In the parity-driven NHL, to make progress is impressive — to continue progress sets the elite franchises apart from the rest.
And so the challenge begins — again – for the Columbus Blue Jackets, a franchise that started to turn heads in the hockey world in the last half of the truncated 2012-13 season and continued to make significant steps forward in the season that just ended. Universally, it is considered a franchise on the rise, one with stability and vision, and the team itself has been widely praised for its consistent work effort and relentless style of play
After a memorable season, it’s a good place to be. And according to the front page of the team’s web site, "This is just the beginning." That’s a nobly optimistic perspective of what the future may hold for the franchise. To the extent it is accurate is in the hands of management, the coaching staff, and — most of all — the players.
At a year-end press conference Thursday at Nationwide Arena, Blue Jackets head coach Todd Richards emphasized he was pleased with the season and the direction of his team but not satisfied, not by a long shot.
"It is positive," he said about the season just finished. The further you get away from that game on Monday night, it’s a little easier to put the emotions and disappointment aside, and I think you are able to reflect back. Things we were able to accomplish as a team, as an organization, the steps we were able to take – there’s a lot to be excited and positive about.
"But at the end, we finished 15th out of 30 teams," he continued. "It is moving up — that’s what we want to do – but it’s still middle of the road. It’s mediocre. I’m talking 15th in a 30-team league. We want to keep pushing – we want to keep getting better."
One way Richards believes his team can keep moving on an upward track is to play a faster game. He wasn’t talking just about straightaway speed. He was talking also about elements like moving the puck more quickly and ramping up the mental part of the game so on-ice decisions are made more quickly and accurately.
"Players have to use the summer to train better, (to) get faster, and as a coaching staff, we’ve got to play faster systematically and how we play as a team," he explained. "The competitiveness of our team was right there. Our battle, our will, our want was right there. I think in Game Five, (the Penguins) elevated their play (and) it caught us off guard. They were playing faster than we were and I came out of the game thinking we’ve got to play faster."
The head coach acknowledged a quicker start next season was a topic of conversation in exit interviews just completed with players. For the second season in a row, the Blue Jackets rebounded from disappointing early-season results with a strong second half. Last year, the team lost a playoff spot on a tiebreaker. This year, it bounced all the way back to the top eight in the conference. So, how does the team prevent another slow start in October?
"Well it’s everyone — it’s everyone involved, not just them," Richards said. "For me, coaches have to do our work. Our PK needs to be better. One thing Pitt did was coming through the neutral zone on us — they were able to come in with possession, with some speed – so I think we have to come up with a solution to that.
"The onus also falls on the players doing their job over the summer, both mentally and physically, being ready to go," he went on. "When we hit training camp, part of it is I think our players do the work and get ready for camp, but I think at times we get stuck in the mud a little bit, just based on where are we all fitting on the team. And we can do a better job at that, and some of that’s my responsibility too."
In the same press conference Thursday, Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen praised his team for its chemistry and work ethic and told the gathering he wished training camp would be starting right now. He’s that encouraged by the results of this past season and the possibilities ahead. As far as tweaks he will make to the roster, Kekalainen said the overriding attribute for players who may be added to the Columbus roster will be character.
"I think we have to be careful. We want to keep the good chemistry — and I think that was a big theme going in to this year. We want to give our young guys enough room to grow and an opportunity to play and get their ice time and get into the bigger roles and earning their spot on the team….but at the same time, we are always going to look at every option we have to make our team better.
"But with a special group like this you want to be sure — and I’ve emphasized this with our pro scouting staff and our amateur scouting staff – that when we bring in people, whether it’s through the draft or through free agency or trade we want to make sure about the character and the heart .
"We talk about playing fast, the ability to understand the game on that instinct level that makes the game fast," Kekalainen continued. "One thing about getting faster that’s in our control is getting bigger, stronger, faster, the physical aspect of the game. I can’t emphasize the character enough that we always bring in the right type of people not only as hockey players but as teammates and human beings. It’s going to be an important part of our scouting manual where we’re trying to find out the hardest thing to find out about hockey players, which is their character."
Kekalainen made a point of saying none of the young players who achieved so much this past season was handed anything. Each player earned his spot on the roster. And he said it would be the same moving forward, that none of the team’s top prospects will be rushed to the NHL level unless he is ready to make the jump. That’s how the elite franchises operate — they develop players and promote them when — by all assessments — they are more than prepared for the NHL.
"That’s why we brought some of those young guys here after the season (like Mike Reilly and Alexander Wennberg), so they could see the atmosphere in the building and the pace of an NHL playoff game and how much work they have to do to be able to pay on that level," Kekalainen noted. "That’s part of the education process that we want these guys to go through. And they were all wide eyes, goose bumps and who wouldn’t be in this building?
"And that’s one thing I’d like to say too. I can’t thank the fans enough for the type of atmosphere they created here — I’ve been to a lot of places myself and I’ve witnessed great atmospheres but this was something special. This was incredible here. And I hope that we can create that every game moving forward into the future."