Mitch Andrews / Lantern photographer
After starting a franchise best 14-6 throughout the first 20 games of the regular season in 2010-2011, the Blue Jackets were plagued by inconsistency on the defensive end and stumbled into last place in the Central Division and 13th in the Western Conference overall.
Following such a discouraging collapse, General Manager Scott Howson has displayed a sense of urgency and aggressiveness during the offseason. To the delight of Jackets fans, Howson has addressed what may perhaps have been the most pressing issue throughout the last five seasons: the acquisition of a surefire offensive center in Jeff Carter to play alongside perennial all-star winger Rick Nash.
Carter was an all-star in 2009, and has tallied more than 30 goals and 60 points in each of his last three seasons. Look for Carter to be a sidekick for Rick Nash for at least the next half-decade.
Carter inked a massive 11-year deal worth $58 million in 2010, and subsequently the Philadelphia Flyers mysteriously traded the 26-year old away, along with former team Captain Mike Richards to Los Angeles. Rumors amid the Flyers organization cited that the partying habits of these two offensive dynamos might have led to their shipment westward.
Crafty Quebecer Antoine Vermette, who is capable of scoring 60 points, could flank these two, but would probably be a more valuable asset as a second line center. More than likely, second-year coach Scott Arniel will mix up wingers until the right combination is found.
Another new face in Columbus this season is James Wisniewski, 27, who played his last two seasons for the Montreal Canadiens. Wisniewski is capable of playing the point on the power play, and should be teamed up with Russian Fedor Tyutin on the first pairing.
Wisniewski is a bit undersized (5-feet-11-inches, 202 pounds,) but plays with a major mean streak, and will be serving an eight-game suspension at the beginning of the season after throwing a forearm to the head of Cal Clutterbuck during a preseason game against the Minnesota Wild.
The backend of the roster looks to be improved from Howson’s moves, but is still lacking serious depth.
Another name that Blue Jackets fans should start to hear soon is Ryan Johansen, the fourth overall pick in 2010. Johansen is a raw talent, but is dynamic offensively. At 6-feet-3-inches, he has the size to create plays and has deceptive speed. Johansen, while only 19, has a chance to make an impact on the Jackets this season, especially if a center or two get injured.
The biggest question marks are, unfortunately, in the most important place. Goaltending was a serious issue last season for the Jackets, as both former rookie-sensation Steve Mason and journeyman Mathieu Garon struggled to be reliable forces between the pipes. As a result, the Jackets finished 26th in goals against average, with a disappointing 3.05. Garon is now in Tampa, and the pressure is primarily on 23-year-old Steve Mason.
Assuming that Mason can rekindle some of his puck-stopping abilities from the 2008-2009 season, don’t be surprised if the Blue Jackets try to sneak into the 7th or 8th seed and make a well-overdue appearance in the postseason.
However, if the Jackets fail to play consistent defense, look for Rick Nash and company to be dusting off the golf clubs early again this spring.