While most remember the Blue Jackets' 2016-17 season fondly due to a 16-game winning streak, I remain resentful that the playoff format pitted two of the top four teams in the NHL against each other.
In the first round.
Ah yes, the 2016-17 season. Who could forget this plucky group? Everything seemed to be looking up for the club:
- Alexander Wennberg seemed like a surefire top-six center after his third year in the NHL, going from 20 to 40 to 59 points.
- Cam Atkinson posted a (then) career year with 35-27-62. His 35 goals and 62 goals led the team in scoring, and his goal total by season had increased every year he had been in the league.
- Sam Gagner, signed off the scrapheap, centered arguably the best fourth line in the NHL on his way to 50 points.
- Sergei Bobrovsky won his second career Vezina Trophy as the league's top goalie. He's the only active goalie today with multiple Vezina's.
- The club's power play finished 12th in the NHL at 19.9%. In the year's since, it's gone down every season (17.2%, 16.4%, 15.4%).
- Oh, yeah, the winning streak! The 2016-17 Blue Jackets, who had one thirty-goal scorer and nobody with over 62 points, managed the second-longest winning streak in NHL history.
The Blue Jackets didn't lose for over a month. The only team in the NHL's history with a longer winning streak was the 1992-93 Pittsburgh Penguins, who, coming off a Stanley Cup, iced one of the best rosters of all time, with Mario Lemeiux, Kevin Stevens, Ron Francis, Jaromir Jagr, Larry Murphy, Rick Tocchet, etc.
How did this Blue Jackets team almost match that team?
It was a truly magical season. In hindsight, perhaps my favorite memory from this group was the New Year's Eve match-up against the Minnesota Wild. Heading into the game, the Blue Jackets had won 14 straight, the Wild 12 (note: the Wild's 12-game winning streak ranks t-10th in NHL history).
For a regular season game between teams in opposite conferences, it was a fantastic drama. New Year's Eve. Someone's streak is going to end. Then Josh Anderson and Matt Calvert fought Chris Stewart and Matt Dumba. "I thought out bench was 10-feet tall after that", said John Tortorella after the game.
The Blue Jackets won the game 4-2, extending their winning streak to 15 games. Happy New Year.
The Blue Jackets hit New Year's Day 2017 with a 26-5-4 record after this win over the Wild. What a season that was. #CBJ— Jeff Svoboda (@JacketsInsider) May 6, 2020
The club's 50-24-8 record ranked them fourth in the NHL with 108 points, their high water mark to this day. Their reward for such a season? The 111-point Pittsburgh Penguins, who finished second in the NHL behind only the Washington Capitals. That's right, three of the top four teams in the NHL resided in the Metropolitan Division. The fourth best team in the NHL didn't earn home ice advantage, but 98-point Ottawa did. Cool.
When the NHL adopted its current playoff format in 2013-14, the intent was to engineer rivalries in the early-goings of the bracket. Despite years of inequity, Commissioner Gary Bettman has held firm that the format has worked as planned. But the pros/cons are clear as the California sky. From SportsNet:
Format pro: Intensifies divisional rivalries and races. Allows for March Madness–style bracket contests.
Format con: Creates an unfair advantage for teams in weaker divisions, and tougher early-round matches for strong teams in superior divisions. More teams in the East than in the West.
Before I go on, I know what you're thinking. "You have to beat them at some point anyways, so it shouldn't matter when they play." That's fair, but remember that at the time this was a franchise who - through 16 years of existence - had never won a playoff series. This organization needed a break. This wasn't their year.
The inequity isn't an isolated occurrence. From a 2018 cbc.ca article:
"It's not a good system when your one wild-card team can cross over and they have kind of, if they perform, a clear path to get to the final," Washington GM Brian MacLellan said. "I think the incentive should be the higher team gets the easier path."
"It's stupid. It's the stupidest thing ever," forward Daniel Winnik of the league-leading Capitals said. "It doesn't work. It doesn't make sense."
Here's the gut punch from GM Jarmo Kekalainen: "I don't think it was designed for this. I don't think it was intended for this to happen."
The Penguins beat the Blue Jackets in five games before dispatching the President Trophy-winning Washington Capitals. After weathering the Senators in the Eastern Conference Final, they knocked off the Nashville Predators to win the Stanley Cup for the second consecutive year. Of course they did.
"I don't think it was designed for this. I don't think it was intended for this to happen."– Jarmo Kekalainen
Most Blue Jackets fans look back fondly on the 2016-17 season. Who could have expected that roster to overachieve like they did. Scrolling through the stats, it's almost comical that this was the roster that produced the organization's only 100-point season. After the season, Kekalainen knew he had to acquire more firepower, and he did just that by sending Brandon Saad back to the Chicago Blackhawks for Artemi Panarin. Panarin would ultimately deliver the Blue Jackets' first and only playoff series victory.
I walk down memory lane with mixed emotions. The winning streak was magical, and who knows if we'll ever see anything like that again - from any team in the NHL. But since then, Alexander Wennberg has regressed. So, too, have veterans like Nick Foligno and Brandon Dubisnky, as father time never loses. The power play has never been reestablished, as Gagner went to Vancouver as a UFA. William Karlsson, who had six goals in 81 games, left for Vegas and then decided that scoring 43 would be better.
And a season where the magic seemed like it would never end was quieted sternly and abruptly by a team that was battle tested and ready for another Stanley Cup.