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Tuesday, August 3, 2004
Blue Jackets have reason to believe

By Scott Burnside
Special to ESPN.com

Doug MacLean
MacLean
The Columbus Blue Jackets are like the kid that prepares like crazy for all his exams but sleeps in, misses the bus or can't remember where the test is being held.

For a fourth straight year, the new kids on the NHL block appeared to have taken the necessary steps to move beyond the "expansion" label and perhaps challenge for their first playoff berth only to see those plans implode.

The Blue Jackets acquired Stanley Cup-winning defenseman Darryl Sydor in what appeared to be a winner of a deal involving Dallas and Phoenix. They signed Todd Marchant, an Edmonton dressing room favorite coming off a career-best 60-point effort with the Oilers.

But as they have since a surprising 71-point turn in their first season, the Blue Jackets were beset by underachievement from top players, questionable coaching and just plain bad luck as they finished with 62 points, their worst showing yet.

A collection of top defensemen went down with serious injuries seemingly at the exact same moment early in the season. Veteran leaders Andrew Cassels and Geoff Sanderson both slumped. And the team failed to respond to sometimes acid-tongued Doug MacLean, who'd assumed both the general manager and coaching duties the previous season when he fired the Blue Jackets' first coach, Dave King.

MacLean fell on the coaching sword in late December, and interim coach (and fellow Prince Edward Islander) Gerard Gallant subsequently was named full-time coach by MacLean at the draft in June.

Once again, the Blue Jackets look to a new season with reason to believe that this will be their time. MacLean brought in ex-Carolina Hurricane Arturs Irbe to push young workhorse Marc Denis in net, and the team still boasts some of the best young talent in the game. Rick Nash finished tied for the league lead in goals as a sophomore with 41, and flashy Nikolai Zherdev had 34 points in 57 games after coming to Columbus under a veil of secrecy midway through the season.

The Blue Jackets are well stocked with potential, but given the restlessness of some of the game's best fans, the time for potential is past.

MacLean spoke recently with ESPN.com about the struggle to get the Blue Jackets out of the blocks and into the playoffs.

ESPN.com: How would you assess your team's performance last season?
MacLean:
I think we went in with the idea that the playoffs were a possibility, especially after the Marchant signing and the Sydor trade. We felt pretty good about our whole group. We're on an unbelievable high to start the season, a 3-1 start, and then boom. In the space of about a week, we lost (Jaroslav) Spacek, (Duvie) Westcott, (Rostislav) Klesla and (Luke) Richardson. That's four of our top five defensemen. It devastated our team. It really affected our team and our confidence level.

Then you couple that with a subpar performance by some of our offensive guys, Sanderson, Cassels up front. It affected us as well. Sanderson was coming off a 34-goal season, and he had only four goals in December. And Cassels was coming off 68 points. It's no coincidence that the two played together for a lot of the season. I think the two were connected, the injuries on defense and the lack of scoring up front. Sandy missed all of training camp with a shoulder injury, and Cassels broke his ankle and missed a month.

These are not excuses. They're facts. There were so many positive things. Marchant didn't bring the points that we'd expected, but he's a solid two-way player and he helped the development of Nash, which I'd hoped he would do. And Zherdev. He had an unbelievable second half. The emergence of Aaron Johnson. Klesla didn't take the step I'd wanted, but injuries affected that. Vyborny with a third straight great season. Marc Denis continued to show improvement.

As tough as it was at the time, the Sydor trade could go down as a great deal for us, with (Alexander) Svitov being a 6-foot-4 potential power forward. Irbe is unbelievably keen. He's on a mission to reestablish himself. When we made the deal, Kevin Dineen said we'd just acquired the hardest-working Blue Jacket.

Marc Denis? He's 26, and he needs to be challenged more. Playing time will be dictated by performance. And I think they're both going to be challenged by Pascal LeClaire. The Suchy deal we did not consider minor but the hockey world ignored.

It's been pretty well documented we have the best young hockey talent in the league. Now it's up to the guys we've brought in. If they can't do it, then I have to change them.

ESPN.com: How about the decision to stick with Gallant as your head coach?
MacLean:
I interviewed all of the possible candidates. And they were all more polished and more experienced, but I wasn't convinced they were better coaches and I wasn't convinced that Gerard's up side wasn't better than all of them. I really felt comfortable with him. He knows what we're up against as a franchise. That coupled with the addition of Dean Blais from North Dakota as an assistant. That really made it happen. And with Gord Murphy, I think it's a great fit.


ESPN.com: Which player took the biggest strides in your estimation, had the biggest impact on your team?
MacLean:
I think it was obviously Nash. He's got to become a better all-around player now. We had 28 one-goal losses last year, which included four or five empty-net goals at the end. He's prepared to take a step forward to becoming a more all-around guy. I'm not worried about his being a leader right now. He's such a character kid, and he's so well liked in our dressing room. That'll evolve.


ESPN.com: Which player needs to bounce back or take the biggest step forward if there is hockey?
MacLean:
I would anticipate there are six or seven guys who are not happy with their season who are anticipating having better seasons. The veteran guys, of course, Spacek, Cassels, Richardson, Sanderson, (Tyler) Wright. Sanderson's got to get back. He had a bad year and still had 16 goals. Richardson's got to get back to being a nasty player. And Marc Denis, too. Why did Nashville take a step forward? Tomas Vokoun was a big part of that.

With all of our injuries, 213 man-games lost, it's hard to sometimes do a proper evaluation. But I think all of them are capable of being better. I think the guy we certainly need is Cassels because he's such a talented playmaker guy. He helps a lot of other guys' point production.

Richardson and Lachance have to have better years. Richardson lost two months. And in fairness to Spacek and Richardson, we played them way too much when they came back. To be fair to Sydor, that was the problem, too. Suchy will pick up some real good minutes there.


ESPN.com: Who is the top player in your system ready to play in the NHL right now?
MacLean:
Dan Fritsche, Tim Jackman and Aaron Johnson and our first pick in the draft, Alexandre Picard, have a chance to make our hockey team. Picard is obviously a long shot. But they think he's got a shot to take after Bergeron, who is his best friend. Picard's said, if he can do it, so can I. We're hoping Picard is going to walk in and make our team. So I want to keep that flexibility.


ESPN.com: What is the top priority in improving the organization?
MacLean:
We need a 50-goal swing. Obviously our goals-for was low because of the loss of key guys' production. I think it's a challenge, but I think the potential is certainly there. Zherdev would have been a runaway rookie of the year leader if he'd been here all year. Who knows what he's going to be for us as a right-hander on a struggling power play? I think there's great potential there. The goals against, we've got to play a more complete game.


ESPN.com: What was your favorite moment from last season?
MacLean:
Nash would really be the highlight for me. Just watching him emerge, and it came from Game 1. The way he handled the challenge of being the leading scorer in the league from coast to coast.


ESPN.com: Least favorite moment?
MacLean:
It was a seven-day period where we lost the four defensemen.


ESPN.com: What activity, destination or hobby will take you furthest from hockey this offseason?
MacLean:
I've got some time at my cottage in Canada. I love boating. Prince Edward Island. It's great to be up there. There's not much time for that, but it's better than working.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.