Remember last season, Columbus Blue Jackets fans? The team went out and acquired some All-Star talent in center Jeff Carter. Given the green light, team management spent all the way to the National Hockey League salary cap. Finally, some top talent. Over the ramparts we go, ready to finally make a push for long-term competitiveness.
And then the season started. The team went 1-9-1 out of the gate, with more than a handful of games sprinkled throughout the season that were downright painful to watch. At the same time, there were also some jaw-dropping “Where has THIS team been?” moments, like when Carter bestowed a hat trick upon the San Jose Sharks in a raucous 6-3 win just before skipping town for Los Angeles. Problem was, there were too many games like the former and too few like the latter.
The season was gone (at least from a playoff contention perspective) by Halloween, and ownership was sending out end of season apology letters at the end of January…with over two months of games left to play. I know that this conjures up some bad memories and don’t mean to cause unnecessary indigestion but think it important to remind the readership how rough things were.
It’s important to learn from history, especially if you don’t want to repeat it. By my estimation, the team has done just that.
We’ve talked at length about the installation of John Davidson as the new CBJ president of hockey operations. We’ve seen Rick Nash moved out of Columbus in exchange for improved team depth. We’ve seen youngsters like John Moore allowed to grow and mature without being rushed too much – and others, like Ryan Johansen, developing in a different but no less effective way. We’ve also seen the coaching staff sharpen up, improving the penalty kill to 5th in the league (as I type).
Even more interestingly, there are fewer “extremes” on the team. No longer are we saddled with one or two all-world players and a handful of others that probably would be better off playing in the minor leagues. (It’s a team that is $18 million under the salary cap and is well-positioned to survive the upcoming bloodletting when the cap starts contracting – at least against inflation – under the new collective bargaining agreement.)
- We’ve got a team where the talent differential between first line ‘marquee’ forward and fourth line grunt just isn’t that big an longer. (You DID catch how coach Richards mentioned that the fourth line was the most impressive on the team against Minnesota, right?)
- The same could be said for the defensive pairings, where while Moore and Adrian Aucoin are logging the fewest minutes, they don’t look remarkably lesser of skill than either the Wisniewski/Johnson or the Tyutin/Nikitin pairs.
- And then the goaltenders, where Sergei Bobrovsky appears to have a slight edge over Steve Mason, but just not that much.
To be clear: We’re looking at a very different type of team, one where – at least in theory – any given player can be a valuable contributor.
Take Mark Letestu, who watched games in the press box as a healthy scratch for the first two games only to take the ice and become tied for the team’s lead in goal scoring. (Yes, I know the team leaders have two goals…but I thought we’d covered that topic already.) Better yet, take what the coaching staff did with Letestu when they recognized his drive and production: They gave him more minutes on the ice! Merit-based ice time. Only with your Columbus Blue Jackets.
That brings me to coaching, and the challenge of not being able to lean on an all-star line like Minnesota’s impressive Heatly-Koivu-Parise line, New York’s Richards-Nash-Gaborik line or either the Crosby or Malkin/Neal lines in Pittsburgh. Columbus doesn’t have that. They also don’t have the moments of indigestion where the fourth line takes the ice and the coach prays that they won’t screw up long enough for the top line to get rested up before wreaking more havoc. Personally, I would find this to be a fun task, one that allows a coach the leeway to tinker with lines in ways that would otherwise be unthinkable in the name of protecting star power. For this is a team with no stars.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, you have the impact on the team’s performance and record. Seven games in, the team is 2-4-1. That’s not playoff-contending, but it’s not a 1-9-1 record, either. And then in what I consider to be perhaps the more important indicator of the team’s future outcomes, the team has – more or less – not been outworked on balance in their games. The Colorado game (the second night of a back-to-back road trip) and the second half of the prior evening’s tilt in Phoenix were rough, but the team exhibited impressive drive against Nashville, Detroit and Chicago. Best of all, we’ve seen nothing like last season’s debacle in Philadelphia. And no, the Blue Jackets aren’t blowing anyone out this season, either. The extremes - both high and low – are gone, and the baseline performance level slowly is improving.
What does this mean for this season? Probably more of the same. Effort and drive will get the team their share of wins, but on some nights that just won’t be enough. At the same time, the Blue Jackets are looking increasingly less likely to have the doors blown off like they did all too often in seasons past.
And for those among us who recall history, this is a good start.