Updated: October 4, 2010, 7:56 PM ET
Jamie Sabau/NHLI/Getty Images Rick Nash saw this goal production drop from 40 goals in 2008-09 to 33 last season.

Blue Jackets: 10 Things You Need To Know

By Scott Burnside

The Columbus Blue Jackets are proof of how quickly the label "team on the rise" can turn into "team in disarray."

After making the playoffs for the first time in franchise history in 2009, the Blue Jackets took a significant step backward last season, finishing 14th in the Western Conference and tied for 26th overall. GM Scott Howson then hired former NHLer Scott Arniel away from Winnipeg of the AHL and only tinkered with his lineup (he brought in former Edmonton Oiler Ethan Moreau, who is coming off a couple of disappointing seasons).

Nikita Filatov, perhaps the Blue Jackets' most talented prospect, returns after self-exile in the KHL last season.

"For whatever reason, they took a big step back," rookie coach Arniel told ESPN.com recently. "It cost a coach his job. A lot of players had very disappointing seasons."

Still, he believes the pieces are in place for a bounce-back season. "We feel there's a great nucleus here," Arniel said.

1. Road woes
The Blue Jackets were a woeful 12-23-6 on the road last season, 28th in the league. Often that kind of record suggests a team is not mentally strong or is easily put off its game. Arniel will need to get his team better prepared for life away from Nationwide Arena.

2. Special teams
Strangely, special teams were an area of optimism for the Blue Jackets. After finishing dead last on the power play in 2008-09, they jumped to 14th on the man advantage last season. Meanwhile, the penalty kill continued to be respectable, down to 17th from 13th the previous season. Arniel would like both areas to be strengthened, but he's got a pretty good base from which to start. With Filatov in the house, the power play should get a boost.

3. Speaking of Nick ...
One of the interesting storylines will be the evolution of talented young winger Filatov. The sixth overall pick in 2008 played in just 13 games for the Blue Jackets last season before he was loaned out to the KHL. Filatov, 20, is hoping to turn that season of seasoning into a spot on the Blue Jackets' top two forward lines. Arniel acknowledged Filatov has some fences to mend in the dressing room. "Nothing's going to be handed to Nikita," Arniel said.

It's possible he could begin the season in Springfield with the team's AHL club. "We'll leave that up to Nikita," Arniel said.

4. Steve Mason
It would be both unfair and inaccurate to suggest the team's problems last season stemmed from goalie Steve Mason's significant drop-off in production. But there is no doubt a team as offensively challenged as the Blue Jackets needs exemplary goaltending almost every night. It was so in Mason's rookie-of-the-year campaign in 2008-09, when he posted a league-best 10 shutouts and 2.29 goals-against average that was second among all netminders.

But Mason's performance fell completely off the table last season. After turning in a bloated 3.06 GAA and tepid .901 save percentage, Mason should have learned something about humility. Now, how does the 22-year-old bounce back? The answer will affect the Blue Jackets' ability to jump back into playoff contention.

One of the issues was Mason's conditioning, which effected his consistency. He's arrived in Columbus "in tip-top shape," Arniel said. "He's motivated to get back to that position he was in a couple of years ago. He got a big taste of some humble pie."

5. The boys down the middle
If there has been a constant lament in Columbus, it's been about the lack of quality centers. It will be heard loud and clear again as the Blue Jackets try to find the kind of depth and consistency at the all-important position that has thus far eluded them. True, Antoine Vermette did yeoman service as the team's de facto No. 1 center last season, finishing second behind Rick Nash with 27 goals and 65 points.

Arniel already has penciled in that No. 1 line of Vermette, Nash and Kristian Huselius on his lineup card. But if Vermette is your No. 1 center going up against the likes of Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Jonathan Toews et al, that's pretty much a mismatch every night. No other Columbus center managed to score in double-digits.

p>6. Maturity check
There are a lot of ways to gauge whether a team is growing up or not. How about one-goal games? Gut it out in those situations to put points on the board, and that's usually a pretty good indicator of whether a team is, well, a team. The Phoenix Coyotes led the league last season with a 29-6-7 record in one-goal games. The Blue Jackets? Dead last with a 15-11-15 record in one-goal games. Enough said.

7. Scoring woes
Overall, the Blue Jackets were 20th in goals per game, but a better indication of the problems that confront Arniel is the team's 5-on-5 scoring (ranked 27th). If you're planning on scoring by committee, well, the committee better show up for the meetings.

8. About the back end ...
The Blue Jackets finished 24th in goals allowed last season, and it wasn't all Mason's fault. Arniel thinks there's room to grow for a group that has size in Mike Commodore, the underappreciated Jan Hejda and a hopefully healthy Rusty Klesla. There also is some skill with Fedor Tyutin and perhaps top young blueliner Kris Russell.

Still, a training camp knee injury to Russell sparked rumors the Blue Jackets would swap Commodore for disgruntled Edmonton defenseman Sheldon Souray. Arniel said he is especially looking to Commodore, a former Cup winner in Raleigh, to have a bounce-back season. When Russell returns, and whether Souray is in the mix, the overriding question is whether the group has the foot speed and skills to play the attack style Arniel wants to implement.

9. The captain
Just as all the goals weren't Mason's fault, all the offensive problems didn't fall at the feet of Nash. That said, the franchise player saw his point and goal production drop off significantly last season from 40 goals and 79 points in 2008-09 to 33 goals and 67 points last season. Stuff happens. Still, Nash, a member of Canada's gold-medal effort in Vancouver, remains the offensive catalyst, and that means bouncing back this season.

10. Food for thought
The Blue Jackets gave up nine short-handed goals last season. Only Minnesota (13) had more.

PREDICTION: Things won't get any better for the Blue Jackets this season; they'll finish fifth in the Central Division and near the bottom of the conference standings.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.

More From The Magazine

ESPN The Magazine's "Ice Issue" provides even more in-depth coverage of the upcoming NHL season:

• Smith: What is Gary Bettman's legacy?

• Fleming: Most beloved machine in sports

• Berra: The Red Wings' scouting edge

• Ain: Inside the life of a healthy scratch

Comments

You must be signed in to post a comment

Already have an account?

SPONSORED HEADLINES