Last season, no team surprised me more than the Columbus Blue Jackets. They had brought in a new GM, and while I liked the moves he was making, I saw them more as good moves for the future. I mean, they traded away Rick Nash, the one player from Columbus most people can recognize. Their goaltending was a question mark. Did I see some improvement? Sure, but not enough for them to even sniff the playoffs. Instead, they finished ninth in the West, only missing out on the eighth seed due to tiebreakers. They had a plus-1 goal differential, better than Minnesota, who made the playoffs. This was a major turnaround, but will they sustain it this season?
There is one major reason to be particularly skeptical, and that is the situation in net. Sergei Bobrovsky was outstanding last season. He posted a .932 save percentage and won the Vezina, and rightfully so. This wasn't a team that scored much, but Bobrovsky almost carried them into the postseason. His numbers are going to fall. The question is, how far? He is only 24, although he turns 25 in September, but his career SV% is only .917. That's buoyed largely by last season, too. Before that, he wasn't nearly as good. I'm not saying Bobrovsky won't be good. In fact, what I am saying is that he will be good, but good isn't great, and it doesn't win Vezinas.
So, they will need to score more, and that is where a couple key additions come into play. First, there is Marion Gaborik, who they traded for last season. He is a very good player who had an off season. I expect some degree of rebound in Columbus, making him the likely driving force of this offense. They also added Nathan Horton in free agency. Perhaps his deal is a bit too large, but he is a big, skilled forward who, when healthy, has put up good numbers. Maybe other former Rangers such as Artem Anisimov and Brandon Dubinsky will help. They also have young forwards like Ryan Johansen who may take steps forward. Regardless, they probably won't need to rely on the aging Vinny Prospal as much.
Their defense has some talent to it as well. Tim Erixon should be able to contribute. James Wisniewski is still around, as is Jack Johnson. They have some young players too, of course, as this is a team with a lot of young players.
Columbus intrigues me, but I can't quite put my finger on them. The Jackets are now in the Eastern Conference, playing in the Metropolitan Division. That means competing with teams like the Penguins and Rangers, which is, admittedly, not all that different than competing with teams like the Blackhawks and Red Wings. Will their GM be willing to sacrifice their carefully set up future to try and win now? This team has some talent on offense and on defense, and young players can always surprise. The real question is Bobrovsky, and that is a question that is hard to answer. In the end, I don't know if I see the Jackets making the playoffs, but I do think they will be in the race. Maybe they will be the final team out once more. Hey, it's better than being awful.