Until 14 months ago, hope sprung eternal in the hearts of Blue Jackets fans. Each year, they hoped "this year" would be the year that they broke through and became a respectable, winning team. With the exception of the one year they went to the postseason in 2008-2009, where they were swept by the Detroit Red Wings, it seems as if they have just been treading water.
That all began to change 14 months ago, as John Davidson was hired as the President of Hockey Operations. He brought in Jarmo Kekalainen as the new general manager in Feb. 2013. Between them, they made everyone accountable and began setting the foundation that will pay dividends over the long haul.
They’ve been waiting until they had a healthy roster to get a full "read" on where the team is and what they have to do to make it better. They’re still waiting. Yes, last summer’s marquee free agent acquisition, Nathan Horton, is in the lineup. Matt Calvert has returned from Injured Reserve. But others are on sidelined with injuries, such as Marian Gaborik, Blake Comeau and Jared Boll.
"We know what we have now," said Kekalainen, "with Nathan playing for us. Not that we didn’t know what we were getting when we signed him. We had a pretty good picture of what he could be for us. I’d like to see our team healthy, when everybody’s healthy, for a little bit longer than just one game. Any team that’s successful in this league usually stays healthy for a little while. Or if they don’t, they have great depth. I don’t think we’re quite there, yet."
"(Horton) balances our lineup," Davidson said. "But he’s still finding his game. He’s getting some shots through. When you’re out as long as he was, you train, you can doing everything you want, but when you get into the reality of what a game at the NHL level gives you, it’s a different world. I mean that you’ve got to play yourself into shape. I see him getting better with each game. You can also see his experience level as he finds his game. You can see his ‘smarts’ on the ice, which is a big thing.
"First of all, (Horton) is an incredible skater," he said. "There’s power and speed there. But he’s a player that understands the game, understands where to go. He doesn’t waste a lot (of energy), that’s obvious. He’s very good at moving the puck and getting it where it has to go. I like watching him play. He’s a very well-schooled player. He’ll get better and better as he goes along.
"I think we’re getting to that point where we have a pretty good idea of what this group is capable of doing," said Kekalainen, " what we might need to do as far as improvements. That’s our job. That’s what we keep doing every day, evaluating this team. We try to make the best possible decisions to improve."
Last year at the trade deadline, Kekalainen made a deal that brought Gaborik to Columbus, while sending Derick Brassard, John Moore and Derek Dorsett to the New York Rangers. With the trade deadline set for March 5, one week after the teams return from the Olympic break, will we see a flurry of activity that week or prior to the break?
"Well, I think that the right deal becomes the right time," he said. "Whenever there’s a possibility, in our minds, to improve our team we’re going to do it. Whether it’s before the Olympic break or to prepare during and do it after, it doesn’t make any difference. I think there’s plenty of time afterwards, even though there’s just a few days, physically."
Just because the league is taking a break for the Winter Olympics doesn’t mean Davidson and the rest of the staff won’t be busy.
"It’s Jarmo’s job to talk to the general managers," said Davidson. "A lot of them will be over there (Sochi), and the ones that aren’t, he’ll be on the phone with. He’ll do a lot of his homework prior to leaving, too, to set the team up for things that could possibly happen.
"We’ve got myself, (assistant general managers) Bill Zito and Chris MacFarland that will be here. We’re also going to take advantage of that time to see a lot of American League and junior games. Regarding the trade deadline, I don’t see much happening. I think the flurry will happen right before the deadline. You never know, though."
"The last couple of days before the deadline, everything heats up," Kekalainen continued. "Just because there is a deadline doesn’t mean that you haven’t been talking about (possible deals) for a while. When both sides are finally ready, it doesn’t take very long."
While Kekalainen will be in Sochi, Russia, for the Olympics, he will still be evaluating any possible deals that might present themselves. "I’m the one who contacts the teams," he said, "so I’ll be keeping them (front office staff) in the loop. I’m sure that there’s going to be a lot of general managers there. We can have conversations in Sochi."
"We’ll be staying touch with the guys that are here (Columbus). I don’t anticipate that being any kind of a problem. Besides, it gives me a chance to see and evaluate a lot of players that are over there. (The Olympics) is another opportunity to play in a pressure situation and it tells you a lot about the players that are competing on that level."
For some, having the Olympic break in the season might present a problem. Not in Davidson’s eyes.
"It’s different, but it’s not a kink," he said. "When you get dealt a schedule, you deal with it. It’s that simple. Nothing is ever going to be ‘peachy-keen’ all the time. It is what it is."
The Blue Jackets, led by Davidson and Kekalainen, are changing the perception that the rest of the league has of Columbus with their actions. Gaborik waived his no-trade clause to come here. Horton, who could have signed with many other teams, wanted to be in Columbus. These are just some of the bricks of the "brick-by-brick" philosophy permeating the fabric of the club.
"It’s hard for me to comment on how they viewed us three years ago, because I wasn’t here," said Kekalainen. "Certainly, our goal is to be respected around the league and be a team that no one takes lightly. The one thing that John Davidson said on the first day that he came here was that we weren’t going to be outworked. I think that’s a great starting point. We want to be that type of team, hard to play against, hard working and gritty.
"When you have those strong values, I don’t think that anybody’s going to take you lightly. Even if you have a little bit less talent, everybody is going to take you seriously if they know that it’s going to be a hard night and they are going to have to battle for every point that they get from us."
"When we add skill and other elements into that mix, I think that we’re well on our way to becoming a respected team around the league. We’re young, but I think that we have some real good pieces in place already that is going to be the core of our team for many years to come. We’re just going to have to keep adding through the draft and with smart moves. Hopefully in the near future, we’ll be respected by everybody in this league."