, who are yet to record a win in a playoff game in franchise history, were expected to look. They limped to a 5-12-2 start, with little offense and putrid goaltending from starter Steve Mason.
However, something just clicked Feb. 26 against the Dallas Stars, when an overtime loss kick-started a run of 13 consecutive games with at least one point. It was at this time that Sergei Bobrovsky became the starting goalie, a spot he kept for remainder of the season, aside from one game. Bobrovsky sparkled once he was given the reigns, emerging as one of the league’s most dominant goalies. He was generally credited with carrying the Blue Jackets in the second half of the season, a feat that won him the Vezina Trophy for the league’s best goaltender after the season.
At the conclusion of the season, the Jackets were still without a playoff victory, as they finished one point short of making the playoffs in the Western Conference. Still, a very young roster that finished the season 19-5-5 in their last 29 games gave the players, front office and fans reasons to smile looking forward.
It will be nearly that same roster that takes the ice to open the season Oct. 4, with hopes of making a second playoff appearance in franchise history. A change from last season is the teams the Jackets will play. With the NHL’s realignment before the 2013-2014 season, the Blue Jackets find themselves in the Eastern Conference’s Metropolitan Division, along with the Washington Capitals, Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins and Carolina Hurricanes.
The Jackets’ strength will once again be at preventing the puck from going through their own net. They are led by Bobrovsky, who is looking to prove that he is the real deal with a repeat campaign. Defenseman is by far Columbus’ deepest position, featuring quality players like Jack Johnson, James Wisniewski, Fedor Tyutin and Dalton Prout. They also expect the debut of Ryan Murray, considered one of the NHL’s top prospects, at some point in the year.
While getting the puck into the opponent’s net is not going to come easy this season, the Jackets do have some young, talented goal scorers, including Cam Atkinson, Ryan Johansen and Matt Calvert, as well as the two centers acquired in the Nash trade from the Rangers, Artem Anisimov and Brandon Dubinsky.
However, this Jackets roster lacked a dangerous, experienced scorer, so they acquired two of them. Marian Gaborik, a three-time All-Star, was acquired at the trade deadline in a stunning move last season. Then, in an equally shocking deal, Nathan Horton, a right wing from the Stanley Cup runner-up Boston Bruins, agreed to a seven-year contract over the summer. While Horton is out until December because of a shoulder injury, he and Gaborik should form a very dangerous duo to take some of the offensive pressure off the young squad.
The Blue Jackets’ fate this season will start and end with Bobrovsky’s performance in front of the net. One fear I have with him is the strains of an 82-game season. Last year, Bobrovsky played in every game down the stretch, something he won’t be able to handle over a full season. His backup, Curtis McElhinney, has not started more than one NHL game since the 2010-2011 season. If Bobrovsky can stay healthy and effective, this could be a dangerous team. The roster is nearly the same as the one that took the NHL by storm last season, with only 40-year-olds Vinny Prospal and Adrian Aucoin gone. Though those two provided invaluable leadership last season, the roster comes into this year another year older, with clubhouse and in-game leaders such as Johnson, Dubinsky, Jared Boll and Ohio State alumnus R.J. Umberger emerging. A full season of Gaborik and the impact of Horton could give the Jackets just enough offense to win a lot of close games.
The future is looking bright in downtown Columbus, and that elusive playoff win should be coming in the near future.