Too Little, Too Late in Columbus?

Just when it appeared that the Columbus Blue Jackets were headed for a repeat of their late-November-late-January swoon–a 6-14-3 run which was eerily similar to their 3-14-7 debacle during the same period last season–they have rebounded with a stirring 10-3-3 run which has put them right in the thick of the Stanley Cup playoff race. While the Blue Jackets are four points away from the eighth seed, they have some games in hand to those teams who are currently ahead of them in the NHL Western Conference standings.

Coupled with the NHL trade deadline which is merely four days away, it begs the question: Is the Blue Jackets recent successful run a good thing or a bad thing?

Before you question my sanity (don’t worry, it’s been done before) let me explain why this somewhat crazy notion may have some merit.

The Blue Jackets have made the Stanley Cup playoffs only once in their 10-year history as the Western Conference’s seventh seed during the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs, which resulted in their being on the losing end of a four-game sweep at the hands of the Detroit Red Wings. It was thought that this playoff appearance may have been the springboard for their ascension as a regular playoff participant and perhaps their impending rise as a future NHL power.

What followed was a disastrous 2009-10 campaign, leading to the firing of the coach that led them to their first playoff appearance, Ken Hitchcock, as well as a string of disappointing performances by established players and prospects like Steve Mason, Derek Brassard and Jakub Voracek just to name a few.  The Blue Jackets finished with the fourth worst record in the NHL, so fans could only look forward to the one thing they were used to looking forward to for eight of their nine off-season’s, the NHL Entry Draft.

One would have thought that Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson would revamp the structure of the team with the fourth worst record in the league. Rather, he chose not to participate in the unrestricted free agent signing period and made one non-descript acquisition in claiming Ethan Moreau off waivers from the Edmonton Oilers.

Then, when the Blue Jackets, once again, faltered during the November-January time frame, Howson’s patience to not change the construct of the organization when he had opportunities was called into question. However, their recent successful run has appeased the extremely aggravated fan base which was just about to get used to another NHL Entry Draft lottery pick as well as the Blue Jackets being sellers for the NHL Trade Deadline period.

Assuming the winning ways continue for the Blue Jackets, combined with the needed faltering of the teams above them in the standings, were the Blue Jackets to make the playoffs, it would probably be around the seventh or eighth position in the West. The result of that placing would have the team face either the Detroit Red Wings, a veteran, playoff-savvy team, or the Vancouver Canucks, who with their up-tempo, prolific team would present a nightmarish match-up issue for the Blue Jackets.

While optimistic fans may view making the playoffs during two of their past three seasons as a rousing success, merely making the playoffs, only to be a potential first round casualty, does little for the long-term vision and construct this organization should be positioning itself towards. Mediocrity should not be considered the benchmark for success.

Assuming the Blue Jackets make the playoffs, the problems that exist with the organization since their inception would remain:  A lack of top-pair defensemen, a legitimate first-line center, a lack of puck-moving defensemen and a legitimate power play defensive specialist, otherwise known as a power play quarterback.

Add to that concerns about Mason was truly a one-year wonder or the organization’s franchise goalie and you had the makings of a directionless organization. Mason’s play has been vastly improved during this recent successful run and has eased the concerns for this area. But what happens if he returns to his struggling ways?

It was reported that during the January time frame when the team was mired in a slump, Howson was shopping around the likes of Mason, Voracek and Rusty Klesla to interested NHL teams. Were Howson able to swing a deal for any of these players, it would have resulted in obtaining players who could finally meet the long-term needs of the organization. But now that the Blue Jackets have been far more successful, the prospects for trading any of these players have greatly diminished.

While the Blue Jackets would appear to now be buyers rather than sellers, being able to buy versus actually successfully making deals are two vastly different things. And with a GM with a penchant for taking patience and keeping the status quo to unprecedented levels, it could lead to lead to risk aversion towards making the necessary ground-breaking, direction-molding moves the organization so greatly needs.

In short, while the organization would benefit in the short-term, the problems would remain for the long-term, far beyond the organization’s on-ice direction. The Blue Jackets have not yet recovered from the 25-percent reduction in full-season equivalent sales, so the fans remain skeptical (as they rightly should be). The team is still experiencing mounting financial losses, primarily as the result of arena lease issues. If speculation is indeed true as to courting prospective ownership groups, the financial and on-ice struggles would mitigate the prospects for interest from these groups, as smart business-persons should only invest in ventures that are or have the makings to be successful.

However, if the result is keeping the status quo and not addressing the organization’s needs for the long-term, it may be a bad thing for the greater good of the Columbus Blue Jackets organization, particularly if the goal is indeed the quest for Lord Stanley’s cup.

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