Gerard Gallant would have been excused had he thrown up his arms in disgust and muttered a few expletives about bad luck. It does seem to be the only kind his Columbus Blue Jackets ever have.
|Even with an upgraded roster, Columbus needs goalie Pascal Leclaire to step up. (Getty Images)|
Coming out of the lockout last summer, the Blue Jackets had assembled their best collection of talent since joining the league for the 2000-01 season, and they made a big splash in mid-November by getting future Hall of Famer Fedorov from Anaheim. Trouble is it all went for naught.
Early long-term injuries to young scoring star Rick Nash, veteran defenseman Adam Foote, hotshot top draft pick Gilbert Brule and a variety of role players derailed the Jackets and effectively ruined by Thanksgiving their chances for a first playoff appearance. So when Fedorov, who finished strong, suffered a shoulder injury Tuesday night that will sideline him 4-6 weeks, Gallant had a right to feel a sense of deja-vu.
Not a chance.
"We're in much better shape now to handle something like this," Gallant said. "Yeah it was disappointing because you hate to lose your top players, but the good news is that Sergei doesn't need surgery and shouldn't miss too many regular-season games.
"Obviously we're not going to replace a guy like that and the things he can do for our team, but this organization has put together a lot of young talent over the last few years and this will give a chance for a couple of kids to get some important minutes and to see if they can step up.
"To me that's the biggest positive thing for us. Now we have some real depth."
Much of that depth is up front, which is a good thing, because Columbus had the league's third-worst offense and second-worst power play last season while finishing 13th in the West.
The Jackets shored up some holes along the end of their bench, but the two biggest offseason moves were landing productive veterans Fredrik Modin and Anson Carter, big players who can skate and are capable of scoring 30 goals without sacrificing defense.
Modin came from Tampa Bay for goalie Marc Denis, who was deemed expendable because the Blue Jackets believe Pascal Leclaire, their 2001 first draft pick, is finally ready to start regularly. Carter was a last-minute free agent signing as training camp was about to open. Carter took a one-year deal and essentially the place of immensely talented 21-year-old Nikolai Zherdev, who is playing in Russia because of a contract dispute with Columbus.
"I'm not counting him out, but our team played well when he was out for a 13-game stretch at the end of the season," Gallant said of Zherdev. "If they come to terms, I'll be pleased, but if not, I'm happy with what we have now."
Mainly that's because the Jackets' most important player, Nash, who scored his 31 goals in 51 games after returning in late December, is healthy and has looked sharp since training camp began last week. Nash is ticketed to play with Fedorov and smooth playmaking right wing David Vyborny on the first line, while Modin, Brule and Carter give Columbus the kind of critical second-line scoring power the team lacked last season.
The Jackets, who finished last season with a 26-18-3 run, even have some punch on the third line with speedster Jason Chimera and Manny Malhotra and will take advantage of a busy preseason schedule over the next few days to sort out how they'll deal with things until Fedorov returns.
"We'll get to see a lot of guys play and how we can mix things up," Gallant said. "Any team can adjust to having one guy out of the lineup, especially if they have as many capable forwards as we do now."
Still, there are some questions marks about the blue line, which has a few high-profile names and many hopefuls who will be protecting a goalie getting his first shot at a No. 1 gig. Foote, who signed a free agent last summer after spending his entire 13-year career with the Colorado Avalanche/Quebec Nordiques organization and anchors the defense, doesn't see a problem.
"We didn't get into a lot of trouble defensively last season," said Foote. "It's easy to dissect it now, but that's because a lot of people who don't really see your team look at things in terms of stats or how players are rated in PlayStation games.
"We had the same thing in Quebec when we didn't get on TV until we made the playoffs, and all of a sudden you start to see the value of different players.
"(Duvie) Westcott is a very underrated guy who plays big minutes for us and Bryan Berard is someone you'd have on the ice in the last five minutes of a playoff game. But you have to get there for people to realize it."