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Room for improvement

Blue Jackets hope to make great strides in third season

Posted: Wednesday October 09, 2002 8:31 PM

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- For a team coming off the second worst record in the entire NHL, the Columbus Blue Jackets sure are hopeful.

Just a season after winning 22 games and scoring fewer goals than any team in the league, Blue Jackets owner John H. McConnell has even uttered the dreaded "p" word -- playoffs.

"Oh, Mr. Mac. I love his optimism," laughed Blue Jackets coach Dave King, entering the third and final year of his contract. "As an owner he has to think that way. All of us in our minds harbor the thought, 'Gee, wouldn't that be great.' But along with the optimism, there's some realism."

The Blue Jackets got their fill of realism a year ago. The fans, the players -- and, yes, the steel magnate owner -- all prefer to look ahead after a season of tragedies. In March, 13-year-old Brittanie Cecil died as a result of being struck by a puck that deflected off the stick of the Blue Jackets' Espen Knutsen.

While a family grieved, in its own way the team did too, playing out the rest of the season with glassy eyes and heavy hearts.

Although the Blue Jackets continue to remember that loss, they have tried to move on. Fresh faces and a new commitment have helped deaden the pain.

In June, general manager and president Doug MacLean traded up to take forward Rick Nash with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. Just 18 years old, Nash came to rookie camp and quickly asserted himself. The 6-foot-3, 188-pounder scored better than a point a game in the preseason and then signed a three-year contract that could net him eight figures over the life of the pact.

"This team has a lot of depth and a lot of character," Nash said. "I just want to learn a little bit more from the veterans every night."

Nash is the cornerstone for the future. He has been surrounded by established, blue-collar pros who can both protect and tutor him.

McConnell apologized to the fans last April and then opened up his wallet and -- along with the money thrown at Nash -- allowed MacLean to sign three free agents: defensemen Luke Richardson and Scott Lachance and center Andrew Cassels. They have rejuvenated the team, and vice versa.

"I like working with the young guys," Richardson said. "I forget I'm 33. I feel like I'm 22."

Slashing left wing Geoff Sanderson is healthy after missing most of last year. Ray Whitney returns after setting a team record for points with 61.

"We're better on paper. Now we have to be better on the ice," MacLean said. Then he warned, "We'd better be better."

Marc Denis, who interned under Patrick Roy and then Ron Tugnutt, is now the No. 1 goaltender after Tugnutt was traded to Dallas. He'll be helped by the influx of defensemen and a full season for blueliner Jaroslav Spacek, acquired late last year from Chicago for captain Lyle Odelein.

"I'm usually fighting for a spot, that's the way it's been the past five years," said Denis, just 9-24-5 with a 3.11 goals-against average last year. "First you want to be in the NHL, then you want to be the No. 1 goalie. Now I want to be here when we take the next step."

After the pall that was cast over last season, the Blue Jackets have embraced the future. Kevin Dineen, who will turn 39 shortly after the season begins, is back for his 19th and final year in the NHL.

"A lot of things point to the positive," he said, fluffing back a few gray hairs on his temple. "Yeah, the playoffs are realistic. Why can't we get hot? Why can't Marc Denis play like Jose Theodore did last year in Montreal?"

MacLean said that while the fans have been patient with the new franchise, he doesn't expect that to last forever. But he calls any talk of making the playoffs "ludicrous."

MacLean, who coached Florida to the 1996 Stanley Cup finals in the Panthers' third season, is happy with the team's progress but is trying to not set the bar too high.

"I think we've got a better team," he said. "Now it all has to come together."


 
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