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Blue Jackets try to find solace in early playoff exit

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Five-year-old Emily Peca might be the only Columbus Blue Jackets fan happy to see the season end.

A four-game sweep at the hands of the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings means her dad, forward Michael Peca, will be around home more. And will be less abrasive.

"She kept getting rashes every time I kissed her," joked her father, who shaved off his playoff beard on Friday morning.

The Blue Jackets held team meetings and made plans for the offseason on Friday, hours after a wild 6-5 defeat in Game 4 at Nationwide Arena.

As the players packed up gear, arranged end-of-season physicals and prepared to meet with GM Scott Howson, they expressed a flood of different emotions.

There was disappointment in being ousted from the postseason so soon. There was a sense of awe at the play of the Red Wings. There was pride that the Blue Jackets, making their first trip to the playoffs in the franchise's eight seasons, had finally figured out this whole playoff thing and fought on equal terms with the Wings in Game 4. And there was optimism for a young team with at least a couple of young stars awaiting their own moment in the spotlight.

"At the end of the day, heading into the summer, we had a great year," veteran defenseman Mike Commodore said. "We did a lot of things that this organization had never done before. We can pat ourselves on the back a little bit for that and be proud of ourselves. All it does really is raise the expectations for next year. The expectation is no longer 'Let's just make the playoffs.' Next year the expectation is 'Let's make the playoffs and make some noise."'

The Blue Jackets had their first winning season (41-31-10) and the most points (92) in franchise history.

The backbone of the team is a group of 20-somethings. Captain Rick Nash set a team mark with 79 points and has already totaled 194 NHL goals before his 25th birthday this summer.

One of the first things on Howson's to-do list in the offseason is to sign Nash to a new contract. Nash is entering the final year of a four-year deal which will pay him $7 million in the final season. There are several teams out there -- including his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs -- who will try to pry him away with a big-money offer. He said he loves Columbus and the Blue Jackets but hasn't given the business side much thought.

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"You can't say, 'I guarantee I'm going to be here,' because you don't know what's going to happen and you don't know what direction they're going to want to go in and what direction I'm going to want to go in," Nash said. "I've got to sit down and see what it's all about. Initially, I love the city and want to be in Columbus. It's sad, but there's always a business side to hockey. I've got to weight my options that way."

The favorite for the Calder Cup, given to the NHL's rookie of the year, is goaltender Steve Mason who started his first pro season in the American Hockey League but ended up going 33-20-7 with a 2.29 goals-against average, .916 save percentage and an NHL-best 10 shutouts in 61 games with the Blue Jackets. He turns 21 next month.

He said it's difficult to even fathom how far he came in the blink of an eye,

"The time has flown by," he said. "I've experienced a lot over the course of a half year. I wouldn't trade it for the world. I'm looking forward to next year and hopefully having some more positive experiences."

Howson and the front office must evaluate the value of re-signing the club's unrestricted free agent centers Peca, Manny Malhotra and Jason Williams along with defensemen Christian Backman and Aaron Rome. Most will likely not be back.

The Blue Jackets will add two budding stars in centers Derick Brassard, among the league's top rookies before going down due to midseason shoulder surgery, and Nikita Filatov, who had four goals in eight games before being shipped back to the minors for seasoning. Both are ready to go from the jump next season.

Defensemen Marc Methot, Kris Russell, Rostislav Klesla, Commodore and Fedor Tyutin and forwards Antoine Vermette, R.J. Umberger, Derek Dorsett and Raffi Torres are also in their 20s and made big strides during the Blue Jackets' playoff push.

"We're going to be a really good team when all of our young guys are at their (peak)," Brassard said. "It's a learning process for us. We're going to be really good in the future."

Coach Ken Hitchcock said the team would gain from having tangled with the mighty Red Wings in the first round.

"We've learned from the best," he said. "Now it's what we do with it. It's knowledge that goes into the bank."

Making the playoffs is the easy part, said Hitchcock, who led Dallas to the Stanley Cup title in 1999. The tough part now is to become an elite team that vies for the ultimate prize every year.

"The onus is on the younger players," he said. "They have to take a bigger bite to make us better."