Old Jackets Hope New Additions Pay Off
Commodore, Tyutin, Backman, Huselius, Umberger, Torres, Voracek give Jackets a new look and feel
Here's a useful tip for die hard Columbus Blue Jackets fans: have a roster handy for the first few games of the season.
These are not your old Jackets. Those massive new bodies on the back end? Fedor Tyutin, Christian Backman and Mike Commodore. The shaggy blonde-haired kid with the slick moves is rookie Jakub Voracek, known simply as "Jake." The baby-faced assassin with the yellow laces on his skates is Nikita Filatov, who may be starting the season in Syracuse, but very well could be an NHL regular sooner rather than later. And the two guys playing alongside captain Rick Nash? They're Kristian Huselius and former OSU Buckeye R.J. Umberger.
At least Rick Nash looks the same. Scruffy beard, the "C" on his chest and a confident look that says he's got a boatload of goals in him.
"There are a lot of new faces so the main thing was to jell together quickly and come together as a team," Nash says after the Jackets finished their last practice at Miami University in Oxford earlier this week. "A lot of us haven't played together.
"The teams that win are the ones that come together quickest and they're together on the ice and off the ice. So far everything's been great."
The changes have been out of necessity. Not in the sense that Columbus needed to clean house. The core of this team, with players like Nash, Pascal Leclaire, Jan Hejda and Rostislav Klesla, is sound. They proved that last year in battling most of the season for one of the prized Western Conference playoff spots. But after coming up short, GM Scott Howson went to work and spent a busy summer retooling this team so they're better prepared for battle in the West. The subsequent roster transformation has the players and the coaching staff excited.
For head coach Ken Hitchcock, he sees improvement in two crucial areas: defense and depth.
"Those two areas have made us a better hockey team," says Hitchcock.
"When our team was roster full, we could compete with anybody but when we lost a couple of players, we went down quite significantly. We've addressed that issue now. We've got more depth here and we've got more depth in Syracuse. It gives us a chance to be better because we can handle some of the adversity that goes on with injuries and missing guys."
The new-look Jackets' defense has a nice blend of size and skill. The play of this unit will be paramount to any success for Columbus, both in terms of moving the puck up the ice and keeping it out of Lecalire's net. Leclaire had his best season as a professional, posting 24 wins with nine shutouts and an outstanding 2.25 goals against average.
Scoring has been one of the main problem for the Jackets, especially last season when they averaged 2.32 goals per game, ranking them 29 of 30 teams in the NHL. The offense will need to improvement but so will other areas of the game that handcuffed Columbus last season despite its impressive play.
"We weren't very good in extra time games, we weren't very good four-on-four, which led us to losses and we weren't very good in the shootout," says Hitchcock. "So those points are going to be more valuable than they have ever been."
Even with that list of shortcomings, Columbus was definitely a different team than it had been in the past. Newcomer Commodore saw it first hand when he lined up against the Jackets last year, which factored into his decision to come to Ohio.
"I think the team can win," says Commodore, a member of the 2006 Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes and a member of the 2004 Cup finalist Calgary Flames. "I thought that last year when I played this team.
"The team is quick. They work hard. Last year, I just thought they were very hard to play against. That's one of the most important things about being a winner, you can't be easy to play against."
Commodore sees some similar qualities with the organization and the two clubs that he went to the Finals with. First, each had solid management and great coaching staffs. The players are tight and care for each other. And in each of the two seasons that he went to the Finals, neither team was really given a chance when the season got underway.
"I've been fortunate," the veteran D-man says. "I've been part of a couple of good runs and I want to continue doing that."
With training camp now behind them and the puck set to drop for the start of the regular season, there is obvious excitement around the Jackets room.
"We're anxious to get into full game mode," says Michael Peca. "Obviously we made a lot of great additions to our hockey club but we also realize that you don't just add players and things are better. We still have to get some systems stuff ironed out and get some chemistry built, which we've done over the last three weeks."
Peca was another newcomer to the franchise at this point last year. He re-signed with the club for the very reason that Commodore and others did.
"When you get towards the end of your career, winning is of the utmost importance," Peca says. "You want to be in a situation where you can compete to win, not to just be a .500 team, but win, get in the playoffs and hopefully win a championship. That's why we play the game. We thrive on that competition.
"My personal situation is I want to win and I felt the changes that were made give us that opportunity."