As Bleak As Things Feel In Another Losing Season, There's Reason For Optimism As New Era Awaits

By Will Chase on April 1, 2024 at 10:15 am
Colorado Avalanche's Josh Manson and Columbus Blue Jackets' Mathieu Olivier fight in the third period at Ball Arena.
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

There is a light at the end of the tunnel.

Eight regular season games remain for the Columbus Blue Jackets before the commencement of an important offseason following the season finale against the Carolina Hurricanes on Apr. 16.

This season has been a clunky, at times vomit-inducing roller coaster ride, swallowing up a head coach before the season, its longest-tenured general manager, and a few castoffs at the trade deadline.

The 2023-24 season is technically better right now versus how things were a year ago. Dan Dukart wrote about the minimal bar-raising success from then to now.

But as he said, it's hard to feel all that better about the club today as the Blue Jackets finish towards the bottom of the league standings yet again.

In part, it's probably because we're too knee-deep in the mud of this current season and iteration of the team to see the forest through the trees.

Things finally bounced the Blue Jackets' way on Saturday against the Pittsburgh Penguins, on Jeff Rimer Night, as the franchise honored their 20-year play-by-play man as he calls his final games before retirement. Ed Francis spoke with Rimer’s son, Josh, about his father’s career.

Columbus scored first as they've done in their last six straight games and overcame a 3-1 deficit to win 4-3 in a shootout and stop a six-game losing streak.

The win ended a string of three straight losses to the Penguins in the latest installment of Steel City dominance. Columbus also won their final home game against the Penguins last season.

Before Saturday's win, Columbus finished an 0-4-1 road trip — despite scoring first in each game — and came away with one point.

They were seconds from winning the first game of the trip in Detroit before Lucas Raymond's game-tying goal with 13 seconds left — following Boone Jenner's failed empty net attempt — and Patrick Kane won the game 48 seconds into overtime.

The Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights blasted the Blue Jackets on consecutive nights, outscoring Columbus by a combined 10-3 margin and outshooting them 97-46 — apparently, the league took one shot away as it was 98, which would tie for the most ever surrendered by the Blue Jackets franchise in consecutive games.

The feeble Arizona Coyotes erupted for six goals in a 6-2 win, and then the Penguins did what they always do, winning for the 15th straight time in Pittsburgh.

With yet eight games still to play for Columbus, it's hard to imagine the Jackets not hitting the win column again until you look at the schedule and see the remaining gauntlet.

Through the end of the season, the Blue Jackets face teams either slated for playoff action or still in the race for the postseason.

Date Opponent
Apr. 1 Avalanche
Apr. 4 Islanders
Apr. 6 Flyers
Apr. 7 @ Hurricanes
Apr. 9 @ Lightning
Apr. 11 @ Panthers
Apr. 13 @ Predators
Apr. 16 Hurricanes

With 60 points on the season, Columbus has surpassed last year's total (59), but for a team that's last in the Eastern Conference and 29th of 32 teams, it'll be a tall order as they face a team with no fewer than at least the 77-point New York Islanders.

The Blue Jackets were not dealt any favors down the stretch losing Patrik Laine (NHL/NHLPA Player Assistance Program) and Adam Fantilli (calf laceration) before the All-Star Break, Kent Johnson (torn labrum), Justin Danforth (concussion), Yegor Chinakhov (upper body), Sean Kuraly (lower body), Adam Boqvist (upper body), and Alex Nylander (upper body). Nylander returned Saturday.

Having any of those guys would have helped and maybe changed the fortunes a bit.

Before Saturday's shootout win, Elvis Merzlikins allowed exactly six goals in each of his three prior starts against the Winnipeg Jets, Avalanche, and Coyotes. Daniil Tarasov, however, has looked like the No. 1 goaltender over the second half since Feb. 10, going 4-6-1 with a .923 save percentage — 13th in the league — and 2.76 goals against average.

Health has been Tarasov's primary issue, but when healthy, he's shown how capable he can be as the sample size of his workload increases.

The goaltending situation will be very interesting to monitor through the offseason.

With the culmination of the season two weeks away, it will mark the end of 23 on-ice seasons in franchise history — omitting the lost year from the lockout in 2004-05 — and the ushering in of a new era for the franchise.

With a new GM to come for the first time since 2013, a wide net is cast for candidates, and we'll have much more on this over the offseason.

As Rimer bids adieu, there will be a new voice to call the action and chronicle the seasons to come.

There will be a high lottery pick this spring, which makes the recent rash of losing all the more palatable. Otherwise, the narrative goes on about how the team wins meaningless games late to take themselves out of draft positioning.

And finally, an outdoor game at Ohio Stadium against the rival Red Wings.

We don't know what the team will look like on the ice next season, who will be the person in charge of the roster, and who will even be calling the action. But with changes afoot, it's an opportunity for a much-needed breath of fresh air. 

Next year, health permitting, we'll have full seasons from Fantilli (tied for seventh among all rookies with 12 goals) and continued growth for Johnson, Kirill Marchenko, Dmitri Voronkov (tied for eighth among rookies with 31 points and tied for fourth with 17 goals), and the core cast of characters.

It's been nearly a quarter century of very underwhelming hockey in Central Ohio, with a playoff series victory in 2019 as the highlight.

As a new era awaits, it's time to rally.

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