It was not the year that most Columbus Blue Jacket fans expected.
This coming season, the expectations will be limited.
But for the sake of the franchise, the upcoming retooling stage by Blue Jackets management needs to be a fast one.
This fall, Columbus will begin its third decade as a franchise, and have made it the conference finals exactly zero times, and only out of the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs once.
For a while, it looked like the Blue Jackets were going to bust through. They had plenty of young talent, fantastic goaltending, and a tough-as-nails defense. Remember how bright the future looked after this:
That was just two seasons ago, but it feels like forever ago. Artemi Panarin, one of the most talented players in franchise history, left for New York. The team traded an often-injured but quality defenseman away in Ryan Murray to ensure cap space for Pierre-Luc Dubois, who played all of five games for Columbus before being traded, a request he made before the ink was dried on his new contract. They were sellers at the trade deadline, and the final blow came this offseason, when Seth Jones desire to look elsewhere after the coming season was made public.
Some players, most notably Alexandre Texier, have not developed the way that the team envisioned. Others, like Gabriel Carlsson, are looking less likely to pan out as general manager Jarmo Kekalainen and company expected.
So it's back to the drawing board, again, for the team that can't seem to figure it out. This is not to say that what the Blue Jackets are doing - whatever you want to call it - is the wrong thing to do. A step back is necessary for a team that played as the most recent squad did.
But whether this is a reload, as Kekalainen has stated, or a rebuild, one thing is true: the Blue Jackets need to get it right this time, and it can't be a years-long process before results are seen.
The promise to rebuild is not a new one; when Kekalainen and former-now-present-again President John Davidson came to Columbus nearly a decade ago, many of the same things were said as are being said today. They made the franchise better, but the fact remains that the team only made it to the second round of the playoffs once, and were back to bottom-feeders this season. Whether or not it was a success depends on how you define success.
So now here we are again, wanting to build the right way, do the right thing with the right players who want to be here. It's not lip service, what they're saying, but it's also not much different than what was said in the middle part of last decade.
There are things the Blue Jackets can do to invigorate the players, the fans, and the franchise. Rumors of Jack Eichel are swirling, the return for Seth Jones may be better than anyone imagined, according to The Athletic's Pierre LeBrun, and if some of the young Russian prospects do bring to the table what they have the potential to do, the 2021-22 season may be a fine-tuning season before the beginning of several great years starting next fall.
But however they do it, they need to keep the fans excited, and the best way to do that is to make these down days as fast as possible. Time is already ticking.
Right up the street from Nationwide Arena is the brand new Lower.com Field, which will host its inaugural Columbus Crew
SC game during the 4th of July holiday weekend. While soccer and hockey don't have much of a schedule overlap, there is at least some during the spring and fall. For a casual sports fan deciding between the two, a good soccer team is going to beat out a struggling, re-whatevering hockey team. The quality of the team is just the beginning; the Crew will offer direct competition with cheaper tickets, an ample number of weekend games, an outdoor sport during a decent time of year. A winning Blue Jackets team can overcome these things; a losing one will not.
You may say that fans can just buy Blue Jacket tickets for the winter, and Crew tickets for the summer, and that's true - if they have the means to do so. Not everyone does though, and a number of fans of both teams will need to decide if they want a quarter-to-half season package for the Blue Jackets, or a full season, chalked full of Saturday night games, for the Crew. Hockey fans will pick the Blue Jackets, soccer fans will pick the Crew, but which one will the casual sports fan pick?
If the Blue Jackets don't get on the right track quick, their ownership may not like the answer to that question.