The 2015-16 season is a bitter, revolting taste in the mouths of the people charged with building the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Hope and hype, two words often used in conjunction in sports and words that often play off one another, dominated the summer. Hope turned into hype during training camp, as the Blue Jackets tore through the preseason and looked poised to come charging out of the gate.
And then, they blew a late lead on opening night. They lost another. And another. And before they could pick themselves up, they were 0-7 and shaking hands with a new head coach they'd seen on YouTube a few times.
But that head coach, coupled with well-timed rebound seasons from some of his most important players, parlayed a disastrous season into one of the NHL's more surprising redemption stories the following year. From barely 70 points to 108, the Blue Jackets vaulted up the ladder in the Metropolitan Division and put themselves in position to be talked about among the likes of Washington and Pittsburgh; now, how long they remain in that conversation is up to them.
GM Jarmo Kekalainen isn't afraid of a risk. Tom Reed of The Dispatch wrote a fine story earlier this week about Kekalainen's fearlessness, a characteristic that has earned the respect of his colleagues -- many of whom can maybe claim one trade of the caliber Kekalainen has pulled off. The thing about Kekalainen is, he will pursue every single avenue and will consider anything so long as he can improve his club.
His most recent strike is the biggest indication yet: these Blue Jackets, on the heels of their best season in franchise history, are readying to take their biggest step.
Trading for Brandon Saad was gutsy. Kekalainen dealt one of his top prospects (Marko Dano) and perhaps his best two-way player (Artem Anisimov) to get one of the young studs that the Chicago Blackhawks couldn't afford to keep.
Trading away Brandon Saad was even gutsier.
It takes conviction to look at the roster -- one that hummed along to the tune of 50 wins -- and decide the best way to upgrade it is to trade away the prized acquisition of two summers ago.
But, that's just what the risk-embracing Kekalainen did.
Artemi Panarin is one of the most naturally skilled players the Blue Jackets have ever had. He's a two-time 70-point player at 25 years old and was a dynamic player on a dynamic Blackhawks team.
Panarin adds a needed element, one that could only have been achieved by making a deal that a lot of GMs would wrestle with -- and one that many would walk away from. Brandon Saad is one hell of a player, let's not fool ourselves, but Artemi Panarin has the ability to change a game with one electric play.
Here's an example: leading 1-0 late in the third period, the Winnipeg Jets ring the crossbar on a chance from Andrew Copp. Seconds later, Panarin barrels down the right wing, slips his check and ties the game.
Out of nothing...something.
Panarin is a bold move, a much-needed catalyst on the offensive end. It was preceded by another bold move, sending a 2017 first-round pick to the Vegas Golden Knights in exchange for absorbing David Clarkson's contract and affording some additional room under the salary cap.
The Blue Jackets' scoring struggles in the playoffs reflected a lack of talent that Panarin brings, but he may not be the end of their summer upgrades.
Elliotte Friedman, as plugged in as they come, believes Kekalainen is looking for another scorer. Ilya Kovalchuk? Perhaps. It seems reasonable that they'd be on the hunt for another center, one whose skills complement the playmaking and distribution-focused efforts of Alexander Wennberg.
Regardless of where the search for offense ends up, when it concludes and whatever the solution, the Blue Jackets have made it clear that they mean business.
And this time, the "business" is an aspiration and expectations higher than they've been in the history of the franchise.