COLUMBUS, Ohio — From the press box high above the main concourse and within spitball distance of the new scoreboard, the ice in Nationwide Arena isn’t much different than it was a few years ago. In fact, for David Pagnotta, it’s nearly the same as it has been for any of the times he’s been in Columbus over the past few years, watching the Columbus Blue Jackets from just above section 216.
But something was clearly different when the editor-in-chief of the hockey lifestyle magazine The Fourth Period was in town two weekends ago to take in the CBJ’s 4-1 defeat of the St. Louis Blues. The team that fore-checked and penalty killed and defended its home territory was far from the team of years past.
“I don’t know what happened,” said Pagnotta earlier this week. “It’s a very different group than I’ve seen over the last few years. There’s this new life that’s just been spewing from the guys.”
Stunning. Spectacular. Unbelievable. Unfathomable. No matter the word NHL experts label it, the Blue Jackets meteoric rise from bottom-dwellers to playoff contenders is tantamount to the legend of the Phoenix and worthy of several Oscar-winning performances, starting with the supernatural performance of Sergei Bobrovsky in net.
“Whether they make the playoffs or not, this is a huge sign for this team that they can do some damage and that’s really what it’s all about,” said Pagnotta. “When you start winning like this and (Bobrovsky) makes that great save or Jack (Johnson) makes that great pass down the ice or Ryan (Johansen) can steal the puck and snipe the goal — that changes everything for an organization.”
Including how people view it. Perception is everything in life and hockey. And changing how people view Columbus and its team is a goal that exists for the players, as well as its fans.
“That’s what we’re here to do, is to change the perception of how the Columbus Blue Jackets are looked at throughout the league,” said Jackets’ defenseman James Wisniewski. “We don’t want to be that little step-brother of the league who people just step on every year. We want to become a well-known organization that’s known for winning. I think we took a tremendous step this year in proving that.”
They certainly have — the club’s stellar run has made everyone take note.
“With Columbus, it’s so interesting because, not only has it been the team that’s been the (punch) line for not being successful and not being a hockey town, but it’s a team that was ridiculed because of mismanagement and what (former general manager) Scott Howson did at the top of that team,” said Yahoo! Sports Puck Daddy editor, Greg Wyshynski. “It was a constant struggle.”
By the time the team had hit rock bottom in the standings and the Rick Nash fiasco — which Wyshynski referred to as a “circus” — commenced, followed by losing out on the No. 1 draft pick, the firing of Howson, the loss of the All-Star game, well… “It obviously couldn’t go any lower,” for the Blue Jackets, said Wyshynski, adding that the league storyline quickly became: “What the hell else can go wrong” in Columbus?
But then, rather suddenly, almost overnight it seemed, folks like Wyshynski and Pagnotta, both of whom have covered the league for years, found themselves asking a very different question about Columbus: What the hell went right?
“It started with the Nash trade,” said Wyshynski of when two very important things happened for Columbus: A culture change inside the room and a shift outside the room in how people perceived the club after the New York Rangers picked up Nash, a conditional third-round pick and minor league d-man Steve Delisle in exchange for forwards Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, defensive prospect Tim Erixon and a first-round draft pick in 2013.
“That was, to a lot of us, a signal,” he said, that Columbus was headed for something either monumentally great or monumentally disastrous — either way, stuff got real. Fast. The trade provided a paradigm shift within the culture of the club that took effect almost immediately.
“When you have a player like that, you’re waiting for him to do something superhuman and in some cases the guys assume Nash will take care of things,” said Wyshynski. “But when you clear out the star player, all of a sudden guys behind him and in his shadow take over the team. And I think we saw that.”
Though the deal initially seemed “underwhelming,” said Wyshynski, it changed under the direction of two very large hands.
“When (president of hockey operations) John Davidson took over and he brings in (general manager) Jarmo Kekalainen,” said Wyshynski, a huge fan of J.D. and his work with the St. Louis Blues, “Immediately I said, ‘This could be something that could get expedited.’ The change in personality (of the club) could be more immediate than anything else.”
