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THE CURTAIN IS ABOUT TO RISE

It has been 162 days since the end of that amazing, infuriating, disappointing, but ultimately elevating Game 4 against Detroit in the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The sight of 19,000+ fans standing for the entire third period . . .the incredible roar seemingly coming from all directions at once . . . the anger and determination in the eyes of Peca, Commodore and Umberger in the locker room afterwards. Those images stick with anyone present at Nationwide Arena on that evening, whether on or off the ice.

A lot was accomplished, and even more was learned, during that frenetic dash to the playoffs in March and the all-too-brief four game playoff appearance. The team found another level of effort during that Game 4, and appeared to grasp a communal understanding of what was needed for playoff hockey. At the same time, Columbus fans found a new level of passion and commitment that knocked the assembled media and NHL officials for a loop.

That Game 4 was a galvanizing experience for Blue Jackets hockey. When you listen to Hitchcock talk, he clearly learned something by that experience – and this is a man who has hoisted Lord Stanley’s Cup. His philosophy hasn’t changed, but there are some tweaks, some enhancements, a little bit of flash in the game. The players are speaking with one voice about the system and the talent. GM Scott Howson has been decisive and targeted, both in filling specific holes (Pahlsson, Garon, Stralman), and in securing his existing talent (Nash, Brassard, Vermette). For the first time in memory, the Blue Jackets had some really talented players in camp who couldn’t make the team.

Now that the rehearsals are over, and opening night is at hand, it is time to look at what has been added, what is missing, and what it will take to keep the show playing into June.

First, the new. Sammi Pahlsson was brought in to anchor the checking line and fill the shoes of Manny Malhotra, who was unable to reach terms with the club and was allowed to explore free agency. He brings the type of solid skating, puck handling, grit and responsibility that both Hitchcock and Howson seek. While there may be some dropoff in faceoffs from Malhotra, one of the league’s best in the circle, the Jackets are counting on Vermette, Murray, Blunden and Brassard to make up for any shortfall.

Even more significant for the organization is the addition of Mathieu Garon to provide much-needed backup for Calder Trophy winner Steve Mason. Although AHL veteran Dan LaCosta played well in two critical games down the stretch, he did not command the trust of the organization, nor did regular backup Wade Dubielewicz. Hitchcock unabashedly rode young Mason all the way to the playoffs, even through a significant bout of mononucleosis. This ultimately showed in young Mason’s performance down the stretch, which was heady but not up to his lofty standards. With one exception, Garon played extremely well in the pre-season, and should provide the cushion needed to keep Mason fresh for the entire season.

Michael Blunden was added to compete for the 4th line center slot and provide depth at wing. Most recently, Scott Howson crafted a trade with Calgary to bring young defenseman Anton Stralman into the fold. This was a typical Howson move, bringing in a player who flew under the radar for many, but fits the specific profile of the player the team lacked – a defenseman with a right handed-shot, good size, a heavy shot from the point, and good skating and puck moving ability. Calgary fans were not pleased with this trade, which saw a 3rd round draft pick head north, as Stralman had an excellent camp. In Columbus, Stralman will help the much-maligned power play, and will add some much needed shooting credibility at the blue line. With Fedor Tyutin and Kris Russell, all of the anticipated pairings will now have a legitimate offensive threat from the defensive corps.

The final new components are the full-time debut of highly-touted winger Nikita Filatov, the club’s first round pick in 2008, and a healthy Derick Brassard. In his eight game NHL audition last year, Filatov notched four goals, including a hat trick. He added some heft to his wiry frame over the summer, and impressed Hitchock with his commitment to the defensive end of the ice in camp. Though the coach would never admit it in public, the young Russian’s shooting and passing abilities are eyebrow-raising. He and R.J. Umberger will likely alternate second and third line duties, depending upon the opponents and the matchups. In the meantime, Brassard has demonstrated the deftness with the puck that made him the leading Calder Trophy candidate last year, until a shoulder injury sidelined him for the year at the 31 game mark. He will provide Nash and Huselius with the true #1 center they have lacked, making that a very scary line.

