It’s that time of year, what with training camps opening and hockey talk ramping up even faster. Nothing gets the talk going like a good season preview if you ask me, so let’s do a little previewing of our own. Season preview pieces are supposed to whet the appetite for the season-long campaign to come, in this case hopefully culminating in a Stanley Cup playoffs run for the ages. Let’s dive in and see if we can’t get the juices flowing, eh?
It’s been an interesting past 12 months for the Columbus Blue Jackets. In fact, so much has happened that it’s hard to know where to start when sketching out a preview. Do we compare the team entering training camp with the team that did the same last January when the lockout ended and camp finally opened? Do we compare today’s roster with the roster that finished the 2013 season? And what about the front office…do we gloss over that? Lastly, what about this Eastern Conference move? Where does that fit in?
I’ll focus less on the players and roster and more on what I’m suggesting is the Really Big Picture for the team this season. Players will come and go over training camp – some will get promoted or demoted, some will get hurt, some might even get traded – so we really don’t know what we have to work with until opening night on October 4th against the Calgary Flames. But I don’t want to poo-poo the changes that have been made – especially those since last January’s opening night game roster.
I’m leaving Michael Leighton out because he both came and went…never playing a minute of game time in Columbus.
Anyway, that’s still a lot of change. Don’t forget perhaps the biggest change of all, this one in the front office:
When you look at the right-hand side of the prior table – the one showing all of the new players that have arrived since January’s opening night – appreciate that most of them were players that Kekalainen went out and acquired. Sure, Erixon, Prout and McElhinney were Howson acquisitions that rose us through the ranks. The other arrivals, however, replaced Howson roster assets. That includes Gaborik and Horton, both of whom can reasonably be expected to be 50-plus point scorers over an 82-game season (which Horton won’t get in 2013-14 due to his shoulder surgery recovery, which will delay his debut until deep into the holiday season if not beyond). We’re not talking about small moves here; as such, Kekalainen has already made his mark on the Columbus Blue Jackets.
But that’s not the Really Big Picture, at least in my estimation.
We’ll start with more Fun With Tables. I started following the CBJ in earnest in 2007-08, so we’ll begin at that point and move forward into the present.
I’ve tracked five sets of numbers by season: 1) The Blue Jackets’ overall record, 2) The CBJ record versus the Central Division, 3) Their record versus the Eastern Conference, 4) The same against the Atlantic Division and 5) Their record against the Southeast Division.
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS WON-LOSS RECORDS
I have a grand unifying theory of the National Hockey League, and I’ll share it with you: In a nutshell, few people pay attention to the Western Conference and even fewer actually respect what the Western Conference teams have brought to the table from a competitiveness perspective. There are plenty of reasons for these attitudes (media attention and general cultural biases toward hockey in the East, just to name two). Buy it or don’t, that’s my opinion. I’m going to use this table to back up my opinion…and then we’ll tie it up with a bow and discuss how it affects the Blue Jackets, who are moving from the Western Conference to the East this season.
The Blue Jackets’ record since 2007-08 speaks for itself. In six seasons, the team has cleared the .500 hurdle twice – and that’s only if you accept the notion of an overtime/shootout loss as a “tie” (because such a loss still garners one standings point), otherwise they’ve only hit the .500 hurdle twice. Not the best hockey team in the National Hockey League, not by a long shot.
Where did a huge proportion of the team’s losses come from, you ask? Why, the murderer’s row that was the Western Conference’s Central Division! Chicago, Detroit, Nashville and St. Louis combined to make Blue Jackets fans’ lives miserable for a long, long time…something we CBJ fans know all too well. Considering the team’s overall record and the high proportion on intra-divisional games played, it’s no wonder that the team had a .500 (or over .500, again depending on how you look at it) record in the Central only once in the last six seasons.
From another perspective, let me ask: How in the world can you expect to be average – let alone good – when your team is getting manhandled within its division? If the CBJ couldn’t escape the Central, they couldn’t hit the playoffs. This, I submit, is a significant reason why the team has been so mired in futility.
Let’s now look East. Remember, only two seasons at or above .500 overall – and only one season above water against the Central. Against the Eastern Conference as a whole, the Blue Jackets only dropped below the .500 line once – that being the implosion season of 2011-12 when Scott Arniel was fired and the wheels started grinding toward the Blue Jackets management team and roster you see today.
(I can see it now: “Scott, we’re not asking the world of you, but you could barely beat any Eastern Conference teams. That’s inexcusable. We’ll have to let you go.”)
Even more intriguing is how the CBJ performed against the two divisions whom will be contributing teams to the new Metropolitan Division.
Against the Atlantic Division (with the two Pennsylvania teams, the two New York teams and the Devils making up the majority of the Metro), things were rougher…but – again depending on how you look at overtime/shootout losses – it could be argued that the Blue Jackets were never worse than a .500 team.
Then you have the
Southleast Southeast Division, from which the Metro has been blessed to receive Carolina and Washington. As bad as the CBJ have had it, they could always be relied upon to wreak havoc in the Southeast like General Sherman did on his 1864 voyage through the Confederacy. The absolute worst the team ever did was a pure .500 record against the Southeast. Ever. And that was the armageddon season of 2011-12. The other five seasons, they Blue Jackets racked up winning records. (Then again, everyone else pretty much did, too…)
So let’s bring it all home to 2013-14. I understand that the team’s composition is different this season than it was in past seasons. So is every other team in the league. There’s a natural ebb and flow to a given team’s competitiveness, but I think that this six year perspective tells you that the Blue Jackets have been playing some incredibly difficult hockey in the Western Conference’s Central Division. It also says that despite the futility in the West, the CBJ always have been able to look respectable at minimum when given the opportunity to face the Eastern Conference. That, my friends, is the Really Big Picture.
The Columbus Blue Jackets have been looked at as a doormat team by our friends to the East, yet wins and losses on the other side of the conference ledger over the last six years don’t exactly back that up. At minimum, I’ll suggest that the CBJ should slot in as a middle tier team in the Metropolitan Division. Whether that’s good enough to qualify for the playoffs this season is beyond my ability to speculate…but a second Blue Jackets postseason appearance in the team’s history would not surprise me at all.
Mark my words: It’s going to be a fun 2013-14. If the Columbus Blue Jackets’ success surprises you, it’s only because you haven’t been paying attention.