Time to drop the puck!

NHL games have been underway for a couple of days now, and the CBJs kick off their 2009-10 schedule tonight at home against Minnesota.

This season starts unlike any other in franchise history. For the first time, the overriding question entering the season is not “will the Jackets finally make the playoffs this year?” Having finally gotten that elephant off their back last year, now the Jackets shift to trying to become a consistent playoff team, and from there a legitimate contender for the Stanley Cup. It’s not going to be easy. After years of being derided for its weakness, the Central Division has emerged as possibly the strongest in the NHL. Despite people predicting for a decade that they would be going into rebuilding mode, Detroit remains perennially among the class of the league. Chicago has a strong young core of talented players and made a serious playoff run last year. St. Louis surprised a lot of people by making the playoffs, having quietly assembled a competitive young squad. Nashville is maybe seen as the team in the division going in the wrong direction, but they remain a competitive team (and they always seem to have Columbus’ number in any event). 30% of the Jackets’ games will be against Central Division opponents.

Even outside the division, it’s not going to be easy. In the past, the Jackets frequently went into other cities (especially in the East) without garnering much respect. They often faced backup goalies and were otherwise taken lightly. With the team making the playoffs in ’09, and especially with the emergence of players like Steve Mason, that’s unlikely to happen as frequently in the future. So expect more competitive games across the board.

Is this team up for the challenge? Unlike last off-season, when the roster underwent substantial changes at Scott Howson put his stamp on the team, not much has changed this off-season. Manny Malhotra, Mike Peca, Christian Backman, O-K Tollefsen have departed. Samuel Pahlsson, Mathieu Garon, and recent addition Anton Stralman have come in, along with Nikita Filatov and Mike Blunden being promoted from within. The lines are more set than they’ve been in the past. For once there’s a consensus first line center in Derick Brassard. The probable weakness remains on the back end, where the defensemen remain capable of stopping the puck, but less so of moving it up the ice with aplomb. And that leads to nagging issues with the power play, which was simply terrible last season, and nearly cost the Jackets their playoff spot. If newcomer Stralman can live up to his potential and/or if Kris Russell takes a step forward this season, the PP could be okay. But if not, it could be a lingering problem, one that will need to be addressed by trade.

Of course, even if the PP clicks, the Jackets could take a step back if Steve Mason can’t maintain his level of play from last season. Jose Theodore, our own Pascal Leclaire, and (urgh) Jim Carey all stand as goalies who had one big year and then lost their way to a lesser or greater extent. Carey Price has gone through some struggles in Montreal after a strong rookie season. But Mason showed resiliency last year by playing as well as he did through mono, without a regular goalie coach, and with a team in front of him that didn’t score a lot of goals. So hopefully it will be more of the same for Mason. And if not, in Mathieu Garon, the Jackets at last have a legit backup. So goaltending should hopefully continue to be a position of strength.

Rick Nash signing a contract extension in the off-season is huge; had he remained a potential UFA, it would have likely been a distraction throughout this year. But Nash will be entering this year set to stay in Columbus for at least a few more years, and with a more and more credible supporting cast up front. Although no team coached by Ken Hitchcock is likely to play firewagon hockey, with Nash, Brassard, Huselius, Voracek, Filatov et al, this team should be able to score some goals.

My prediction? Playoffs still aren’t a lock, but they’re probable. It may be another frantic dash to a #7 or 8 seed. It would be nice to win at least a playoff game, if not an entire series.

Of course, at this point, with a blank slate, anything is possible. Stanley Cup parade down High Street next June? Okay, probably not. But it’s good to have hockey back, and time to drop the damn puck!

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