The Columbus Blue Jackets have been a model of futility in the National Hockey League in the modern era. Since joining as an expansion team in 2000, they’ve made the playoffs just once; as the seventh seed in 2009 (their highest finish ever) they were swept by the Detroit Red Wings in the first round. In the years following, they have failed to exceed 81 points. Excluding the awkward years after expansion (ie, pre-lockout), they hit rock bottom last year, finishing last in the league with 65 points and earning the top pick in the 2012 Draft Lottery…which they lost to Edmonton by virtue of pure bad luck.
The 2011-12 Blue Jackets season was a beautiful lesson in how not to run a franchise. In the offseason they made what appeared to be fantastic-on-paper moves to bolster team, acquiring Jeff Carter and his behemoth contract, much to his dismay, and also trading for defenseman James Wisniewski, whom they intended to have quarterback their power-plays. Carter’s tenure with the Jackets was euthanized at the trade deadline and he ended up winning the Cup with the Los Angeles Kings while Wisniewski, still with the team, has been oft-injured/suspended since.
The team started the 2011-12 season with a record of 0-7-1, the worst in franchise history, and would go on not to post a winning record in a calendar month until March, where they went just 9-7-0. In January, Head Coach Scott Arniel was fired. In February, General Manager Scott Howson revealed to the world that All-Star captain and face-of-the-franchise Rick Nash had requested a trade but was unable to find a suitable trade partner. In April, despite finishing with the league’s worst record and securing a 48.5% chance of obtaining the first overall pick in the draft, the draft lottery was won by 29th place Edmonton, as a result acquiring their third consecutive first overall pick. The Blue Jackets couldn’t even win at losing.
Then things started to change. Slowly, but demonstrably. In the summer of 2012, Rick Nash was finally traded to the New York Rangers for forwards Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky, and defenseman Tim Erixon– young pieces around which the franchise could build. In October, amid the ongoing work stoppage, John Davidson, former President of Hockey Operations for the St. Louis Blues, was hired as PHO for the Jackets. Arguably the architect of the defending Central Division Champions, this move was perhaps the best decision of Blue Jackets management in their history so far.
Though they started the 2013 season with less-than-desirable results, fortunes have continued to improve. Scott Howson, somehow still GM, was finally fired in February. In his place came Jarmo Kekäläinen, General Manager of Jokerit in the Finnish SM-liiga and former Assistant GM of the St. Louis Blues, where he worked with John Davidson to draft such names as captain David Backes, Norris contender Alex Pietrangelo, rookie sensation Vladimir Tarasenko, and mainstays T.J. Oshie, Patrik Berglund, and David Perron. He was also previously a scout with the Ottawa Senators where he helped bring in such talent as Jason Spezza, Marian Hossa, and Martin Havlat, basically building the team that went to the Stanley Cup Final in 2007 (*angry Sabres fan shakes fist at sky*). Kekäläinen, in addition to being the first European general manager in the NHL, is also known to be a student of advanced hockey stats and his prowess is evident in his drafting history–a facet of the organization which has been severely mishandled over the last decade.
It’s now March 11th and it seems the toxins of the Jackets’ former front office are out of their system. The BJs are on a five-game winning streak, the longest active streak in the league (sorry, Chicago), which includes this past weekend’s home-and-home sweep of the Detroit Red Wings. As it stands, just over halfway through the season, the Jackets are 4 points out of 8th place and rising fast. The cynic in me thinks there’s no way this momentum can hold through the final six weeks of the season, but I want to believe. It sucks to see a team be so bad for so long, especially given the parity of the league. It also sucks to see the same teams win year after year (unless they’re your team, of course) and I love a good variety.
These guys have been growing on me, mostly because I’m a sucker for underdogs. I’ve never been there, but I’ve very often read and heard that Nationwide Arena is gorgeous and an exemplar of what a National Hockey League arena should be. Though just 12 seasons old, they seem to already have well established traditions, including the firing of a replica Civil War cannon after every goal and win. That’s just cool. HP Pavilion, my current home arena, seems so very boring in contrast.
But wait, there’s more!
In addition to these unquestionably positive organizational changes and the upward trend of their on-ice play, possibly the best thing to happen to the franchise as a whole is coming next season: realignment. For over a decade, the Columbus Blue Jackets, situated in central Ohio well within the Eastern time zone, have toiled in the Western Conference, playing three divisional opponents in the Central time zone and having to travel up to three hours west for the rest of the conference. It’s hard to grow a fledgeling fanbase when nearly half of the team’s games start at 8pm or later, especially when the team is terrible to begin with. Last week the NHLPA agreed to the NHL’s proposed realignment which would see both Columbus and Detroit moving to join the two Eastern Divisions. The Jackets future division rivals include the New York area teams, Washington Capitals, Philadelphia Flyers, and most importantly, the Pittsburgh Penguins, which is just about three hours away. That rivalry has been a long time coming for the Jackets and the consensus appears to be that it will do wonders for the franchise.
In short, these days it seems everything is coming up Columbus. I’m excited to see what becomes of this team in the near future and I’ll be rooting for their success. Except when they play Buffalo… or Phoenix… or Vancouver… or San Jose if I’m at the game. Sorry 😉
Additional thought: I really like the Jackets’ third jerseys. I wouldn’t mind if they suddenly became their permanent home threads with a white counterpart for the road. It’s a classic look for a team that is on the verge of finally establishing itself in the league. Plus, it doesn’t have stupid red pants that don’t go with anything.