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NEW PLAYERS 7
After watching the Blue Jackets allow 55 more full-strength goals than they scored in 2003-04--the league's second-worst differential-- G.M. Doug MacLean knew it was time to put his foot down. Or better yet, a Foote. So when the free-agent signing period began at noon on Aug. 1, MacLean began a furious pursuit of Avalanche defenseman Adam Foote. "I knew I wanted to retool the blue line," MacLean says, "and he brought more intangibles than any free agent out there."
By midnight Foote, 34, had signed a three-year, $13.8 million contract, one of the first major deals of the postlockout era. An elite defender, Foote is coming off the two most productive scoring seasons of his career, 31 points in 2002-03 and 30 in '03-04, when he led the league with an average of 35.5 shifts per game. Landing the 13-year veteran--the Jackets beat out a half dozen other interested teams--instantly brought an element of distinction to one of the NHL's greener franchises. Says MacLean, "I think even people in Columbus were caught off guard that we were able to get him."
Foote will be joined on the blue line by another free agent, Bryan Berard, who will bolster a power play that ranked 24th in the league (14.5%) in '03-04. Columbus is gambling that an improved defense will lead to stouter goaltending from 28-year-old Marc Denis, whose 2.56 goals-against average ranked 34th among all goalies. A better offense will help too. At age 19, talented left wing Rick Nash tied for the league lead with 41 goals in '03-04. Now 21, he's stronger with the addition of 10 pounds, and he'll benefit from the new crackdown on obstruction. He and Ukrainian winger Nikolai Zherdev, 20, a 2003 first-round pick whom MacLean calls "as good a talent as I've seen in my career," may be the league's top young scoring tandem.
A grizzled defenseman and two offensive whiz kids should be enough to get the Blue Jackets to the playoffs. The improving franchise is starting to put one foot in front of the other. -- S.C.