COLUMBUS, Ohio - 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 defenceman 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 post-season once in its 11 seasons.
"You add a 30- or 40-goal scorer in a centreman, 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 defenceman Fedor) Tyutin's 27 and (second-line defenceman 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 defence. 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.
"Irealize 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 off-season."