What is missing? Not a lot, if the truth be told. Malhotra was the most visible departure, due both to his faceoff prowess and his popularity with the fan base. However, he was a fish out of water much of the year, attempting to center the top line with a skill set more attuned to the third or fourth line. While capable of some slick plays, he more often missed the mark on open opportunities. Ole-Kristian Tollefsen took some physical play with him, but was a true liability with the puck, and lacked the quickness necessary to adequately defend his own zone. Michael Peca’s leadership in the room will likely be missed, but retirement looms for Peca, who was a game competitor to the end, but ultimately no longer has the skills to compete at the NHL level on a consistent basis. Winger Jason Williams was allowed to sign with the dreaded Red Wings, a move that perplexed many in the Blue Jacket fan base. Williams brought a sniper’s shot to both the even strength game and the power play, and was a key contributor down the stretch. A healthy Raffi Torres will be slotted to fill that gap.

These targeted changes, combined with another year of experience for the likes of Nash, Russell, Umberger, Torres and others, have led to a more all-encompassing change, at least if pre-season is any indicator. In past seasons, the Jackets have been primarily a three-player offensive club. The defense manned the points, tried to keep the puck in the zone, but ultimately were called upon to begin retreating if possession was even debatable. Without a right hand shot, or a real power shooter at the point, the club had to rely on some fancy playmaking down low to score.

This Blue Jacket team has speed to burn – at every position. It seems that this has led Hitchcock to loosen the reins a bit, allowing the defense to penetrate and become a more integral part of the offense. This, of course, is a recipe that the Red Wings have used with success for ages, and Hitchcock candidly admitted having some skull sessions among the Canadian Olympic coaches (led by the Red Wings’ Mike Babcock). The result has been a dramatic increase in the number of shots the Jackets have been able to put on goal, and a corresponding increase in the minutes of possession in the offensive zone. This should bode well for a significant boost in offensive production, which last year was in the bottom third of the league. It will also take heat off of the defense and goaltending, which already were well within the top half of the league last season.

In the murderously competitive Western Conference, and particularly the Central Division, which will again threaten to place 4 or 5 teams in the post-season, these changes are essential. The one Achilles’ Heel shared by many teams in the West is goaltending. On the more seasoned end of the spectrum, Luongo had a shaky start against Calgary, and merits watching. Turco needs to re-discover his game in Dallas, and Kiprusoff needs to improve his consistency. Khabibulin, Osgood and Huet will provide many grey hairs to their respective coaching staffs and fans. On the other end, Mason (St. Louis), Rinne (Nashville) and Hiller (Anaheim) must show that the flashes of brilliance they displayed last year were not flukes. Sure, Steve Mason needs to do the same for Columbus, but with Garon backstopping him, the Blue Jackets have among the best tandems in the West.

For the Jackets to reprise their playoff debut, they will need to remain healthy. While they have tons of young depth, they lack a lot of veteran leadership. Klesla, Commodore and Hejda will need to be solid in their own zone, allowing Russell, Tyutin and Stralman to work some offensive magic. With more trusted depth and experience on the blue line, this should be feasible, as the extreme minutes the Commodore/Hejda pairing were called upon to provide will ease off this year.

Similarly, the young studs must contribute. Filatov, Brassard, Voracek, Umberger will be called upon to produce, and the betting line is that they will do just that. The Jackets can trot out three lines capable of putting some big numbers on the board, and likely have the biggest offensive upside potential of any team in the West. With a healthy Brassard, Nash should challenge the 50 goal and 100 point marks.

This is an Olympic year, so the teams will be coming hard out of the gate, knowing that they will have a lengthy break in February. Columbus was hurt by a rash of hip flexor pulls and flu cases that limited the time the veterans had to work together. On the positive side, they youngsters benefitted from some major minutes in the pre-season. After a home opener, Columbus embarks on a tough West Coast trip, and plays the majority of their first dozen on the road. Toughness and execution will be necessary to bring a competitive record back home. A solid October will put them in good shape later in the year. With another year of experience with the Hitchcock system, and some serious talent, the Blue Jackets should be in every game.

The curtain goes up on Saturday night against Minnesota. It promises to be a good show.

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