The Columbus Blue Jackets have embarked on a recent “run” – for the National Hockey League’s (NHL’s) 30th ranked team, 4 consecutive wins is considered a “run” – during the past weeks since the rumored trade of their captain and franchise player, Rick Nash, didn’t materialize. What’s impressive about their recent win streak is that all four victories were against teams who are in contention for the Western Conference Stanley Cup playoffs – Phoenix Coyotes (twice), Colorado Avalanche and most recently against the Los Angeles Kings.
And while Nash remains, albeit not without a great deal of consternation and the probable prospects of an impending split, while recently acquired defenseman Jack Johnson has fit in quite nicely with the Blue Jackets and while former Calder Trophy goalie Steve Mason has recently resurrected his woebegone rookie year form, there is a great deal of confusion as to whether the team’s recent good fortune is a cause for optimism or is merely a case of ‘too little, too late’.
As of a week ago, when the Blue Jackets were a virtual lock to secure the NHL’s worst record and the best odds at landing the 1st pick in this summer’s NHL Entry draft having been 13 points behind with 20 games left to play in the regular season, their recent streak, combined with the 29th place Edmonton Oilers recent swoon has placed them only 7 points behind with 15 games left to play for both teams.
If you think that a recent surge of solid play, a positive, now relaxed locker room and their newfound role as a NHL playoff spoiler is a new phenomenon for this organization, this is merely an all too-familiar mirage in the organization’s floundering history.
There have been at least four occasions in which the Blue Jackets made an all-out effort, when the season was completely lost as it relates to any playoff possibilities, to obtain meaningless victories with the apparent veil of “playing for pride, for the city and its fans”. The thought for those desperate fans was that the solid finishes would build momentum going into the next season.
But I am here to tell you, in as polite a way as I possibly can – that notion is complete bunk.
Former Blue Jackets head coach Ken Hitchcock, currently the head coach of the St. Louis Blues, one of the leading candidates for the Jack Adams award as the NHL’s best head coach and the only coach to lead the Blue Jackets into the Stanley Cup playoffs, was once asked about what takeaways a coach can have for such a late-season surge when the season is knowingly lost. He stated the following, “This time of year, when your team is completely out of it, you can’t believe what you see, good or bad. It took me a long time to figure that out”.
In short, I couldn’t have said it better, myself.
This is not a case of playing for pride or for momentum. This is a case of playing for your contracts, for the opportunity to remain in the NHL or to pad your statistics when it comes time to negotiate your contract or contract extension.
There is a great difference between being ‘the hunted’ and ‘the hunter’, there is a great difference between playing for Lord Stanley’s Cup and playing to quite possibly ruin the opportunity to rebuild the team the way the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Chicago Blackhawks have and that is by positioning yourself for the opportunity to nab a generational player in the upcoming season’s entry draft.
For an example of how this hollow belief that a late-season surge is relative to momentum for the following season, those in Ohio’s capital city need look no further than to their neighbors to the south, the Cincinnati Bengals. For many a season, the Bengals would start the first half of their season with a record of 1-7, 2-6 or 3-5, then go on a late-season “run” with a 5-3 or 4-4 record for the second half, costing themselves a chance at the 1st overall pick in the draft, then only to endure the horrid disappointment of the same result the following season – in short, a vicious cycle.
In making a late-season run, even without any prospects for playoff opportunity, you jeopardize the chance at perhaps obtaining a generational – i.e. Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Alexander Ovechkin, at least as was believed in the early part of his career – or elite player – i.e. Henrik or Daniel Sedin, Jonathan Toews, Evgeni Malkin – something that many drafts possess, at best, two to three players of that type. A recent example would be the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, in which the first two selections were Ovechkin and Malkin. And while there were several solid players that were drafted afterwards, none of those drafted approximated the success of those two NHL stars.
Coincidentally, the Blue Jackets selected 8th, drafting what became their greatest draft bust – and this is from a team who may have cornered the market on 1st round draft disasters – Alexandre Picard. Picard has since been traded and currently is in the AHL with the Norfolk Admirals.
Blue Jackets fans aspire to believe that theirs is a cursed franchise, replete with conspiracy theories that the NHL’s league offices in Toronto ‘has it in’ for the Blue Jackets, both in in-game officiating and in video replays of goals and other calls that don’t seem to go their way. These paranoid thoughts even extend to perhaps the most asinine belief of all: we (Blue Jackets) have the worst luck with the lottery, having never jumped up any spots in the lottery and at times jumping back one spot.
The types of people who hold these beliefs can only be classified in one term: delusional, or dare I say, a loser’s mentality.
As it relates to games lost by referee’s calls, how many opportunities did the team have to win the game outright? There’s a simple solution to avoid this possibility: win the game, outright – don’t even leave it to chance. When Nicklas Lidstrom’s shot careened off of the post in the 2009 Stanley Cup finals, did you hear one solitary excuse from Lidstrom or the Red Wings? No, winners and champions don’t sink to that level of excuse-making.
As it relates to ‘bad luck with the lottery’, you’re basing the lot of your organization’s fortunes on the lottery? If the season is lost, you absolutely exert your best effort, but do so with your organization’s (American Hockey League – AHL) prospects playing for the remainder of the season, allowing them the opportunity to gain invaluable NHL-level playing experience. Much like hinging your fortunes of an official’s call, don’t even leave it to chance.
The upcoming entry draft contains several potential franchise-changing players in forwards Nail Yakupov, the consensus number one overall pick in the draft and Mikhail Grigorienko, defenseman Matthew Dumba and possibly center Alex Galchenyuk who is currently recovering from an Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) injury but has been ranked near the top of most NHL draft boards without playing a single game this season in the Major Junior-Level Ontario Hockey League (OHL).
For an organization like the Blue Jackets, one with easily its most disappointing season in their history, they cannot leave the opportunity for a game-changing player to chance and for the empty rationale of moral victories. If victories were that important, those should have been obtained in the early part of the season and not when it matters the least.
And while it may currently hurt the most, right now, the benefits of landing the type of player who can help turn around the fortunes of the Blue Jackets may be well worth the short-term misery.