Columbus Blue Jackets Preview
By Jon A. Dolezar, SI.com
Maybe now sports fans in Columbus, Ohio can stop worrying about the Maurice Clarett situation.
While the Buckeyes still reign supreme in Ohio's capital city, optimism is high for the Blue Jackets in 2003-04, especially considering the team went just 29-42-8-3 last season and finished last in the Western Conference with 69 points.
The Jackets were an impressive 20-14-5-2 at Nationwide Arena, where they boast some of the most boisterous fans in the league. However, away from home, they posted an awful 9-28-3-1 mark, essentially costing themselves a shot at a decent season.
Head coach and general manager Doug MacLean had an active offseason, signing center Todd Marchant from the Edmonton Oilers and winger Trevor Letowski from the Vancouver Canucks. The Jackets also acquired defenseman Darryl Sydor in a trade with Dallas, and they expect him to jump into their top four and upgrade their 12th-ranked power play. MacLean let leading scorer Ray Whitney leave for Detroit as a free agent, and the Jackets also lost Mike Sillinger, Jamie Allison, Matt Davidson and Matheiu Darche from last year's roster.
Goaltender Marc Denis says looking around the locker room brings a smile to his face with the amount of playoff experience the Jackets' offseason acquisitions bring to the team.
"Marchant has been in the playoffs almost every year, Sydor has won a Stanley Cup and Letowski was in Vancouver and Phoenix during successful years," Denis said. "It's important when you can go around the dressing room and you guys who have won in the past. You want to achieve the right mix of having guys like me who were here from day one that are tired of having losing seasons, having younger guys like Rick Nash and Rostislav Klesla and then bringing in the winning experience from outside. Now I think we have the right mix and it's just a matter of coming together as a team."
The Jackets can take inspiration from watching Anaheim and Minnesota go from also-rans to Western Conference finalists in one year. But with how stacked the West is again, reaching the playoffs will be a tough task.
"I wouldn't even call Anaheim and Minnesota Cinderella stories, because I think they deserved to be there," Denis said. "Minnesota proved that a good start to the season brings you a long way, and that's it's important to try to be in the top eight early in the season and to push everybody off after that. We're well aware that we're in a conference where you have some big teams like Colorado, Dallas, St. Louis and Detroit. It is a tough conference, but at the same time, I still believe those bottom three or four seeds there are up for grabs. And we want to be one of those teams."
MacLean certainly expects a lot from his team, but the 23 guys in the locker room might have more pressure on them than they know.
"I guess my goal is to win every game," MacLean said. "I don't know that that's going to happen. We'll probably miss that goal, but I'm optimistic and I really like our mix. I like our group, including the style of people we have. I just think we are going to be a much better all-around team with a lot more speed, so I think we are going to take a positive step."
A 164-point season would be an incredible accomplisment, but Columbus would probably settle for another 12-point improvement and being in the playoff hunt late in the season. The building blocks are in place to have a solid team within the next couple of years, but another year of seasoning would put the Jackets in the position to more realistically battle for a playoff spot in 2004-05.
Rick Nash, LW -- The No. 1 pick in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, Nash was impressive from the start as a rookie, scoring on opening night. He finished the season with 17 goals and 22 assists, coming in third in the Calder Trophy voting behind Barret Jackman and Henrik Zetterberg.
Nash played most frequently with Tyler Wright and Lasse Pirjeta on Columbus' third line, and the three comprised an excellent energy unit that battled hard for pucks in the corners, but also chipped in with a combined 47 goals. The trio may be split up this season as MacLean wants more offense out of Nash, but playing on a hard-working line was a good experience for him as an 18-year-old rookie after having a star-studded junior career.
"They didn't throw me on one of the top lines, but they didn't keep me out as a healthy scratch, either," Nash said. "I think Dave King and Doug were using me well, and I think it was good development for me. I couldn't think of a better team to come to for a young guy than Columbus. You aren't just going to jump in and be a star player at 18. It's tough to be a star in the NHL. I just fit in and played my role on the third line, and just kind of hit and chipped in with a goal here or there when I could."
Expected to play on one of Columbus' top two lines, Nash easily could make the leap from 17 goals to 30 in his sophomore season. He has the potential to settle in as a regular 40-goal scorer, and playing with a speedy center like Todd Marchant only will help him get more scoring chances.
The Blue Jackets are thrilled that Nash worked out so hard back home in Brampton, Ontario over the summer. More will be expected of him defensively, and there will be more of him to play defense with. Nash reported to training camp at 206 pounds after checking in last September at 188. The added size will help him get physical in the slot and continue his maturation into one of the elite power forwards in the league.
"I thought the last month of the season he was one of our better players," MacLean said. "I think he had an impressive first year, to say the least. And that's another reason I didn't bring Whitney back, because with Geoff Sanderson here, I wanted Nash to move up on that left side and become a more important piece. It's a lot to ask of a young kid, but Dany Heatley did it and Marian Gaborik did it, so there's no reason why Rick can't. He's certainly in the same category and he has the potential to be as good as those two kids."
