Last season was typical of many previous seasons for two different teams. The Columbus Blue Jackets had another sub par year in which expectations were not met. Their record was 33 wins 49 losses. The Devils on the other hand had another spectacular season in which they reached the playoffs. Their overall record was the opposite - 49 wins 33 losses. While it is still early on in the 2007-08 season it seems the two teams have done a role reversal.
Last season the Columbus Blue Jackets found themselves stuck in a rut. Their defense was dismal their offense could not get the puck into the offensive zone and of course injuries were ever present. Superstar Rick Nash was not producing. Sergei Federov barely showed signs of being a former all-star. Bryan Berard was hurt all season and Nikolai Zherdev was nowhere close to reaching his potential. Things were so bad that they fired their coach and brought in Ken Hitchcock. As the season came to an end some positive signs started to show, but it was too late.
This season Coach Hitchcock has the Blue Jackets turned around.
While it is early in the season, it's obvious that Rick Nash is on a tear. This former first overall pick has re-found his scoring touch that he had as a sophomore, with seven goals in eight games. His big frame and quick hands are a huge plus and he is not afraid to crash the net and work hard for his goals.
While he did score 27 goals last season it was a major disappointment for fantasy owners. Many were expecting Nash to put up huge numbers (40-plus goals). This season when it came time for fantasy drafts, Nash’s value dropped. As you may know, good left wingers tend to be a hard commodity to find. When a player like Nash has a disappointing season, it only makes things more difficult. This season’s turnaround has to get fantasy owners excited. If Nash keeps it up he could easily lead the NHL in goals scored.
While Nash is doing well, his success is not the only thing that changed for the Blue Jackets. Throughout his career, Coach Hitchcock has been known to play a defensive style hockey game. Hitchcock has been very successful and his teams have done well with this. Players are held accountable for playing a team defense and are rewarded for hard work. This season, Hitchcock has his team committed to his style and it's working. Goalie Pascale Leclaire already has three shutouts. On top of that, the Jackets' special teams have been very strong, currently leading the league in penalty kill percentage (92.1%) - quite a difference from last season (PK - 81.2%). Their strong defense generates a counter-attack style of approach that catches the opponent off-guard and out of position, thus frequently drawing penalties in their favor. While Columbus is in a tough division, watch this team as they continue to turn heads.
While Columbus has people looking at them, the Devils have people looking away from them. Things for New Jersey have not gone so well. It doesn't help that they began the campaign with nine road games as their new arena is nearing an end of construction.
Besides new coaching yet again this season, the Devils face new challenges. One of their biggest problems has been the inability to get their star players, Patrick Elias and Brian Gionta, to produce. Elias is already minus-5. Their penalty kill is the worst in the NHL (67.6%).
Historically, the Devils played a defense-minded style of hockey similar to Ken Hitchcock’s approach in which their great defense generated their scoring opportunities. The departure of their star defensemen (Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer and Brian Rafalski ) over the past few seasons has been irreplaceable. At the same time, Elias’s overall numbers have declined. If the Devils do not start playing defense first, expect Elias and Gionta to continue to struggle.
It's difficult to imagine the two trends continuing, but for the time being it looks as if the two cities have swapped teams.