COLUMBUS, Ohio - Derick Brassard normally takes a few weeks off at the end of each season before diving into his summer regimen. But this year was different.
The Columbus Blue Jackets centre couldn't wait to resume training after missing the last four months of the 2008-09 season with a dislocated right shoulder.
"Sometimes I went to the gym twice a day to work on my upper body more," said Brassard. "My focus was in the right place this summer."
Last season, the 22-year-old native of Hull, Que., was in the running for the Calder Trophy as the NHL's rookie of the year when he got hurt in a fight with James Neal of the Dallas Stars. While centring the Jackets' top line with Rick Nash and Kristian Huselius, Brassard recorded 10 goals and 15 assists with a plus-12 rating through 31 games. But it ended when the ambitious youngster took on the bigger Neal.
Now healthy, stronger and armed with a new four-year, US$12.8-million contract extension signed earlier this month, the speedy, creative forward is banking on rekindling the chemistry he had with Nash last season.
"Sometimes when you play with what you call a star player when you're young, you're nervous," said Brassard, who was drafted sixth overall by Columbus in 2006. "What I like about Rick is that he makes you feel comfortable on the ice.
"For sure we clicked together. And we're looking forward to the season."
The top priority for Columbus general manager Scott Howson this off-season was getting Nash to ink a contract extension and avoid unrestricted free agency next year.
The captain did that this summer, committing to an eight-year deal that will pay him $62.4 million. Nash has always been influential on the ice but his leadership skills have grown along with his responsibilities.
Under Nash, Columbus (92 points, seventh in the West) finally made the playoffs, though a decisive sweep in the first round by the Detroit Red Wings suggested the expansion team has more work to do.
But Nash believes the Jackets have a good core in place.
"In past years, it seemed like we were bringing in five or six new veteran guys and this year, we're just adding a couple to the puzzle," said Nash, who scored 40 goals last season. "Everyone knows each other, everyone knows each other's game and we're ahead a step."
Head coach Ken Hitchcock has preached improvement throughout the off-season and training camp, both individually and collectively. Hitchcock challenged his players to be better, recognizing that the effort against Detroit wasn't nearly good enough.
With Brassard, Nash and Huselius, the top line appears set. A glut of talented forwards, including the dynamic teenager Nikita Filatov, means uncertainty for the other units, though Hitchcock could ice a second line featuring centre Antoine Vermette, flanked by R.J. Umberger and standout second-year man Jakub Voracek.
Columbus acquired defensive forward Samuel Pahlsson, as well as signing backup goaltender Mathieu Garon, who should give the rising star Chris Mason more rest after being overworked down the stretch of his Calder Trophy-winning campaign.
The only noticeable gap, other than improving the 30th ranked power play, is the need for another puck-moving defenceman to join Mike Commodore, Jan Hejda, Fedor Tyutin, Rostislav Klesla, Kris Russell and Marc Methot.
"This is the most depth organizationally we've ever had so that part's got us excited," said Hitchcock. "And we're going to need it because this conference and this division is going to be really difficult right off the bat."