Newfound Respect: Success Could Beget Success as the Blue Jackets Try to Improve This Offseason

By Jeff Svoboda on April 28, 2017 at 7:17 am
The Blue Jackets set a franchise record for wins this year.
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Any pro sports league is a closed ecosystem where everybody knows everybody.

Everyone talks. Reputations are formed. Breaking them requires a concerted effort.

With just two playoff appearances in the first decade and a half of the franchise’s existence, it’s not hard to figure out what the reputation was of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

The club had brought in plenty of people who had respect in the league throughout its existence. Doug MacLean quickly built the Florida Panthers into a winner. Ken Hitchcock won a Stanley Cup with Dallas. Such veterans as Michael Peca and Anson Carter were respected around the league when they arrived in Columbus.

Whatever the formula was, though, there was something missing. Plans came and went. Playoff appearances, few and far between, were followed by dumpster fires. The words “country club atmosphere” were bandied about. Young players went from the future core to traded for parts. Marquee free agents rarely had Columbus on the short list. Nationwide Arena sure was a good place to throw in a backup goalie the night before taking on a Pittsburgh or a New York.

As an NHL lifer, few people knew this quite like John Tortorella. Since he was hired with the club in the throes of an 0-7 start to the 2015-16 season, Tortorella made no bones about what the league’s thoughts on Columbus were.

For the Blue Jackets to win that respect, it would not be a simple or quick task. It would be done only without shortcuts.

“To gain respect in this league, it has to be consistent,” Tortorella said in November. “We’re taking steps in the right direction. … This is a tough league. We have quite a bit of road to travel here for us to get where we want to be, and then maybe we’ll be a team that other teams look at say, ‘You know, that’s a good team.’”

The road is surely not complete, but it is fair to say the Blue Jackets made significant strides in that regard during the 2016-17 season. Columbus racked up 50 wins, had the second-longest winning streak in NHL history and finished fourth in the league in points while staying in contention for the Presidents’ Trophy until late in the campaign.

The momentum was dulled by a late-season seven-game losing streak and bowing out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in five games, but with the youngest roster among postseason squads, the arrow on the Columbus is pointing upward.

“Torts talked about earning respect early on in the year,” Kekalainen said. “I think we did that with our regular season play for sure. We want to keep earning it every day and into the playoffs in particular.”

The benefits that come along with that increased respect are numerous – and this is the time of year they are apparent. As Columbus goes into the offseason looking to bolster its team with an eye on making a deeper run in the postseason next time around, the opportunity to add players who can make a difference feels tangible.

“In my opinion, we’re lucky to have Columbus be as good as it is as we try to improve as an organization.”– Blue Jackets president John Davidson

Those who run the team, including general manager Jarmo Kekalainen and president John Davidson, already see a difference in the way the Blue Jackets are treated on the market.

“I think we’ve taken out team off the no-trade list of players,” Kekalainen said wryly. “I think that we are also a destination for free agents that for sure, when they put together their top destinations, we can be on those lists. We’ve seen the way we get treated by agents and players, college free agents and junior free agents now, that has changed.

“I’m kind of joking about the no-trade list, but those are real, too. … I think we’ve played ourselves off of those lists because of the organization, the city and the quality of team, where we’re at.”

The brain trust has said all options are on the table as Columbus looks to get better, and all of the pieces seem to be coming together as the Blue Jackets try to improve. With such respected NHL names as Davidson and Tortorella in charge, there are many who see the Blue Jackets as scratching the surface of the team’s on-ice potential.

For years, many have described the city a sleeping giant of a market, one ready to explode for postseason success, and for the second time in four years, Nationwide Arena proved that with raucous, dedicated playoff crowds.

Add in a city that has expanded into one of the top media markets in the country and one whose cosmopolitan growth offers benefits for players of all demographics – a burgeoning night life for younger players, family-friendly activities for older ones and a strong supply of steakhouses for each – and the organization feels it offers an attractive place to play.

“Just about everybody I talk to … people believe in the city of Columbus, the quality of life,” Davidson said. “I don’t think there’s anything negative whatsoever. The team is better. The city has so much to offer. The people that have come here like Sam Gagner and Seth Jones, they go on and on about this place. People that come in from out of town that are in your business, they rave about Columbus.

“In my opinion, we’re lucky to have Columbus be as good as it is as we try to improve as an organization.”

But the missing piece all along has been on the ice. Your reputation is only as good as your won-loss record in many ways, and for much of the franchise’s existence, Columbus didn’t get the job done. It led to a vicious circle where it was hard for the organization to gain footing in the trek it hopes to take to the top of the NHL’s mountain.

The journey isn’t over by any means, but with the season the Blue Jackets just had, the organization is going the right direction – and those in charge feel they have a lot to offer.

"Players first and foremost, they want to win,” Kekalainen said. “We won a lot of games this year, so I think it's a very good destination for players. They know it and we know it."

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