Key additions: Adam Foote, D (FA - COL); Bryan Berard, D (FA - CHI); Jan Hrdina, C/LW (FA - NJ); Geoff Sanderson, LW (W - VAN); Radoslav Suchy, D (T - PHX); Martin Prusek, G (FA - OTT); Ben Simon, C (FA - ATL); Jeff MacMillan, D (FA - NYR)
Key losses: Andrew Cassels, C (FA - WSH); Jaroslav Spacek, D (FA - CHI); Derrick Walser, D (T - CRL); Anders Eriksson, D (FA - CGY); Kent McDonell, RW (FA - DET); Scott Lachance, D (FA)
Key player still unsigned: Alexander Svitov, C
Forwards: Rick Nash is as gifted a goal scorer as there is in the NHL and Nikolai Zherdev is a highlight reel on skates. Other than these two, however, the Blue Jackets offense is quite bleak. In 2003-04, the Jax scored the second-fewest goals in the NHL with 177 (just ahead of Carolina's 172), of which Nash scored a league-leading 41 (tying him with Ilya Kovalchuk and Jarome Iginla). Sanderson, Hrdina, Todd Marchant, and David Vyborny, the team's leading scorer in 2003-04, will be counted on to share the offensive burden. Columbus has been spending high draft picks on forwards in the past few years, but yet another major injury to Dan Fritsche's surgically-repaired shoulder has his career somewhat in doubt, and first-round picks Alexandre Picard (2004, 1/8) and Gilbert Brule (2005, 1/6) are still at least a year or two away from the NHL. Opposing teams can concentrate all they want on stopping Nash - so far very little has worked. But he certainly needs some help up front, and right now Columbus does not have enough.
Defensemen: At $4.5 million per year for three years, the Blue Jackets overpaid for Foote, a defenseman who is 34, has battled injuries in the past, and has never put up more than 31 points in an NHL season. On the other hand, signing Berard for $2 million may turn out to be one of the better deals of this year's free agent class, as the talented rearguard had 47 points in just 58 games for Chicago in 2003-04. Of course Berard has also had injury troubles (as well as defensive troubles) throughout his career, though he played no fewer than 80 games in the two years immediately prior to 2003-04. All in all, landing one of the best defensive defensemen in the League and a top notch power play quarterback for $6.5 million isn't too bad. 2005-06 would be a good year for Rostislav Klesla to finally put it all together. Luke Richardson can still hit, and Suchy is a decent depth defenseman. The Jax could use another defenseman (who couldn't?), but if they stay healthy, this crew should do an adequate job.
Goaltenders: Marc Denis continued his emergence as a true franchise goaltender in 2003-04, the fourth consecutive year in which he lowered his goals against average and raised his save percentage. With an improved defensive corps in front of him (including some addition-by-subtraction as a result of the departures of Spacek, Lachance and Eriksson), he may be able to make that five straight years. Should Denis stumble, Prusek will push him and will fill-in when necessary. Former first round pick Pascal Leclaire (2000, 1/8) is also waiting in the wings for a chance at NHL ice time.
Bottom line: When your top two centers are Todd Marchant and Jan Hrdina, you're not a playoff team. It really is that simple. An improved defense alone isn't going to get it done. Luckily for the Blue Jackets, they have some room left under the cap. Will they spend any more of it? It depends whether or not they want to contend for a playoff spot.