Team speed -- Columbus took some major steps to rectify this problem, but even with its additions, it isn't among the strong points of the team. The Jackets are much more likely to win battles along the boards for the puck than they are to outrace teams for it, but the overall speed, especially among the forward group, has taken a big leap forward.
"The Marchant and Letowski additions really helped our team speed-wise," MacLean said. "I thought we lost some speed the last year in particular, and I think these guys will bring a different element as far as speed and making us more difficult of a team to play against. We'll be more tenacious and hopefully we'll be better in both ends of the rink."
Columbus' defense will get a boost with Sydor's skating ability, too, but his nimbleness only will offset the work done by some of the other plodders on the blueline.
"I believe adding Sydor on our blueline makes us a much improved team," Denis said. "The addition of guys like Marchant and Letowski up front are definitely going to improve our team speed and our team defense. What goalie wouldn't be excited about that? So entering our fourth season here, the expectations are higher."
Can Marc Denis repeat his ironman run of last season?
No, but that's by design. Denis proved last season that he is a very capable No. 1 netminder, but it was only because of having inexperienced Jean-Francois Labbe, Karl Goehring and Pascal Leclaire behind him in the system that he ended up playing 77 games.
"When you consider that he was 24 and with a third-year franchise, it was a lot to ask of him," MacLean said. "It was probably too much to ask. I thought Marc took a tremendous step and he has the potential to be even better."
MacLean brought in Fred Brathwaite in an attempt to rest Denis and hopefully raise his level of play. Denis was part of the great goaltender draft of 1995 (Martin Biron, Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Jean-Sebastien Aubin and Sebastien Charpantier were all selected), and he has the skills to raise his game to a Giguere-like level within the next year or two.
Denis' teammates were in awe of his ability to play so much.
"It was unbelievable that a guy could do that and stay healthy for that long of a time and play to that caliber," Nash said. "I maybe saw it in like bantam, but it's a little different playing three 10-minute periods at running time. It was really unbelievable what Marc did."
The 25-year-old netminder posted a 27-41-8 record with a 3.09 goals-against average and a .903 save percentage. The hope is that by playing less he will be able to raise his game to a new level, and Denis is accepting of the move to bring a veteran like Brathwaite on board to back him up for the good of the team.
"That was a move that made a lot of sense as far as I'm concerned," Denis said. "You look at Stanley Cup contenders and they all go with a No. 1 goalie who will play between 60 and 65 games. Realistically, I loved being in net for 77 games, but if you look at it, that's not the way to go. You got to go with 60 to 65 games. That's what Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy always did, and that's what most of the Stanley Cup contending teams are doing. So I'm definitely looking forward to a little bit of a different season here, maybe sacrificing quantity for a little more quality."
Denis is much more excited about the prospect of playing hockey in late April or early May than about racking up mega minutes again. After remaining on the outskirts of the playoff hunt for nearly 3/4 of the season, the Jackets faded down the stretch with a 6-16-2-1 record. The chance to play so much last season allowed Denis to prove himself as a starting netminder
"I needed to know for myself that I could be able to handle the pressure of being a No. 1 goalie in the NHL," Denis said. "It was really my first year playing a lot, becuase the two years before Tugger [Ron Tugnutt] and I kind of split time, but last year was the first time where I had to carry the ball. There were probably some other people around the NHL or even around this organiztion who needed to see that I could be able to be in there night in and night out, and it was just a great feeling."
Feeling rested and being able to play at a higher level probably will feel even better.
Nikolai Zherdev, RW, 6-1, 190 pounds
The Jackets felt pretty luck to get Zherdev with the fourth pick, after many had projected him to go first overall in the years preceding the draft. Zherdev possesses excellent hands and vision, giving him an offensive upside higher even than Eric Staal and Nathan Horton, who were selected ahead of him.
Though Zherdev currently is still in Russia and playing for HC CSKA, Columbus is hopeful of securing his release from his remaining one year committment to the Russian army. The Jackets say they could have Zherdev in the U.S. within 24 hours of securing his release, and he would immediately be inserted somewhere in their top three lines.
"I'm not sure where I'd play him, but I know I'd play him," MacLean said. "He's one of the best young players in the world. He's a terrific talent and he's been great this year in the games he's played so far. He just has unbelievable offensive instincts and I would compare him to an Ilya Kovalchuk-Stanislav Chistov combination. I would think that's where he is as a player. He's 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds right now, so he's not as big as Kovalchuk, but he's bigger than Chistov. So I think he's right in between those two somewhere. That's exciting for our future with him and Nash and Klesla and Denis, we have a real good base there."
Zherdev scored 12 goals and had 12 assists in 44 games with CSKA last year as an 18-year-old. He will likely be playing on the top line in Columbus opposite Nash within the next two years, and the duo could be a top scoring pair for many years to come.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for SI.com.