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Tuesday, July 30, 2002
Updated: July 31, 1:46 PM ET
Emerging from a sophomore slump

By Graham Hays
ESPN.com

Few 22-win teams have ever enjoyed as much support or suffered such stinging tragedy.

Off the ice, the Blue Jackets remained a smash hit in Ohio's capital city. The team sold out all 41 home games and enters the 2002-03 season with a streak of 56 consecutive sellouts.

It's a good thing many of those fans are still learning the nuances of NHL hockey, because the team gave its supporters little to cheer on the ice. After surprising everyone with 71 points in their inaugural season -- more than the Islanders, Canadiens, Panthers, Thrashers, Lightning, Mighty Ducks and Wild -- Dave King's Blue Jackets suffered through a collective sophomore slump, finishing with the worst record in the Western Conference and the fewest goals in the league.

2001-02 by the numbers
Record:
22-47-8-5, 57 points
(29th overall, 15th West, 5th Central)

Goals for:
164/2.00 (30th overall)
Goals against:
255/3.07 (28th overall)
Differential:
-91 (29th overall)
20-goal scorers:
Ray Whitney (21), Mike Sillinger (20)
50-point scorers:
Whitney (61)
While Ray Whitney, limited by injuries after arriving midway through the team's first season, returned to form with 21 goals and 40 assists in 67 games, Columbus' offense wasn't able to repeat its initial modest success. With Geoff Sanderson able to contribute only 11 goals in 42 games, the Blue Jackets slumped from 190 goals to 164, the league's fewest since Tampa Bay netted 151 in 1997-98. Without any offense to help keep the puck out of its own end, a patchwork defense crumbled in front of Ron Tugnutt and Marc Denis, allowing 22 more goals than the previous season.

The slide in the standings was disappointing, but it's not as if Blue Jackets management felt it had assembled a playoff contender. To its credit, the front office has shown a willingness to deal productive-yet-limited veterans for youth in each of its first two seasons. Last season, that meant dealing defenseman Lyle Odelein to playoff-bound Chicago for Jaroslav Spacek.

But more than anything else, last season will long be remembered for the tragic death of 13-year-old Brittanie Cecil, who was struck in the head by a puck at Nationwide Arena on March 16. As a result of the incident, all NHL arenas will now employ netting above the glass to protect those in the stands.

Looking at next season
More goals are needed from the forward lines, but the team appears set on building from the back. Gone are Odelein, Mattias Timander and Jamie Pushor. In their place are Spacek, Luke Richardson and Scott Lachance. The latter two represent general manager Doug MacLean's first major foray into free agency. Neither player is going to earn Norris Trophy consideration, but both are rugged defenders capable of playing major minutes for almost any team in the league. For the Blue Jackets, they'll each be paired with young, offensive-minded talents.

Despite having retired following a 15-game stint with Boston last season, Gord Murphy is an equally valuable addition. Hired as an assistant coach, Murphy will run the defense. Having him around should allow Richardson and Lachance to focus as much on playing as on tutoring their less-experienced teammates. Rounding out the group, Jean-Luc Grand Pierre should benefit from no longer shuttling between forward and defense, and Jamie Allison is back after a spending the season's final weeks adjusting to the move from Calgary to Columbus.

MacLean has voiced an interest in adding another forward through free agency, but two keys to improving the team's offensive production are already in place with Sanderson and rookie Rick Nash. Sanderson's injury-plagued season deprived Columbus of its only 30-goal scorer. Full seasons from both Sanderson and Whitney would give King the one-two punch he's been without since Steve Heinze was dealt to Buffalo in the spring of 2001. With Sanderson, Espen Knutsen and a mid-level free agent supporting the first line of Whitney, Mike Sillinger and Grant Marshall, Columbus should have enough offense to avoid more records for futility. One concern is Knutsen's psyche. Much like Marian Hossa after the Bryan Berard incident, Knutsen wasn't the same player after Cecil's death. The player whose shot was deflected into the stands that night in March, he was understandably shaken by the event.

Nash is expected to start the season on the third line with Tyler Wright and David Vyborny. The team is hoping he'll make as seamless a transition to the NHL game as Atlanta rookies Ilya Kovalchuk and Dany Heatley made last season. Nash still needs to fill out his 6-foot-3 frame, but he may already be the most talented forward on the team's roster.

As with any young franchise, depth is a constant concern. Adding Don MacLean, who led the American Hockey League with 87 points last season, and European imports Lasse Pirjeta and Ivan Tkachenko should help from a points perspective. Veteran returnees Sean Pronger, Kevin Dineen (62 PIM in 59 games) and Jody Shelley (206 PIM in 51 games) provide reliable fourth-line options.

Marc Denis played in a career-high 42 games last season, and there's every reason to think he'll hit 50 in 2002-03. After two seasons of invaluable service, veteran Ron Tugnutt was dealt to Dallas, clearing the way for Denis to assume full-time duties. With 2001 first-round pick Pascal Leclaire waiting in the wings, this season should play a significant role in determining Denis' future with the organization. The 25-year-old Quebec native was sharp early last season, posting a 2.68 GAA and .915 save percentage before the All-Star break, but he slumped to a 3.97 GAA and .864 save percentage in the second half. Unless the team adds a quality veteran backup, Denis will have to show improved endurance.

Columbus is headed in the right direction, but it's too early to expect miracles. The defense should be much improved, both in its own end and as part of the attack, and that's good news for the inexperienced Denis. Unfortunately, the team's forwards still look distinctly like an expansion club's forwards. And until Nash, Leclaire and other prospects reach the NHL and make an impact, Doug MacLean is unlikely to shell out the kind of money it takes to land top-tier free agents. A return to 70-point territory would qualify as a major success for the Blue Jackets, and with no professional competition from the NFL or NBA, it would be enough to keep Nationwide Arena full for another year.