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Season 7 Preview - Columbus Blue Jackets Written by habsfan93 - September 5th, 2010

One year after winning the CMHL Stanley Cup, the Blue Jackets found themselves this spring without a trip to the Cup Finals for the first time in 5 years, as they lost in seven games to the Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference Semi-Finals. A lot was expected of this team. Although they considerably changed the team nucleus following the Cup win in an effort to stay within the league salary cap and maintain the future competitiveness of the team, the Blue Jackets nevertheless posted a 55-20-7 record, good for 2nd place in the West and a fifth straight Central Division title. With that kind of regular season performance, the Jackets looked to be in good position to become the first two-time Cup winners in league history, and a fairly easy first round defeat of the Vancouver Canucks had them well on their way. But in the semi-finals, they ran into a resilient Los Angeles Kings team that, against most predictions, pulled off a 7-game upset of the Phoenix Coyotes in the quarter-finals. The Jackets took the Kings to 7, but in the end, the Kings had lady luck on their side, and they knocked off the Jackets prior to the Cup Finals for the first time in Blue Jackets franchise history. It was a sad moment for the team, but I only see the light - this team is still a dynasty, a premiere franchise in the CMHL. You can't win every year, but you can sure as hell try and I guarantee you we will be back in the spotlight in no time!

Columbus Blue Jackets
Season 6: 55-20-7 (2nd in West, 1st in Central)
GM: habsfan93 (7th  year in Columbus and in CMHL)

Currently Projected Season 7 Roster:
(Incoming Players in Bold, Rookies in Italics)

Zetterberg - Bergeron - Stewart
Fleischmann - Brassard - Voracek
Talbot - Potulny - Korpikoski
Sheppard - Thompson - Crombeen

Keith - Beauchemin
Liles - Ehrhoff
Russell - Fraser


What They Did In The Off-Season:

The Jackets had several players heading into Unrestricted Free Agency this summer, and they kicked things off by telling most of them that they would not be offered contracts to come back. Nicklas Lidstrom, Saku Koivu, Cristobal Huet and Dominic Moore were all unceremoniously let go, while Brian Gionta was resigned, but then promptly traded to the Penguins for center Andy McDonald, who was set to replace Saku Koivu as the team's top center. But in a surprise move, the Jackets sent Pavel Datsyuk to the Canucks in exchange for young franchise center Patrice Bergeron, making McDonald expendable. He was eventually shipped to the Canadiens for a group of prospects.

The Jackets also dumped top winger Marian Gaborik to the Stars for a pair of first-round picks. All in all, of last year's top 6 scorers for the Blue Jackets, only Henrik Zetterberg remains. With nearly the rest of the entire team facing restricted free agency, the Jackets saw an opportunity to set themselves up for several years in a good salary cap situation. Youngster Jakub Voracek was signed to an entry-level deal, and will be handed a 2nd line role with expectations of replacing the offense that was provided by Marian Gaborik. If he has a rookie season similar to last year's season by Derick Brassard, the club will be very happy. Chris Stewart and Tomas Fleischmann played 3rd/4th line roles on the team last year, but the club believes that they are ready to step it up, and expectations are they could both have 60-80 points seasons.

In a salary cap system, teams win by producing young, cheap star players, and that is exactly the approach that Columbus is taking. Several other rookies will be given an opportunity to fill out the 3rd/4th line roles including Ryan Potulny, Lauri Korpikoski, James Sheppard and BJ Crombeen. Crombeen was expected to start the year in the minors, but a contract dispute between the team and Rostislav Olesz does not appear to be near a resolution. Rumours around Columbus' head offices are that the Jackets are willing to let Olesz sit out the year if he doesn't accept their contract offer.

While there were a lot of changes in the forwards group, the back end is a model of durability for the Jackets, as the top 4 defencemen return from last year, all with fresh contracts in hand. Duncan Keith was well rewarded and he will be expected to step up his level of play in a big way. Beauchemin, Liles and Ehrhoff will all be handed more responsability as well in the wake of Lidstrom's departure, and all are expected to thrive. Kris Russell, who was expected to make the team last year but lost his spot to the now departed Matt Carkner, is being given another chance and all expectations are he intends to stick around this year. Mark Fraser was signed to an entry-level deal and is expected to replace Carkner's physicality on the blueline.

In goal, Henrik Lundqvist was rewarded with one of the richest goalie contracts in CMHL history, and rightfully so. In all three seasons since he made his debut, he has been a Vezina finalist. He is among the league's most steady goalies, and he once again will be manning the pipes for Columbus. With Cristobal Huet's release, all eyes were on Tuukka Rask, an ICHF Vezina Trophy finalist, to step up and be the backup in Columbus. In fact, many around the league, including his agent, felt that Rask was good enough to step into a starting role immediately. Columbus wasn't convinced yet, and held out on salary a little too long as the Toronto Maple Leafs stepped up with an offer sheet that was too rich for the Jackets' blood. So Rask was shipped to Toronto, in exchange for a series of draft picks including another first-rounder next summer. Without a backup goalie, the Blue Jackets dipped into the free agency market, and scooped up Chris Mason on a three-year deal. Mason put up impressive numbers last year on one of the league's worst teams in 44 games played, and while he won't see that much ice-time in Columbus, the opportunity to win a Cup was worth the reduction in playing time in his eyes. The Jackets feel that Mason will provide solid support to Lundqvist for the next several years, while they develop the large number of goalie prospects in the system.

Finally, the Jackets were busy at the draft adding 14 new prospects to the system, including two first-round picks in Emerson Etem and Evgeny Kuznetsov. All in all, the Jackets continue to have one of the deepest development systems in the CMHL, and don't look to be slowing down as they now have 4 first-round picks for next summer's draft acquired in the Gaborik and Rask transactions.

Biggest Issue Facing The Team:

No question, the biggest issue facing the team is the relative inexperience of the forwards group. With 5 rookies being given full-time roles, and sophomores Fleischmann and Stewart being counted on for career-making seasons, there is a lot that could go wrong. After missing the Cup Finals, it appears that the Jackets may have realized that they might need to develop the system a little bit for a year or two before making another true run at things. But GM habsfan93 has never been one to accept defeat, and its very likely that he will not sit down and watch his team lose games. With 5 straight Central Division titles in hand, all beliefs are that he is not willing to give that streak up. If the offense doesn't click, there could be a major shuffle in Columbus.

Player To Watch:

Chris Stewart - After putting up only 10 points in Season 6, Stewart is an early front-runner for most improved player in the CMHL. He has been working hard all summer, and team brass believes he can hit the 80-point mark in Season 7 on a line with Bergeron and Zetterberg. Stewart has always been known to be a bit undisciplined though, and he will need to keep himself out of the penalty box to do it. If things go well, Stewart will be a household name by the end of the season.

Season 6 Outlook:

Columbus is synonomous with success in this league, but Season 7 may be their biggest challenge yet. All expectations are that GM habsfan93 won't settle for anything but another division win though, so be wary of the Blue Jackets. Anything less would be a dissapointment.

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