And it was. Davidson went first-thing to the room and made it clear to everyone that it didn’t matter who they were — they would work hard every time they skated onto the ice. The attitude shift has helped the Blue Jackets learn what it takes to win.
“I think we’re starting to realize how hard winning is, said Wisniewski. “It takes that extra blocked shot, that extra effort, to win every night. It’s easy to lose by one goal; it’s hard to win by one goal.”
That kind of gritty mentality was Davidson’s promise to the fan base that, win or lose, the Blue Jackets would never again make it easy for a team to get two points from them.
To date, he’s kept that promise.
“Quite frankly (the team) got the message,” said Pagnotta. “This is an organization that has the confidence to get the job done. This is an organization that if they don’t make the playoffs it’s because there wasn’t enough time. This team is focused and confident in their abilities. You can’t buy that. You can’t trade for that. No matter how many superstars you go out and get.”
The club did pick up a proven superstar goal scorer at this year’s trade deadline in Marian Gaborik. The Jackets picked up the 40+ goal scorer, as well as prospect defensemen Blake Parlett and Steve Delisle, in exchange for Derick Brassard, Derek Dorsett, John Moore and a sixth-round draft pick. But this club isn’t about superstars defining their identity any longer — this club is about scoring by committee, rolling all four lines and getting contributions on the scoreboard from everyone from Gaborik to Jared Boll.
But the biggest contributor to this club, the reason everyone says the Blue Jackets are in the position they are now, is the play of Bobrovsky.
“He absolutely became the guy that they absolutely needed,” said Pagnotta. “It starts from the net out and the fact that Bobrovsky has done what he’s done is incredible. He’s helped them win. Winning spews confidence. It emits it and whether you’re a fourth-line or first-line player — it doesn’t matter. When you’re winning, you gain this extra sense of confidence. You can see and visualize, because ‘I know this guy has my back’ or ‘That guy’s going to be in that position.’ It just builds more and more confidence and that’s what builds a winning franchise; a competitive franchise; a playoff franchise.”
And if the Blue Jackets do write the fairy tale ending of making the playoffs, Wyshynski says Bobrovsky should walk away with the Hart Trophy. It’d be tough — goalies don’t typically pick up that honor, he said. But…
“He’s the MVP of the league. There’s no competition,” said Wyshynski, adding the nod to Bobrovsky only holds true if the CBJ clinch. “In watching the games, it’s less just a guy who’s there to offer consistency and more a guy who wins. There are times he flops around and makes a save that, had another goaltender been there, it’s a goal. It’s more than consistent goaltending — he’s flat-out being the best player on the ice.”
That includes Bobrovsky’s role in the CBJ’s penalty kill, which sits 11th in the league at 83 percent, and where the best line of defense is the goaltender. Bobrovsky is also considered a top contender for the Vezina Trophy. And as for any other awards this season? Wyshynski said he doesn’t see where anyone else really fits the bill, but he did say that head coach Todd Richards deserves a nod — but not the win — for the Jack Adams Award.
“He deserves some consideration, but, at the end of the day, he’s a product of his goaltender,” said Wyshynski. “That’s why I think Bobrovsky is the clear MVP; because he’s elevated this team to contention.”
Playoff contention, indeed. As of Wednesday morning, the Blue Jackets held tight to the No.8 spot in the Western Conference with 51 points, with the Detroit Red Wings (50 points) and Dallas Stars (48 points) nipping at their heels. Columbus in the playoffs is something no team wants, quipped Jeremy Roenick on NHL Overtime this week. He said Columbus could be “that team” — the one that comes from last-place misery to Stanley Cup glory via a hot goaltender and gritty play.
“That’s a huge compliment for us,” said Wisniewski, adding that he and the players understand winning brings more national exposure — and they want it. But at the end of the day, it’s always been about one thing for this club: “Our goal is not just to make the playoffs; it’s to win the Stanley Cup. And I don’t think there’s a lot of teams that would like to play the Blue Jackets in the playoffs right now.”
