As of Jan. 22, the Columbus Blue Jackets sit 8th place in the Eastern Conference—currently the last wild card playoff spot were the season to end today. Granted, there is a whole lot of season left to play, and after hosting five of their next six games, the Blue Jackets will have a daunting challenge in playing three vaunted Pacific Division foes in the Anaheim Ducks, the Los Angeles Kings and the San Jose Sharks—all prior to the 2014 Winter Olympics break.
But their recent performance suggests they can handle it.
Columbus has won a franchise-record seven consecutive games and have gone 15-6-1 in their last 22 games, an eerily similar stretch to their 19-5-5 frenetic finish at the end of the last year’s lockout-shortened season.
And they have done this with the National Hockey League’s 2nd youngest team — the average player is about 26 years old — after not resigning their leading scorer of last season, Vaclav Prospal, and enduring the some of the most “man games lost” because of injury, including star players, such as Nathan Horton (offseason shoulder surgery), Marian Gaborik (knee, then broken collarbone), during the first half of the season.
Through the early-season struggles, there was a small group of fans clamoring for a major move or two to jump-start the Blue Jackets and make an “all in” push to get into the playoffs. Granted, for a fandom that has experienced only one playoff appearance in the Blue Jackets’ 13-year history, such impatience is somewhat understood, but this is a management regime that truly embodies Blue Jackets President of Hockey Operations (PHO) John Davidson’s mantra, “brick-by-brick.”
In the past, this organization has either gone to drastic and risky measures to salvage a season — i.e. trading speedy winger Jason Chimera to Washington for Chris Clark during a major swoon, much less a playoff berth — making no moves during a collapse following a 14-6-0 start, or winning meaningless games when making the playoffs was well out of reach.
Instead, Blue Jackets General Manager (GM) Jarmo Kekalainen has taken a patient approach, opting to wait until he had a core group including Horton and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky who are healthy and able to mesh together with emerging, elite talent in Ryan Johansen and rookie defenseman Ryan Murray, who has displayed poise well beyond his years.
READ MORE: The Ascent of Ryan Johansen
It took a great leap of faith to wait through the struggles.
Perhaps the greatest example was to not bite at obtaining a new backup goaltender during Bobrovsky’s six-week groin injury, instead allowing Curtis McElhinney — a backup goaltender who played sparingly behind two of the greatest workhorse goalies in the league, Mikka Kiprusoff and Jonas Hiller — to stem the tide until Bobrovsky returned.
The easy thing to do would have been to succumb to the pressure of the “quick fix”; however, Kekalainen repeatedly stated that he and his staff had to allow themselves the chance to see how the team was playing at close to full strength before they could assess what changes, if any, had to be made.
The results have been nothing short of stellar: The Blue Jackets have won eight of their past nine games, including seven wins in a row, since Horton joined the squad. And Bobrovsky has been near perfect, fully returning to his Vezina Trophy-winning form of last season, posting a 8-0-0 record, a 1.68 Goals Against Average (GAA) and a .941 Save Percentage (Sv%) during that span.
As previously stated, there is a lot of regular season left to play, and injuries and lulls do occur during an 82-game regular season. But if the Blue Jackets do make the Stanley Cup playoffs this season, you can point to that critical juncture, when the team was struggling with injuries and consistent play, and when patience, exhibited by Kekalainen and the Blue Jackets management trust, was indeed a virtue.