By Jacob Luft, CNNSI.com
The last time Columbus general manager Doug MacLean was with a third-year expansion franchise, it went to the Stanley Cup finals. That isn't likely to happen this year for the Blue Jackets, who appear to be a far cry from the 1995-96 Florida Panthers entering their third season.
MacLean's Panthers were four lines deep, with a dominant goaltender (John Vanbiesbrouck) as the foundation. He appears to be creating the same thing with the Blue Jackets, but in a much, much slower fashion.
So far in the building process, he has used draft picks wisely, acquiring a future goalie (Pascal Leclaire), defenseman (Rostislav Klesla) and scorer (Rick Nash). The hope is that one day that power trio will form the foundation of a perennial contender.
In the meantime, Columbus fans will have to make do with a paltry offensive attack that finished dead last in the league with 164 goals last season.
In fairness, leading scorer Geoff Sanderson was limited to 11 goals and 42 games because of injuries. A healthy Sanderson and the addition of free-agent playmaker Andrew Cassels should boost the team's scoring output this season. If the Blue Jackets can get Nash signed in time, they might even resemble a real NHL offense every once in a while.
"I think we'll make an improvement this year," Blue Jackets head coach Dave King said. "We have to show we are being a real serious threat to get into that playoff picture, because last year we weren't. Last year there were some 90-point teams that didn't make it, so you realize it's not easy. But we should start to show now that we have a solid nucleus for the future."
The fiscally sound Blue Jackets are realistic about how success will be measured this season.
"I think we have a chance to take a nice positive step with this team," MacLean said. "I'm really looking for us to score 20 more goals and to allow 30 less. That would make a big difference, and it's a real challenge for us to shoot for."
Allowing fewer goals will be up to Marc Denis, who will take over as the No. 1 netminder now that Ron Tugnutt has been traded to Dallas for a first-round pick. Denis struggled in 41 games last season (3.14 GAA), but MacLean has high hopes for him -- even if Denis is just keeping the seat warm for Leclaire.
"This is his turn to run with it," MacLean said. "It's the ideal time for him to have a breakout season. Hopefully, a better defense in front will make a difference this season, too. Ron did a good job bringing him along. It's tough for goalies to get thrown into an expansion situation. For the first two-thirds of last season, Denis was very good, but then he had a couple of tough outings from which he never recovered."
Mike Sillinger, C -- If a team with only two 20-goal scorers can have a go-to guy, Mike Sillinger might as well qualify for Columbus.
The 31-year-old journeyman (eight teams in 12 years) was second on the team with 20 goals and added 23 assists, but that's not what makes him so valuable.
"He's one of our most complete players," King said. "He is good in both ends of the rink and he's a terrific faceoff guy. We knew he was good on the penalty kill, but he was also good on power play last year. Mike is just a versatile player, though he doesn't hang his hat on any one aspect of his game."
If the Blue Jackets can find some scoring punch this season, Sillinger's efforts at the faceoff circle will be appreciated even more.
"I think a lot of people would look at him and not be overly impressed with his numbers," King said. "But he showed up so many nights to play hard for us, and even when we struggled, he was there. He had a good season from start to finish, and that's hard to do when you had a tough season like we had."
But as with most teams that struggle to score goals, they lack a physical presence who can wreak havoc in front of the opposing goalie.
"We'd like to get bigger," King said. "Tim Jackman and Lasse Pirjeta are big guys who could threaten to make the team. Jody Shelley brings that physical play, but we need more size on the first two lines. Nash could be a guy to answer that eventually, as he will become a top-line player."
Cassels (39 assists in 53 games) was a nice signing, but he's reed-like at 6-foot-1, 185 pounds. Sanderson (6-foot-0, 190) isn't much bigger, and Ray Whitney always has been a finesse player.
"We're getting there, adding size slowly, but that's always a challenge of new teams," MacLean said.
The one saving grace for this franchise has been the die-hard, loyal fan base that has produced 56 consecutive home sellouts.
"They are very loyal and patient," King said. "They have appreciated that they have a franchise and they have been there for us through tough times. All of the players coomment that they are pretty darn good to us. There are times they give us a little static, but for the most part they have been very patient."
The Blue Jackets' slow development might frustrate their fan base this season.
If they stumble to another lackluster season of sparse goal-scoring, the fans will have every reason to wonder where their money is going. Columbus had a paltry payroll of $21.5 million last season, which probably will rise to about $25 million in 2002-03.
MacLean has been a magician so far with the budget, but that strategy might fail if the fans disappear.
Nash certainly impressed MacLean, who traded up to the first overall pick in the draft to acquire him over the likes of Jay Bouwmeester and Kari Lehtonen.
The contract talks have sputtered, but if he does sign, he has a chance to get extensive playing time this season. If an agreement isn't reached, Nash will return to the London Knights of the OHL for another year of seasoning.
"We could send him back to the OHL and have him be a star, which is what I did with Klesla," MacLean said. "But then I look at a guy like Joe Thornton, who struggled for a couple of years, and now he's one of the premier forwards in the NHL.
"I don't know that there's a magic answer to whether to keep them up here at such a young age or send them back to juniors. The guys that are going to be good players become good players."
Jacob Luft is a CNNSI.com producer.