While it’s hard to really think that anyone really won anything out of
the lockout except for the owners, the Columbus Blue Jackets are one of
the teams that made out after the lockout.
The most obvious way is that with the new economic structure the Blue
Jackets were able to land some big name free agents to bolster their
rosters. Without the new CBA there’s no way that Adam Foote is
wearing a Blue Jackets crest on the front of his chest this season and
Bryan Berard would still be skating to empty seats in Chicago.
A slightly less obvious benefit is that a lot of the Blue Jackets young
talent had a year away to grow up and get more experience under their
belt. As a young franchise (you take your expansion tag and shove
it where the sun doesn’t shine, the same with the phrase “non
traditional hockey market”), the Blue Jackets are brimming with a lot
of young, inexperienced talent. The Jackets were able to develop their
players who will be playing on NHL ice this year with all of those
players having played at some level last year.
The most obvious of those is Rick Nash. Rick followed up an
excellent 2003-2004 campaign in which he tied for the Rocket Richard
trophy with one of the best years off a player could have.
Between winning a European championship with Joe Thornton and helping
Canada win a silver medal in last years World’s, Rick not only got to
fine tune his hockey skills but also develop some leadership skills and
get a taste of what it’s like to win a championship.
After a long struggle to get out of the Russian hockey program, Nikolai
Zherdev actually went back to his home land to play during the
off-season and came back a much better player. Nikolai’s stick
and puck work was already amazing before the lockout and after catching
a few scrimmages, practices, and pre-season games it’s certainly gotten
better. The only concern with Zherdev now is if he is going to
become a full two-way player or if he’s going to continue to float
around and only play when he feels like it.
Another beneficiary of the season away from the NHL was defenseman
Rostislav “Rusty” Klesla. The Blue Jackets’ first round pick from
2000. Over the last few years, Rusty has shown flashes of why he
was a number 1 pick but was never able to play at that level
consistently. This year Rusty came to camp not only a lot bigger (and
not in the Keith Tkachuk pizza and doughnuts way) but with an edge and
confidence that he lacked in prior seasons. Playing with Adam
Foote was certainly part of the equation but Rusty was doing a lot of
it on his own. The only thing Rusty wasn’t able to keep at bay
was the injury bug as he is now out for the next four to six weeks with
a stress fracture in his right leg.
During the off season, the Blue Jackets picked up goaltender Martin
Prusek as a backup to starting goaltender Marc Denis, sending a clear
message to 2001 draft pick Pascal Leclaire that he’s going to have some
competition in camp. Pascal responded this year and has been head
and shoulders the best goalie in camp, creating the first ever goalie
crisis in Jackets history.
And these are just the first round picks. The Jackets are also
expecting contributions from Aaron Johnson, Jaroslav Balastik, and Dan
Fritsche. Between the youngsters and the new additions and the other
talent on the team (David Vyborny is one of the most underrated players
in this league), the team finally plays some meaningful games late in
the season rather than just using them as a way to break in new talent.
Like every other NHL franchise, the big question for the Blue
Jackets is “Will the fans return?” Will all of the ugliness of the
lockout cause fans to stay away from the game? The Blue Jackets
got their answer on Tuesday, Sept. 13 when the Jackets opened up
Nationwide Arena for the first scrimmage and over 3000 fans showed
up. That’s 3000 fans that showed up after work, paid for parking
and overpriced concession food. Couple that with the 95% season
ticket renewal date and I don’t think the Jackets are going to have
much of an attendance drop off this season.
For those fans who can't make the games the Jackets have also re-worked
their television crew by bringing in former ESPN NHL analyst Brian
Engblom and former Panthers announcer Jeff Rimer. Both are
outstanding upgrades and match the excellent radio team of Bill
Davidage and George Matthews. During the lockout Jeff Rimer was
on the local sports station helping to promote the game and provide
much needed information to the hockey starved masses.
Personally I'm just elated that I'm going to be able to get back in and
watch professional hockey on a weekly basis. Playing the game at
the beer league level two to three nights a week or watching college
hockey just isn't a proper substitute for watching the game played at
the professional level.
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