NHL

AROUND THE RINKS: Blue Jackets are NHL's worst

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At the start of the month, the Columbus Blue Jackets were among the worst teams in the NHL and had Ken Hitchcock along for the ride.

He had coached the Blue Jackets before, was still with the organization as a consultant and his name swirled in rumors that he'd take over for embattled coach Scott Arniel.

When the Blue Jackets decided not to make a change, the St. Louis Blues pounced and hired Hitchcock to help resuscitate their stumbling franchise.

Based on early returns, score this move a win for the Blues - and another miscalculation by Columbus.

Hitchcock is 3-0-1 with the Blues - a point total in four games that matches Columbus' season mark in 17 games (3-13-1).

Hitchcock, who won a Stanley Cup with Dallas, has revived the Blues' hopes of a playoff run, leading them from 14th place in the Western Conference to the middle of the pack. But maybe even Hitchcock couldn't fix the NHL-worst Blue Jackets, the only team that has yet to reach double digits in points.

While last year's Stanley Cup finalists - Boston and Vancouver - are off to slow starts, no team can already count on another postseason spent at home like Columbus.

''We know we have a good team, but for whatever reason we haven't been able to get anything going,'' winger Derek Dorsett said.

Team captain Rick Nash had high expectations, thoughts of a postseason run seemed reachable, entering the season. Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson made a string of bold moves, acquiring 30-goal scorer Jeff Carter from Philadelphia, puck-moving defenseman James Wisniewski, sniper Vinny Prospal and steady blue-liner Radek Martinek.

Carter, however, just returned after missing most of the season with a broken foot and has yet to score a goal. Wisniewski was suspended for the first eight games of the season for a hit to the head of Minnesota forward Cal Clutterbuck. Forward Jared Boll missed the first 14 games with a broken thumb.

Nash, the go-to scorer and face of the franchise, has just four goals this season.

It's just not working in Columbus and Arniel remains on the hot seat.

''We've hit a lot of bottoms this year,'' Arniel said.

The Blues couldn't let a chance at jostling into the playoff picture over the winter months slip away, so they fired Davis Payne in the final year of his contract after a lackluster 6-7 start. The Blues have missed the playoffs five times in the last six seasons.

Enter Hitchcock - and a dash of bravado that has sparked St. Louis.

''My strength is building teams,'' Hitchcock said when he was hired.

He's building again in St. Louis. The Blues have scored a power-play goal in three of his four games after totaling just three power-play goals in the first 13 games.

The Blue Jackets are counting on Hitchcock to work his magic again by turning a Blues team that added veteran Stanley Cup winners such as Jason Arnott, Kent Huskins and Jamie Langenbrunner in the offseason into a Western Conference playoff team.

But a look around the league entering Wednesday's games shows there are a plenty of teams that hope a slow start won't cost them in the long run.

-VANCOUVER: Last season's Western Conference champions were expected to pick up where they left off. They ruled the regular season with 117 points and seemed to set to contend for the Stanley Cup this year. Not so fast. The Canucks stumbled early, blamed, perhaps on a bit of a crushing hangover from the finals loss to Boston. Goalie Roberto Luongo is off to a mediocre start, and he needs to return to form to make Vancouver complete. The Canucks are 9-8-1 and appear to be turning a corner - and perhaps headed back to the top of the standings.

-BOSTON: The class of the NHL a year ago, the Bruins appeared stuck in preseason mode when the season started. They spent the early part of the season mired in the bottom of the Eastern Conference. Look who got their game going. The Bruins (9-7) have won six straight and are one of only two teams in the league without an overtime loss.

''There were a lot of distractions at the start of the year. Maybe we weren't really focused on doing the job of being the Stanley Cup champions,'' Bruins forward Brad Marchand said. ''Now we realize how hard we have to battle every night.''

-CALGARY: Coach Brent Sutter is looking at a third straight year behind the bench without a postseason berth. The Flames are 7-9-1 and only Anaheim and Columbus are worse in the Western Conference. The scoring has dipped and frustration has grown. The Flames need to get hot soon if they want play in April.

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Dan Gelston can be reached at dgelston(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/apgelston

Tagged: Bruins, Blues, Canucks, Blue Jackets, Wild, Cal Clutterbuck

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