It was almost exactly a year ago that things were finally looking up in Columbus for their sad-sack NHL team.
After an unprecedented run of injuries led to a six-wins-in-23-games start, the Blue Jackets played host to the all-star game last January as one of the hottest teams in the league, reeling off a 14-7-1 streak that put them back in the playoff conversation.
Nick Foligno, in the midst of a career, 31-goal year, was the captain of one all-star team; Ryan Johansen, their grinning, burgeoning superstar, was chosen the game’s MVP.
For once in Columbus, the mood wasn’t melancholy and infinite sadness – especially when the Jackets finished the season 15-1-1 in a feel-good playoff push that fell short.
The optimism didn’t last.
The Blue Jackets listed into Toronto on Wednesday night in a familiar spot: dead last. After a 3-1 win against the Maple Leafs, they have won only six of their past 21 games, plummeting into a basement they have come to know all too well.
This is the 15th season in franchise history; this will almost certainly be their ninth with less than 75 points, a super low bar in a league where 92 is now the average.
The fallout for this year’s disaster continues to unfold.
The coach was fired seven games in and replaced with hard-ass John Tortorella, who was instructed to whip them into shape.
The face of the franchise (Johansen) has already been dealt, in a rare blockbuster deal last week with Nashville.
But the booth for Jackets management sat almost completely empty on Wednesday at Air Canada Centre. Neither president John Davidson nor GM Jarmo Kekalainen made the trip, as both were mired in scouting meetings that will chart how they will get out of this mess.
The scuttlebutt around the league is some in management aren’t on the same page and that there could be fireworks behind closed doors.
Meanwhile, the other GMs are starting to circle like vultures, hoping a desperate team makes a desperate deal. (Arizona plucked away defenceman Kevin Connauton on waivers earlier in the day.)
Everyone in Columbus realizes this season is already lost. The question is can they turn this team around fast enough to save themselves? Both Davidson and Kekalainen have only one year remaining on their contracts beyond this season, and extensions aren’t coming shortly.
The pressure will be on to make short-term fixes to try to coax out a playoff berth next season. The smart move, however, will be to try to stay patient, given what’s coming.
One of the franchise’s biggest issues, throughout its history, has been its blueline. In fact, you can make the argument that the Blue Jackets have never had a No. 1 defenceman in 15 seasons.
That’s one problem that finally has obvious solutions. After the deal with the Predators, Columbus has three defencemen taken in the top eight in the NHL’s last four drafts: Ryan Murray, Seth Jones and Zach Werenski.
After years of injuries, Murray is finally evolving into at least a No. 2, and he is only 22 years old.
Werenski, meanwhile, doesn’t turn 19 until next July and is almost NHL ready after putting in a star turn for Team USA at the world juniors.
Jones? There were two reasons the Jackets felt comfortable moving Johansen. The first was they weren’t sure his laid-back attitude would ever allow him to evolve into the elite centre they wanted for what he’ll make on his next contract.
The second was that they believe Jones can be that elusive No. 1 defenceman.
That is the makings of a terrific NHL blueline. Then you add in a high pick this June – possibly first overall – where several elite forwards are available, and there’s a young foundation for a turnaround in a league where that’s becoming everything.
Columbus has had so many catastrophic seasons that it sometimes gets portrayed as a dead-end expansion market, but there are a lot of positives there. Ownership is strong and has offset considerable losses for years, allowing Davidson and Kekalainen to push the budget to within a few million dollars of the cap this season.
There is also a very underrated fan base in hibernation that will come out in a big way when the turnaround finally comes.
The Jackets’ biggest challenge – in addition to trying to stay patient – will be dealing with all their bloated contracts, especially as some of their young stars need to get paid. David Clarkson’s deal (thank you Dave Nonis) is the worst offender, but Brandon Dubinsky (signed until 2021), Fedor Tyutin, Scott Hartnell, Foligno and others have huge dollars and terms that they likely can’t live up to.
Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky is also being paid like a Vézina winner, but not delivering consistently enough.
Spending money efficiently is a huge key to winning in the NHL in the cap era, and it’s tougher in a place such as Columbus, where hometown discounts are rare.
But this isn’t a no-hope situation. There’s a turnaround to be made.
It just isn’t going to come easy. And Johansen might not be the last casualty.Report Typo/Error