Blue Jackets buoyed by summer’s additions

It seems like a long time – maybe forever – since the Columbus
Blue Jackets came into a season with this much hope, hype and
confidence.

”There’s a lot of energy, a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of
optimism around our team,” general manager Scott Howson said
Monday. ”You can feel it in the community, you can feel it amongst
the players. The hard part starts on Friday – and that’s
transferring that optimism and that energy into wins.”

The trade for high-scoring Jeff Carter, and the signings of
defenseman James Wisniewski and sniper Vinny Prospal would buoy the
spirits of any team. But in particular, those additions have been a
breath of fresh air to a franchise that has only tasted the
postseason once in its 11 seasons.

”You add a 30- or 40-goal scorer in a centerman, and a
right-shot point man and Vinny Prospal who won a Stanley Cup,”
forward R.J. Umberger said. ”You start adding pieces like that,
and it definitely makes you feel better about your chances and it
excites you.”

Howson triggered much of the optimism when he finally acquired a
runningmate for captain and perennial All-Star Rick Nash this
summer. The Blue Jackets dealt young forward Jake Voracek and
first- and third-round draft picks to Philadelphia for Carter, a
bonafide star who has averaged 38 goals and 70 points over the last
three seasons. Carter has been to the playoffs in all but one of
his six years.

”I think our first goal has got to be to make the playoffs,”
he said. ”We have to have a good regular season here, set
ourselves up for the playoffs. And then once you get into the
playoffs, anything can happen, you know?”

If anyone knows, it’s Carter. After all, his Flyers rose from a
No. 7 seed all the way to being a Stanley Cup finalist back in
2010.

The Blue Jackets, who open training camp on Friday, made the
deal to excite their fans and get better, sure, but also to protect
and enhance Nash’s talents.

”The root of it all is that we have a franchise player in Rick
Nash who just turned 27 in June. We don’t want to waste (him),”
Howson said. ”He’s entering his prime now, the next four, five,
six, seven years. And we want to try to surround him with a better
team. Hopefully we’ve done that. Both (coach Scott Arniel) and I
talk to Rick all the time and one of his consistent requests was,
‘Get us another All-Star.’ We’ve got that in Jeff now. I think
there is a sense of urgency, the players feel that.”

They didn’t stop there, however. They also acquired the
right-handed shooting point man on the power play they’ve lacked
for so long when they signed Wisniewski, a solid contributor from
the blue line for Chicago, Anaheim, the New York Islanders and
Montreal.

Suddenly, the Blue Jackets are building a young, experienced
group.

”Rick is 27 and Wisniewski’s 27 and (top defenseman Fedor)
Tyutin’s 27 and (second-line defenseman Marc) Methot’s 25,” Arniel
said. ”Our core group that we’ve locked up here are all pretty
close to the same age. You talk about expectations right now, or
one year from now or two years from now, we’re real excited about
the age of our group. We’re not 32 years old, we’re not an older
team that has to be great right now.”

Late in the summer, one of the team’s front-line wingers,
Kristian Huselius, tore a chest muscle while lifting weights.
Rather than try to just get by until he returns in December or
January, the Blue Jackets went out and signed Prospal.

The direction of the organization has been shown through the
moves they made this summer,” forward Antoine Vermette said.
”They chose a new start, no doubt about that.”

Of course, the club will only be as good as its last line of
defense. In 2008-09, as a rookie, goalie Steve Mason was
spectacular, with a 33-20-7 record, an NHL-best 10 shutouts and a
2.29 goals-against average while leading Columbus to the playoffs
for the first time. Since then, he has been just average at best,
going 20-26-9 with a 3.06 the next year and 24-21-7 with a 3.03
average last season.

”He’s not the first goalie to take a step back after starting
very strongly in this league,” Howson said. ”Cary Price did it
(in Montreal). We go back to Grant Fuhr, Tom Barasso – a lot of
Hall of Fame goaltenders have gone through this growth period. We
know the talent is there. We’ve seen it and you know, it’s up to us
now to get it out of him. It’s up to Steve to make sure he going to
get it out of himself.”

To help make the 23-year-old more consistent, the club hired a
full-time goaltending coach for the first time. Ian Clark spent
several weeks this summer working with and talking to Mason, who
says he’s fired up for training camp to open.

”I realize that there’s added pressure on myself this year,”
he said. ”It’s something that I’m looking forward to. I was hoping
that the organization would go out and make the much needed steps
to improve this club and I think Scott Howson did that. Everybody
would like to go up and shake Scott’s hand for everything he did
this offseason.”

Rusty Miller can be reached at
http://twitter.com/rustymillerap