But Roenick, Wyshynski and Pagnotta are in agreement: It would take a miracle from the hockey Gods to vault the Blue Jackets into the playoffs. And while Wyshynski firmly believes Columbus can pull off wins in its final two games against the Dallas Stars Thursday and the Nashville Predators Saturday, for the CBJ to make the cut, Detroit would have to lose. And that, according to Wyshynski, is an unlikely scenario.
“I believe this Columbus team will hold up their end of the bargain,” said Wyshynski. “There’s something real special going on. You hope they make it because it’d be such an amazing story. But I think the odds are that Detroit will take advantage of the games in hand.”
Playoffs or not, the Blue Jackets have made an impression across the league. The next step for the club is to keep winning: “If you want to create a winning culture, it has to be constant,” said Wisniewski. “You can’t take a step back and miss playoffs. Your goal should be winning the Stanley Cup every year.”
But the fan base has a future goal, too, said both Wyshynski and Pagnotta — they need to bring it every night.
“It’s the Nashville effect,” said Wyshynski. “Nashville found some success on the ice and started to put together a really good team and started to win playoff rounds, but where they really found respect was the atmosphere of the building, when they became ‘Smashville’ and the crowds were loud. People who might not have respected the market started to take notice.”
While Columbus’ fan frenzy for college football and its Ohio State Buckeyes makes “The Shoe” a tough place to play on autumn Saturdays, Nationwide Arena has yet to make an impression (save the Arch City Army and the core fan base) — rarely do you hear tales of how Columbus fans have made it really difficult for other teams to get “Ws” because of their enthusiasm.
“(Columbus has) to have a reputation for being a tough place to play,” said Wyshynski.
In fact, Columbus’ reputation around the National Hockey League needs a bit of polishing overall, said Pagnotta. People who live in Columbus know it’s awesome — but that hasn’t quite translated to the rest of the NHL.
“This has always been a market that’s been very underrated because they’re not a big market by tradition,” said Pagnotta. “To be perfectly frank, Columbus isn’t the sexy market that folks in New York, L.A., Chicago, really care about and it’s not one that they want to look at.”
Pagnotta said Columbus’ dismal NHL franchise history is responsible for Central Ohio not getting the kind of national recognition that every NHL organization, coach and player wants and needs to be winners across the league. And while what the team has accomplished already this year has made people take notice, even with a 2013 playoff appearance the club will need to become repeat playoff contenders if they want to become a storied club getting nationally televised games.
“To get the national exposure they deserve and they need, they have to have these playoff seasons and they have to have these special seasons — they have to be able to host an All-Star Game. That’s really what it’s all about,” said Pagnotta. “You have to add all the elements and have the star power behind you.”
But let’s get real — when you’re a winner, does it matter?
“At the end of the day, if you’re a contender, nobody gives a crap where you’re playing,” said Pagnotta. But, he added, having people educated about the Columbus market — a market most NHL players think isn’t “anything to really go nuts about” — helps. “This is a market that people are unfamiliar with. They may not feel a certain way about Columbus but only because they’re uneducated about the market and everything that the city has to offer. It’s a cool town. I could definitely enjoy being there on a long-term basis.”
And with a winning NHL club that has earned itself the title of “hottest story in the league,” who wouldn’t?
“It’s extraordinary. It’s absolutely extraordinary that they’ve been able to pull off this streak,” said Wyshynski. “It’s inexplicable that this is happening. It’s nothing short of fantastic — it’s the best story in hockey if they do or don’t make (the playoffs). It’s been exciting to watch them.”
You can watch the Blue Jackets take on the Dallas Stars Thursday at 8:30 p.m. o Fox Sports Ohio. Tickets for the club’s final home game and season finale against the Nashville Predators in Nationwide Arena Saturday at 7 p.m. can be purchased at bluejackets.nhl.com.