The Columbus Blue Jackets are headed to the NHL playoffs for the second time in franchise history. It’s a far rosier picture than just a few years ago when the team was struggling for wins and respect around the league and the city.
But in July 2011, a prominent player chose to bet on Columbus and signed as a free agent — defenseman James Wisniewski. And he’s making an impact.
"One of the reasons I signed here was to help turn the organization around," Wisniewski said. "I didn’t think it would happen overnight, but it’s happening. This year has been very gratifying."
Wisniewski reflected on what the team has accomplished following Saturday night’s 3-2 win over the Florida Panthers, ending the club’s regular season with a 43-32-7 record. It has been a historic year for the franchise, including a new record for wins in a season as well as the most points in franchise history (93).
The Stanley Cup playoffs berth is the franchise’s first since the 2008-09 season, in which the Jackets were swept in four games in the first round by the Detroit Red Wings. This year, Columbus earned the top wild card spot in the Eastern Conference and will take on the rival Pittsburgh Penguins, the Metropolitan Division champs, starting Wednesday in Pittsburgh.
"It’s definitely a dream realized," Wisniewski said. "Our ultimate goal every year is to win the Stanley Cup, but we’ve reached our first goal, which is to make the playoffs."
Sometimes that first goal felt very far away. After signing, Wisniewski saw the team finish in last place his first season and trade two high-profile players to other teams. The next year was delayed and then shortened because of a labor dispute and then the Jackets fell just short of the playoffs by a single point, their destiny left in the hands of other teams winning or losing.
But Wisniewski didn’t give up on a team that is now holding its destiny in its own hands. It makes it all the sweeter for him to enjoy what he and the team have accomplished.
"For us to be proud to wear our sweater and know other teams are afraid of playing us–we know we’ve done a good job of creating an identity for ourselves," he said.
Wisniewski has certainly done his part on the ice to get the team into the postseason. Mostly free of injury, he played 75 games and earned the second most points on the team with 51 including seven goals and 44 assists, the latter mark setting a new team record. He’s averaging just over 22 minutes per game and scored over half of his points on special teams, going 3-25-28 on the power play, which makes him the points leader in power play situations.
Defenseman Fedor Tyutin, one of only three Jackets who experienced the last playoff run, sees the contribution Wisniewski has made to help turn the team around.
"I think (Wisniewski’s) been a huge addition for us. It’s no secret if you look at the stat sheet," Tyutin said. "He’s one of our power play leaders, and if the power play is successful, you have a pretty good chance to win more times than not."
Head Coach Todd Richards came to Columbus the same year as Wisniewski. He’s watched the evolution of the organization and credits Wisniewski as one of the team’s leaders and a big part of the playoff push.
"James is a large part of why our power play has been at the level where it’s been at," Richards said. "He moves the puck well, he’s got a good shot. He’s shooting to get pucks in the net and shooting with a purpose."
Wisniewski’s contributions don’t just come directly from his play. The Jackets are looking to build long-term success by developing young assets into contributors for both the present and future. Ryan Murray is one of those young assets, having been drafted second overall in 2012, and was frequently paired with Wisniewski this season.
"We’ve done a lot of talking, watching video," Wisniewski said. "I said from day one our goal is to go and be able to practice without even talking. Now we know each other’s tendencies, read each other’s body language — we are the other half of each other’s brain."
The work Wisniewski and Murray have put in has made a difference. You can add Murray’s name to the list of players who see Wisniewski as part of the team’s success.
"He taught me a bunch about the game at the NHL level," Murray said. "He’s shown me how to prepare, how to come to the rink and be a pro. He’s a guy you can just watch and learn from."
What Wisniewski has meant to the franchise is not lost on Murray either.
"He’s been a huge part of this turnaround. He’s the guy who wants to be here and cares about this team," Murray said. "In the past, there have been guys who haven’t wanted to be here. As a young player coming in, it’s great to see (someone like Wisniewski) here for the future of this organization. He’s helped build to where we are today."
For Wisniewski, commitment to the team is just as important as winning. The man other players called "charismatic," "funny," and "genuine" is very proud of the culture the Jackets have established.
"The biggest thing for me is coming to the room every day and being happy to be around each other — to be a brotherhood," Wisniewski said. "I’ve never been a part of the team that is this close — we want to go out and fight for one another."
With the regular season over, the team is counting on Wisniewski to be a big part of the postseason and beyond. While this year marks Wisniewski’s third NHL playoff appearance, it is the first for many of the Jackets’ young players — and the first for their head coach.
"He’s got some experience and he can help the young players and young coaches," Richards said. "He’s a guy with a voice, he’s a leader — he’s earned that."
Wisniewski knows the playoffs will be a grind, but it’s something he can’t wait to be a part of.
"It’s the biggest battle you’re going to be in," Wisniewski said. "All you do is eat, sleep and play hockey — it’s fantastic."
The Blue Jackets face the Pittsburgh Penguins in a seven-game series beginning this Wednesday. The first home game of the series will be Monday, April 21 at 7 p.m. at Nationwide Arena. For more information, including updates on last minute ticket availability, you can visit www.bluejackets.nhl.com.