You can never win the Stanley Cup in the preseason, but it's certainly possible to take steps backward to relinquish that dream. The Blue Jackets, who were arguable the NHL's most stoic team in the offseason, have a few questions to answer before being fully prepared for next Friday's season opener vs. Anaheim. Unfortunately, the answers will have to come from within.
1. Who can center the top line?
Coach Ken Hitchcock would undoubtedly have loved to have the answer to this question come in July, but due to cap constraints, it wasn't possible. Last year, Sergei Fedorov was handed the job by default, and while the results weren't terrible, it was obvious it took a toll on his body. Free-agent acquisitions Jiri Novotny and Kris Beech have each had opportunities to center Rick Nash and David Vyborny, but neither had encouraging results. Most people in Jacketland would prefer to see #1 pick Derick Brassard step into the role, but he hasn't had the chance thus far in training camp. Without a doubt, he will see that time this weekend in Carolina and/or Nashville.
2. Who is the odd man out on the blueline?
By far, 20-year old phenom Kris Russell has been the Jackets' top defenseman in camp. He is head and shoulders above any player his age, and has veterans checking the rearview mirror. At this point, Hitchcock has no choice but to pen him onto the roster. Original Blue Jacket Rostislav Klesla is still maturing; a product of being thrown into the fire before he was ready. Adam Foote has lost a step, but is still a valuable asset to the young players on the ice and off. Duvie Westcott has been a disappointment in camp, and has been caught with his head down a few times too many (weird for a guy who has a bad history of concussion problems). Free-agent pickup Jan Hejda is a pleasant surprise; he will earn top 4 minutes this year and craves the physical game- something Columbus is gravitating toward. Ole-Kristian Tollefsen could very well be the standout defenseman in Columbus this year; he can move the puck and lay a thunderous hit in the same shift. On the contrary, Ron Hainsey is the likely choice to get some time in the pressbox. At times, he appears to be a budding powerplay quarterback; others, he looks lost and disinterested. He was reported to have entered camp in outstanding shape, but hasn't shown many signs of improvement.
3. Can the Jackets trade Nikolai Zherdev?
We've all heard of second chances, but tenth and eleventh chances are out of the question. Upon entering the NHL, this kid thrived on scoring goals and craved the spotlight. He was sickening with the puck on his stick, and made seasoned veteran defenseman look like hapless pylons. Last year, he slipped to the fourth line, and spent most of the year on the third line. He was even a healthy scratch for a few games. It almost seems like the thrill of being a superstar has left him, and it's a sad thing to ponder. The kid oozes talent, and with a change of scenery could bust out and prove us all wrong. Unfortunately, his personal problems take most of the press. He chooses not to learn English, excommunicates himself from his teammates and goes half-speed in practice. Whoever does acquire him takes on a major task, but the payoff could be immense.
4. Will the culture change in Columbus translate to wins?
Ken Hitchcock was hired not only to turn the Jackets around, but to completely change the culture that surrounded the team and the organization. Almost immediately, he became the face of the team. Radio ads, ticket promotions and print ads featured the new head coach. Before he was hired, the Jackets were widely regarded as the "soft" team in the NHL. According to Hitchcock, "that won't be the case here anymore," he told the Columbus Dispatch. His goal is to make the Jackets into one of the hardest teams to play against, stressing hard checking and all players working for eachother on the ice. As it has many times before, the word "accountability" is coming from the mouths of Hitch's players. When Scott Howson was hired as the general manager on June 15, he and Hitchcock developed a plan to bring winning ways to the only NHL team to never reach the playoffs. The young players can develop, and those that earn their way can stick with the big club. Patience is being stressed in Columbus, but it's a matter of how long we can continue to wait.
It will surely be an interesting season for the Blue Jackets, but as always, it will surely be one heck of a ride.