It’s no surprise or secret that the pundits have placed the longest odds upon the Columbus Blue Jackets to win the Stanley Cup much less qualifying for the Stanley Cup playoffs. After finishing the 2011-2012 season with the National Hockey League’s (NHL’s) worst record, trading away their franchise player and face of the franchise in Rick Nash and enduring a fan protest and the eventual firing of former head coach Scott Arniel.
And while an immediate return was garnered for Nash in the form of forwards Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov from the New York Rangers, obtaining forward Nick Foligno in exchange for Marc Methot from the Ottawa Senators and obtaining former Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky in exchange for draft picks, numerous question marks remained for the Blue Jackets: goaltending, their improved yet, at times, porous blueline and a dearth of goal-scoring proclivity in the absence of consistent, guaranteed 30-goal scoring Nash.
However, with a shortened season and a murderous, condensed schedule that all NHL teams must endure, not to mention the effect of injuries, six days of training camp, no exhibition games and gaining overall team cohesion on the quick, anything can happen. In fact, in reviewing the standings after one week of NHL action, several teams who normally occupy the top of the standings find themselves near the bottom – the Washington Capitals, the Phoenix Coyotes and the Philadelphia Flyers, to name a few.
So, with all that, how can the Columbus Blue Jackets shock the pundits and possibly qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs?
While it won’t be easy, by any means, here is the blueprint for doing just that:
- Settling on a number one goaltender – to say that Steve Mason has struggled the past three seasons is an understatement. Mason has either been the worst, or near the worst, statistical goalie in the NHL for each of the past three seasons since his Calder Trophy (NHL’s best rookie) winning season in 2008-2009. Thus, Blue Jackets General Manager (GM) Scott Howson acquired Bobrovsky to compete against Mason for the starting netminding position. So far, Bobrovsky has been impressive, both in his results and in his overall work ethic. To his credit, Mason did come into the abbreviated training camp in the best shape since his rookie season and has looked solid in his two starts, to date. However, as is often said in most sports with such a crucial position, if you have two starting goaltenders you essentially have none. So it’s critical to establish who the workhorse should be in net. Also, whether fair or unfair, a goaltender who has struggled the way in which Mason has can be deflating to a team, to the point of affecting the energy levels and effort of the rest of the team.
- The Bob Factor – a better way of stating this is the ‘once around the league’ theory: as a former pitcher at the collegiate level, there is a sense of mystery with trying to ‘get the book’ on a player opponents have yet to see, or have not seen enough to get a gauge on a goalie’s flaws, if they have them. This has been the belief behind Mason’s struggles since his rookie campaign and may have factored into Bobrovsky’s struggles during the latter part of his rookie season and during the following season, although it’s believed that Both Bobrovsky struggled as the backup to Ilya Bryzgalov after the Flyers acquired Bryzgalov during free agency during the summer of 2011. But, as the NHL has decided upon having the respective conferences play against each other, thus not having intra-conference games may allow the Blue Jackets to reap the benefit of having Bobrovsky carry the burden of the workload as teams may spend a good part of the condensed season trying to figure out his specific weaknesses.
- A Commitment to Defense – this commitment is not limited to the Blue Jackets defensemen, although their play thus far has been sketchy at times, the commitment to defensive-mindedness has to extend to the entire team, to include the forwards, an ‘all in’ philosophy. This was the philosophy when the Blue Jackets made their only playoff appearance in 2008-2009, when then coach Ken Hitchcock enticed the team to adopt this gritty, two-way approach. This commitment is especially critical to a team who generally struggles, offensively as even with Nash, the Blue Jackets finished the previous season ranked 26th in the league in goals scored. But, in surrendering an average of 34 shots per game so far, this season, the defense must step up to be competitive for the remaining 43 contests.
- ‘Go To’ Scorers – note the plural notation. One of the primary issues that led to the Blue Jackets’ struggles in scoring was, in having an elite scorer like Rick Nash and a lack of secondary scoring was a case of ‘standing around and watching’, waiting to see what their elite power forward could do rather than having others take on the scoring responsibilities to win the game. Now that Nash is gone, there should be a whole lot less of standing around waiting for someone to seize goal-scoring opportunities. But the question is: who will assume that mantle, or, will a group of players assume the overall goal-scoring responsibility? Case in point: the Nashville Predators finished 10th in the NHL last season in scoring, however, no one on the Preds scored more than Patric Hornqvist’s 27 goals. But a deeper look at Nashville showed that as many as ten Preds scored at least 10 goals and eight players scored 15 or more goals. Conversely, last season the Blue Jackets were led by Nash with 30 goals but only seven players had more than 10 goals and only four players had more than 15 goals. So, in order for the Blue Jackets to become competitive, scoring has to adopt a ‘by committee’ philosophy.
- Avoid the Sulking/Rigor Mortis – The Blue Jackets opened up the season by going 1-0-1 in their first two games, only to follow that by losing five of their next six games to put them at a 2-5-1 record. The types of funks happen to many teams. Where the opportunity exists is how the Blue Jackets respond to that funk. In the past, such a losing streak would have created a slew of long faces and a resulting lack of energy and urgency. In short, this has been a fragile team. What’s the solution? It’s ‘in the (locker) room’ and it’s all ‘between the ears’. This is a case of establishing team leadership to stop the bleeding and make the lulls a short-term, not a lingering problem. For a team with a legacy of fragility, this could be the biggest key to such a paradigm shift to ending the nadirs that have haunted this team, historically a matter of not ‘if’ but ‘when’.
- Be Responsive – at the start of the 2009-2010 season, the Blue Jackets opened the season with a 12-6-2 record. What followed was a 10-21-7 tailspin and led to the eventual firing of Ken Hitchcock. At the start of the following season (2010-2011), the Blue Jackets opened the season with a 14-6-0 record but again, what followed was a 6-14-3 tailspin and that season was concluded with a similar 2-12-8 finish and only one win of which was in regulation. When these early season tailspins occurred, Blue Jackets executive management, specifically General Manager (GM) Scott Howson, failed to act upon the situation by either a trade, a minor league call-up or anything to shake up the foundation and to stop the bleeding before the season got away. While Howson is a notoriously risk adverse GM, allowing such a slide to occur can no longer happen if the Blue Jackets are to rise above the expectations that have placed on them based on their history of letting seasons slip away. Add to that a diminishing fan-base and the prior aversion to action can no longer be tolerated.
- Us Against the World – no one is expecting the Blue Jackets to succeed as evidenced by their having the longest odds to winning the Stanley Cup, currently at 100-1 followed by the New York Islanders at 66-1. Those kind of odds are very damning and should serve as motivation to prove the oddsmakers and pundits wrong. Much like avoiding the season slumps and lulls, this is also a question of character and professional pride. During the season of their only playoff appearance (2008-2009), no one gave the Blue Jackets any chance of making the playoffs but they rose above the skepticism and stunned the pundits by qualifying for the Stanley Cup playoffs. So, this has happened before. Granted, that team was led by Ken Hitchcock, the reigning Jack Adams award recipient as coach of the year as well as by Rick Nash who flourished in Hitchcock’s system, registering his greatest point totals, 79 points in 78 games played. But it has and it can happen and it’s up to the Blue Jackets executive and on-ice leadership to shift that paradigm of diminished expectations.
It’s safe to say that this is a tall order. The odds are stacked against them and the margin for error is extremely thin but again, in a shortened season, anything can happen.