Blue Jackets General Manager Scott Howson has had a very busy off-season so far. He has made a big splash on both the free agent market and the trade front. Rick Nash finally has some legitimate linemates to play with, and Nash has shown what he can do with good linemates while playing internationally. It is put up or shut up time for the potential 50-goal scorer.
Nash combines his size with a nearly unparalleled skill level. His goal against Phoenix last year was one of the best goals of the past decade in the NHL. What he still lacks is the consistency night-in and night-out. He has flourished at the international tournaments, which generally last a couple of weeks. Nash never really clicked with Nikolai Zherdev, who the Jackets traded away to bolster the defence.
Incoming RJ Umberger is a very versatile playmaker that will fit very well with Nash, either at center or on the right side. Prospect Derick Brassard is the one to watch, though. His skill level is through the roof, and word is the Jackets want to use him a lot next year. He is a natural center who will be a big time point-producer, but Columbus may be conservative with him. After Umberger and Brassard, Kristian Huselius is one to watch. He was a great signing and is an incredibly gifted player. He played left wing in Calgary, but the Jackets will slide him over to the right side to play with Nash – at least temporarily. He will put up 70 points regardless where he slots in.
On the back end, the Jackets are much improved. Fedor Tyutin is a very solid, steady top-four defenseman. Mike Commodore got overpaid, but he is pretty solid and brings a much-needed physical element to the back end. The Jackets are hoping to replace Ron Hainsey’s offence with Christian Backman and Commodore (?). Backman is very skilled, but is also soft and weak defensively. He is overpaid, but again may fit if the Jackets use him right. Hitchcock is a very good coach; so don’t underestimate his impact on the new defensemen.
This team is on the way up. Kris Russell is the young guy to watch here. He outshone third overall pick Cam Barker in junior, and is one of the smartest prospect to come up in a long time. He is small, but never gets hit because he is so sound fundamentally. Russell is fast and small, but he is more of a two-way guy than a pure offensive threat. Hopefully the Jackets give him an opportunity to play some big minutes – he will definitely surprise if so.
The Jackets will be much improved. Does that mean playoffs? Possibly, not in the tough West there are no guarantees (after Detroit and Dallas). Brassard, Huselius, and Jakub Voracek will inject some needed “sting” into the Jackets offence. Their overhauled defence is much deeper, and they have solid role players. Pascal Leclaire is for real; he is a very strong technical goalie. So can captain Nash carry this team to their first playoff birth?