Regardless Of What Your Blue Jackets Expectations Were For This Season, It Wasn't This

By Will Chase on November 20, 2023 at 1:45 pm
Columbus Blue Jackets General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen speaks after hiring Mike Babcock as the new head coach during a press conference at Nationwide Arena.
The Columbus Dispatch-USA TODAY NETWORK

No matter what your expectations for the Columbus Blue Jackets were heading into the season, we can agree it wasn't this.

Those expectations likely vary depending on who you ask. The owners, the front office, coaches, and the fan base.

Each segment has fully invested interests in a franchise that has been around for 23 years and features limited success, including one trip past the first round of the playoffs — two, including the Covid bubble run.

Entering the week of Thanksgiving, the Blue Jackets are well out of the playoff picture. Their four wins are the fewest number of wins in the Eastern Conference. Teams can't win the Stanley Cup in November but they can lose it.

Last year at Thanksgiving, Columbus was 7-11-1 and brought up the rear of the Metropolitan Division. As The Columbus Dispatch's Michael Arace referenced last Thursday, 13 of the 16 teams in a playoff spot by Turkey Day last season ended up in the playoffs.

It was essentially the same thing the year before with 12.

Whether people thought the 2023-24 Blue Jackets were a team meant to contend for the playoffs before the season or not, it's safe to say everyone expected a much different start to this season.

For starters, Erik Gudbranson has as many points as Johnny Gaudreau. The leading scorers on the team are two defensemen who weren't even on the roster by Thanksgiving last season, as Ivan Provorov has 12 points and Zach Werenski has 11 points, with two goals between them. Boone Jenner leads the team with eight goals and the forward group with 11 points. Adam Fantilli and Kirill Marchenko have nine points each.

The Blue Jackets are 1-4-4 in one-goal games which is telling as it's been the more mystifying storyline this season.

Losers of nine straight, the Blue Jackets blew a lead in seven straight games, with two crushing losses in overtime or the shootout in which the opposition scored the game-tying goal with under a minute left in regulation.

There are two ways people can look at this team so far.

The glass-half-full approach in which the club is snakebitten in the third period, but they're right there. They play well enough to win, and then something gets away from them at the end.

And then the glass-half-empty approach.

Too many blown leads, turnovers, and tired postgame media rhetoric. A team that continues to spin its wheels.

One would think the poor third periods and blown leads would even out, and the Blue Jackets would win some of these games. But it'll be too late as far as the standings are concerned.

As the losses rack up, there's only so much more a player or coach can say in their postgame media availability. Whether finding a way to win the next one or not giving up. There's nothing left to say.

Head coach Pascal Vincent tries to be optimistic and point out the little things, but everyone understands the current state of affairs.

Equally as mysterious as the inability to close out games is the sudden disappearance of the team's biggest star and highest-paid player.

Gaudreau has seven points and only had one empty-net goal before firing home a wicked slapshot for his second goal of the season on Saturday. His first goal came in the club's last win nearly three weeks ago on Nov. 2 against the Tampa Bay Lightning. The most damning indictment of how things were going for Gaudreau came in the third period of last Thursday's loss to the Arizona Coyotes.

Entering the third period tied 1-1, the Coyotes scored twice in 28 seconds, which proved to be the difference. Gaudreau and Patrik Laine were benched in the third period, with the team desperate for the next goal. Laine was benched in the third period on Saturday inside the final 6:26 and a healthy scratch for the first time in his career on Sunday.

The fact your best players aren't on the ice when you need them most tells you what you need to know. And it was the correct decision. The young players have been the best players of late. Fantilli, Marchenko, and Dmitri Voronkov were the best line in Thursday's game, combining for 20 of the teams' 41 shots.

Things might appear rosier if the Blue Jackets had even three more wins right now.

Gaudreau should get going eventually. We've never seen this type of start to a season for him but he has the track record. Maybe Saturday's game is the one that gets him back in gear.

You could say the team has had a chance to win nearly all the games they've lost during their recent slide. Goaltending has been better than last year. Fantilli looks the part of being the third overall pick. Voronkov might be the most underrated player in the league. Marchenko has found his game since a pair of healthy scratches at the end of October.

But what about everything else?

When president John Davidson and general manager Jarmo Kekalainen had to admit they messed up with the Mike Babcock hire, that failure brought into question the future of each of these men with the organization moving forward.

Kekalainen has been the club's GM since 2013. He's hired four coaches and three since the summer of 2021: Brad Larsen, Babcock, and Vincent.

General managers don't usually get the luxury of hiring four coaches with such little success in the league and Kekalainen is the third-longest tenured GM.

The Nashville Predators have hired four coaches since entering the league in 1998.

Everyone understood the bold risk that came with hiring Babcock and bringing in all of his baggage. That the plan blew up before training camp was enough of a reason to dismiss the front office right then. But how would the upheaval have further impacted the team on the heels of training camp, and who would take over on likely an interim basis?

The Babcock drama and fallout prompted a statement by ownership as the McConnell's expressed their frustration.

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