What's next for Blue Jackets?
JUN 09, 2014 10:42a ET
Forty-two days have passed since the Blue Jackets were eliminated from the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. It seems like so long ago, and we're not even to the "hockey doldrums," also known as August.
After an exciting series drew to a close at Nationwide Arena on April 28, players scattered for some well-earned rest. Lives returned to a semblance of normal. And yet the taste of postseason play, seldom experienced in Columbus, ignited a hunger for more.
Starting with the offseason "buzz" that was palpable last summer to a couple of rookies, Boone Jenner and Ryan Murray, making the team out of training camp, it was a season that held promise. The expectations were set higher than they ever had realistically been. Yes, they were the youngest team in the league. But that didn't matter to the guys in the room.
The rollercoaster ride started almost from the beginning of the season. Good wins followed by bad losses showed a glaring inconsistency to their play. By late November, there were even a few voices on social media sites that were calling for the coach to be handed his walking papers. Obviously, cooler heads prevailed.
And then in December, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner went down with a strained groin. With Sergei Bobrovsky out of the lineup, many fans were thinking that the season might have just taken a turn for the worse. There were even a few that solemnly declared that the "season is over."
On Jan. 2, which happened to be the exact midpoint of the season for Columbus, the team was mired in 13th place in the Eastern Conference with a record of 18-19-4. Within the Metropolitan Division, they were near the bottom in 7th place. Their goal differential on this date was -6. But then a funny thing happened on the way to fans throwing in the towel on the season.
As we all know now, but didn't know at the beginning of the new year, the team started to really gel and went streaking. When the streak ended on Jan. 25 with a loss to the Buffalo Sabres, they had climbed to 6th in the conference and 2nd in the division. Their goal differential climbed to +5. The extreme rollercoaster ride went from wild up-and-downs to a gentler, steady journey.
The buzz from last summer was back and grew louder as the team gathered steam heading into the crucible of the waning moments of the season. Suddenly, the national pundits were talking about the Blue Jackets and how dangerous they could potentially be in the playoffs.
When the regular season ended for Columbus on April 12, they were 7th in the Eastern Conference, 4th in the Metropolitan Division and holding a wild-card playoff spot. Their goal differential was a very sound +15.
The playoffs came and went over the course of 12 days, with Columbus falling to the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-2 in the series. Although the series was great for a fan base that had shown years of patience, for the young players wearing union blue, it was an important lesson in just how hard they would have to work the next time they make the playoffs if they hope to advance.
And so, after finishing the best season in the history of the club (43-32-7), what's next for the Blue Jackets? We're 19 days away from the 2014 NHL Entry Draft in Philadelphia (June 27-28). The team can begin interviewing any free agents they have targeted beginning on June 25. Free Agency begins on July 1 and the Blue Jackets Development Camp is on the way, too.
With prospects such as Alex Wennberg, Kerby Rychel and Marko Dano in the pipeline (among others), the cupboard is becoming stocked. President of Hockey Operations John Davidson and General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen have preached patience since coming to Columbus. No longer will players be rushed into the NHL in hopes of a "quick fix."
The prospects will be allowed to percolate and develop, making the big club only when they are ready. Jenner and Murray proved they were ready last September in training camp. Might we see one or more of these prospects make the team out of camp this year? I would lean toward saying no, as they are likely to start the season with the Blue Jackets' AHL affiliate Springfield Falcons. Then again, before training camp started last year, no one saw two players making the roster. Anything can happen.
This is an exciting time in the history of the franchise, for both the players and the fans. Will the buzz this summer drown out the undercurrent of excitement seen last year? Only time will answer that question. The countdown has begun and there's a little over three months until training camp opens. Are you ready?