The Stanley Cup Finals Is A Stark Reminder That The Columbus Blue Jackets Have A Ways To Go

By Dan Dukart on June 20, 2022 at 10:15 am
The Tampa Bay Lightning and Colorado Avalanche left wing face off during game two of the 2022 Stanley Cup Final
© Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The 2022 Stanley Cup Finals is a matchup for the ages.

In the one corner, you have the Colorado Avalanche, a team that has been building a juggernaut slowly but surely since a dreadful 2016-17 season in which they tallied an NHL-worst 48 points. In 2020-21, they won the President's Trophy, given to the club with the most points in the regular season. And after bowing out in the playoffs in the second round in three consecutive years, the Avalanche have gotten over the hump and are now just two wins away from hoisting the Stanley Cup.

In the other corner, you have the Tampa Bay Lightning, who are looking to make history by nabbing their third consecutive Stanley Cup. The last team to accomplish the feat was the 1980-83 New York Islanders, meaning no current players in this series were even alive the last time a three-peat occurred. The Lightning have won 11 straight playoff series, their last defeat coming at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets back in 2019.   

Cale Makar, the Avalanche all-world defenseman, probably said it best.

These two teams deserve to be in the Stanley Cup Finals, and the rest of the NHL is forced to play catch-up. One thing I've come back to while watching the playoffs this year is how close - or far - the Blue Jackets are from truly contending. I don't mean 'make the playoffs and be a difficult out in the first round' contending, I mean being a favorite in a playoff series, going on deep runs, and then heading into the next season with optimism that the club can build on that success, and maybe even go further.

Friends, the truth is that the Blue Jackets aren't all that close. Please, don't shoot the messenger. If you've watched the first two games of the Stanley Cup Finals but think the Blue Jackets are a player or two away from contending, I have a bridge to sell you.

The Blue Jackets aren't alone. How many teams - even current playoff teams - can compete with the Avalanche and Lightning? Teams like the Nashville Predators, Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals, and even teams that made it further, like the Edmonton Oilers, have to be watching this series and realizing that they don't have anywhere near the depth to compete. Where does that leave non-playoff teams?

But there is good news. The Blue Jackets are genuinely building the right way. Next month will mark back-to-back off-seasons with multiple first-round draft picks. There are truly zero regrettable contracts on the books. The roster has been flipped from its past playoff iteration and is now establishing its own culture. And while 2021-22 didn't yield a playoff spot, most agree that the organization writ large took a step in the right direction. Rinse, repeat, and keep accruing talent and depth. Purge the dead weight, and retain those who you can envision competing in games in mid-to-late June. 

As a fan of the sport, this current championship round is tantalizingly good. The skill, the speed, the class on display... it's been almost overwhelming. But it's also given me pause about the state of the rest of the rosters in the NHL, and that includes Columbus. The Avalanche and Lightning have managed to navigate the salary cap to a near-perfect level of efficiency, and both teams boast an All-Star Game's worth of players in their respective top-sixes alone. Their depth players all play a very specific role, and that, coupled with the size and speed that they can ice, means there are virtually no weaknesses. They've provided both a template and a challenge to the rest of the NHL: adapt or fall behind. 

The Blue Jackets aren't one or two pieces away from contending with these behemoths, and while I'm sure some in the comments will push back ("Dan, Columbus already beat Tampa in the playoffs, what are you TALKING ABOUT?"), I beg you to stop missing the forest for the trees. Winning a playoff round isn't the goal (despite what the world's worst marketing campaign says). Becoming consistent contenders, year after year, is the best bet of winning a Stanley Cup. 

And that's the goal, isn't it?

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