NASHVILLE – Barry Trotz knows how Todd Richards feels.
Trotz’s Nashville Predators have lost numerous notable players to trades or free agency over the years. Richards’ Columbus Blue Jackets traded away their face of the franchise, Rick Nash, last summer in an effort to get younger and deeper.
In fact, the Blue Jackets opened the 2012-13 season as the NHL’s youngest team, with an average age of 26.9. The Predators were the league’s youngest club a season ago.
In the off-season the Blue Jackets got both younger and deeper when they traded Nash to New York in exchange for forwards Artem Anisimov and Brandon Dubinsky. The former Rangers join a baby-faced crop of youngsters who are surrounded by some hardworking veterans.
“When you have a young team, it’s dealing with some of the consistency levels of the players and their thought process,” Trotz said. “You have to supplement them with older guys, and that’s what they did with a guy like Adrian Aucoin. You just have to deal with the ups and downs and let them develop.”
Consistency has always been an issue for the Blue Jackets. Outside of their one playoff berth in 2009, they’ve taken a step or two backward after taking a step forward. Frustration has mounted endlessly in Ohio’s capital.
However, Saturday’s win in Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, an annual house of horrors for the Jackets, offered a glimpse of what the future may hold for Richards’ club. Two of their off-season additions, Anisimov and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, shined Saturday in the 3-2 shootout win. Anisimov scored once in regulation and again in the shootout, while Bobrovsky turned away 32 of the 34 shots he faced.
Richards knows, though, consistency will play a big role for his team in a shortened season with so many important new faces.
“That’s going to be a big factor for us, as well as getting off on the right foot right now. You build that consistency through repetition, the coaches being able to teach. Based on the number of games, it’s going to be tough to do that,” said Richards, who expressed frustration with a limited training camp and no preseason games.
“Just looking for line combinations, power-play combinations, trying to figure out who should go where. You use exhibitions and training camp to work that out and experiment things, and we haven’t been able to do that.”
Blue Jackets players admit there is a different feel around this team than years past. For the first time since 2002, Nash didn’t go into training camp as the Jackets’ go-to scorer – he now fills that role under the bright lights of New York. Instead, the Jackets franchise is heading in a new, exciting direction.
“He was a great player here, but we’ve moved on and he’s moved on and that’s just the business side of hockey,” defenceman Jack Johnson said of Nash. “There’s definitely a different atmosphere around the rink, on the ice, in the locker room, and even away from the rink when guys get together. It’s nothing but positive. If things go wrong, we’re not going to let it bother us.”
Johnson, 26, is an integral part of the young nucleus that has high aspirations for the future. He embraced the move to Columbus from Los Angeles, as he was a part of the Jeff Carter trade last February.
“I love it. I’ve had an absolute blast in Columbus,” he said. “I wouldn’t trade my teammates for the world.”
Rookie forward Cam Atkinson is another key piece to the Blue Jackets’ future. The 23-year-old Boston College product, who had 14 points in 27 games last season, is a sleeper candidate for the Calder Trophy as his role increases in his first “full” NHL season.
Despite his 5’7” frame, all Atkinson has done throughout his young career is put up numbers. In college he was the Hobey Baker Award runner-up in 2011, and he’s been a point-per-game player in 89 career AHL games.
“I feel really comfortable. I’m familiar with all the guys; all the new guys who came in, we’ve become pretty close,” Atkinson said. “Playing with (Derick Brassard, above) and (R.J. Umberger), those guys have been in the league for a while and they’ve helped me along the way, so hopefully we’ll have some success the same way we did at the end of last season.”
Atkinson is one of many young players on a young team. Because of their recent franchise history, no one expects the Blue Jackets to be a playoff team anytime in the near future. They welcome the doubters, because they know the games aren’t decided on paper.
“We know no one is giving us a chance this year, so we’re definitely going to play with a chip on our shoulder,” Johnson said.
Predators captain Shea Weber added, “As we saw last year, it doesn’t matter how old you are as long as the team is together. They (the Blue Jackets) play like a team and they show that they’re mature and can compete at a high level.”