NHL 2014-15 preview: Columbus Blue Jackets

Johansen was a breakout player for the Blue Jackets last season. (Jay LaPrete/AP)

Counting down the final 30 days to puck drop on the 2014-15 NHL season, Sportsnet previews all 30 NHL teams in reverse order of how we believe they will finish the regular season.

A dozen reporters and analysts from Sportsnet’s hockey brain trust — Doug MacLean, John Shannon, Chris Johnston, Damien Cox, Mark Spector, et al. — submitted a list ranking all the teams in order of how they think the NHL season will shake out. We crunched the numbers and will be unveiling our consensus standings prediction from worst to first.

Columbus is our 13th-ranked team.

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Columbus Blue Jackets
Division: Metropolitan
2013-14 finish: 43-32-7, 93 points, 14th overall; lost six-game series to Penguins in Round 1
Leading scorer: Ryan Johansen (63 points)
General manager: Jarmo Kekalainen
Head coach: Todd Richards
Captain: Vacant
Opening night starter: Sergei Bobrovsky
Key acquisitions: Scott Hartnell, Jerry D’Amigo, Simon Hjalmarsson, Brian Gibbons
Key departures: R.J. Umberger, Nikita Nikitin, Nick Schultz, Derek MacKenzie, Blake Comeau, Jack Skille, Matt Frattin
Off-season grade: B-. The ugly standoff between Ryan Johansen and the Blue Jackets has stolen headlines and soured what was looking like a pretty good summer in Columbus. But it’s important to remember that these type of negotiations happen annually, although usually less public, and most are resolved by the time season starts. Johansen should be no different. Outside of the Johansen sideshow, the Blue Jackets were one of the quietest teams this off-season — and that’s a good thing. GM Jarmo Kekalainen steered clear of overspending on the open market while also moving out or letting go a number of UFAs, replacing them with cheaper players on two-way deals. But the team’s greatest victory was trading R.J. Umberger to the Flyers for Scott Hartnell, a boon by both addition and subtraction. Umberger was one of the team’s worst possession players on a bad deal and requested a trade out of Columbus, yet somehow he was parlayed into Hartnell – a superior player on a similar deal who will make the Blue Jackets better.

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Greatest strength: Size and depth up front. The Jackets established themselves as a young, tough team on the rise in the wide-open Eastern Conference last season, and a big reason for that is their forward depth – particularly down the middle. Columbus can roll three lines that feature a combination of skill, size and grit, anchored by centres Ryan Johansen (6-foot-3), Brandon Dubinsky (6-foot-2) and Artem Anisimov (6-foot-4). They are flanked by big-bodied wingers in Hartnell, Nathan Horton, Nick Foligno and Boone Jenner, while Matt Calvert and Cam Atkinson, arguably the team’s most skilled forward, play above their weight class. It appears more help is on the way as well, with top prospects Alexander Wennberg and Kerby Rychel expected to get a good look in training camp.

Greatest weakness: Jack Johnson Question marks on defence. There’s a lot to like about the Blue Jackets defence, but if anything is going to hold them back from reaching their potential, it’s the blue line. For starters, Jack Johnson simply isn’t good enough for the role he was tasked with last season. The 27-year-old played 24 minutes a game against tough competition and with unfavourable zone starts, which resulted in poor possession numbers and a team-worst minus-7. The Jackets will also rely on a trio of youngsters – David Savard, Tim Erixon and Dalton Prout – to round out the bottom pair, which could come with its share of growing pains. Fortunately for the Jackets, they have a legitimate stud in James Wisniewski, a quality veteran in Fedor Tyutin and an emerging star in Ryan Murray. But a prolonged injury to Wisniewski, who’s battled injuries throughout his career, or regression from 2013 Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky could pose trouble for ‘Lumbus.

Biggest story to watch: Can Columbus take the next step forward. The Blue Jackets returned to the playoffs last season for the first time since 2009, and there’s no reason they shouldn’t be there again in 2014. They will need Johansen to return sooner than later and Horton’s back issues remain a concern, but for the first time in a long time there’s reason for legitimate optimism in Columbus. The extent of that optimism, however, will be hitched to the development of The Ryans. If you look at the best teams in the NHL, there’s a common thread that ties them together: an elite No. 1 centre and an elite No. 1 defenceman. Yes, that’s a simplified formula for success, but it’s a lot easier to build a Stanley Cup winner with those two pieces in place. The Blue Jackets don’t have those pieces in place yet, but they might have the in house. Ryan Johansen had a breakout campaign in 2013-14 with 33 goals (fourth among NHL centres), 63 points and an impressive 52.8 faceoff percentage as a 21-year-old. Can the fourth overall pick in 2010 improve on those totals, or was last season an aberration? Ryan Murray, on the other hand, is still ways away from reaching star status, but the second overall pick in 2013 certainly has the tools and the pedigree to reach those heights at some point. If both players live up to their potential, it won’t be long before the Blue Jackets are considered Cup contenders.

2014-15 prediction: Columbus will finish in the top three in the Metropolitan Division and make a surprising run in the playoffs.

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