Blue Jackets can only envy Coyotes’ upturn

When the Columbus Blue Jackets earned three points in their first two games this season, the patronizing compliments were flowing like wine.

The Jackets are improved. The Jackets play hard.

It’s easy to say nice things when you know the underlying and undeniable truth: Columbus is the worst franchise in the Western Conference. We’re not talking about the fans, even though the Jackets’ attendance regularly ranks among the league’s bottom fifth. We’re not talking about the marketing of this franchise or the name and logo, which have a direct and laudable tie to Ohio’s Civil War history.

We’re talking strictly about the on-ice product. In 11 seasons of play, Columbus has posted just one winning season, has made the playoffs just once (that same season) and has never won a playoff game, having been swept by Detroit in 2009. The Blue Jackets’ best finish in the Central Division was third place in 2005-06. None of the other editions has finished higher than fourth.

Yes, this is an expansion franchise (2000), and it’s true that Columbus isn’t a traditional hockey market. But after 13 years, those excuses no longer wash, because other clubs in similar situations have achieved at least respectability.

“One thing that bothers me is when you read or hear things and you talk about teams that don’t do well, contraction or why are they there, Columbus gets mentioned, and it’s mostly by people who don’t know their facts,” new president of hockey operations John Davidson told nhl.com recently. “The team has struggled regarding playoffs, no question, but has anybody examined their ownership and their commitment? I wouldn’t have gone to Columbus had it not been as strong as it is.”

It all sounds p.r.-ishly hopeful, but maybe Davidson can navigate a different course. He did so in St. Louis with his new Columbus general manager, Jarmo Kekalainen, spearheading strong drafts as the Blues director of amateur scouting. The Jackets landed forwards Brandon Dubinsky, and Artem Anisimov, defenseman Tim Erixon and the Rangers’ 2013 first-round selection for Rick Nash, was traded to New York in a five-player deal in July. This roster is awash in youth and potential.

But Nash — the franchise’s icon and lone offensive star — is gone, and one look at the standings shows Columbus back in its customary spot at the bottom of the West after Friday night’s 2-1 loss to Los Angeles.

The Jackets are last in the league in points (10) despite playing nine of their first 14 games at home, and all those nice things people were saying about them earlier this season now sound eerily similar to what was said the past two seasons after that lone playoff berth suggested progress.

There are only so many rebuilds and promises a fan base will endure before it sees through the spin. You can always find silver linings, but the immediate forecast in Columbus sure looks like rain.

THREE KEY OPPONENT STATS

0.69: The Blue Jackets’ special teams are not elite, but the penalty-killing unit is good — ranked ninth in the NHL (83.3 percent) — and the power play is passable, ranking 25th at 14.3 percent. Where Columbus really struggles is in 5-on-5 play. It’s 0.68 goals for/against ratio in those situations is the third-worst in the NHL, and that’s where the Coyotes may be able to capitalize the most.  

27:55: That’s the average ice time Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson is logging per game, tops in the league. Johnson was acquired from the Kings along with a first-round pick in exchange for center Jeff Carter on Feb. 23, 2012. Johnson has broken the 30-minute mark three times already this season, twice in games that ended in regulation.

26.9: That’s the average age of the Blue Jackets roster, making Columbus the youngest team in the NHL as of the start of the season. Ten forwards, seven defensemen and both goalies were 26 or younger when the season started.

THREE THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW

Waiting for Jarmo: The Blue Jackets are still working to secure a permanent work visa for Kekalainen, who was hired as GM on Wednesday. If it doesn’t happen on Friday, it won’t happen until Monday. In the meantime, Kekalainen has already started in his new role, scouting a game in Finland with director of amateur scouting Tyler Wright.

Lombardi close: Coyotes center Matthew Lombardi could return to the lineup as soon as next week. Lombardi has been out since suffering a shoulder injury Jan. 24 against the Sharks. Initially, the Coyotes said he would be out a month-plus, but GM Don Maloney and coach Dave Tippett both said recently that Lombardi’s recovery was ahead of schedule. His return could be a boost for an offense that has struggled after a hot start. Phoenix has 14 goals in its last eight games (1.75 per game).

Picks to click: Coyotes forward Steve Sullivan has 48 points (19 goals) in 48 career games against the Blue Jackets, including a hat trick in the teams’ first meeting this season. Shane Doan has 37 points (14 goals) in 45 career games against the Jackets.

INJURY REPORT

For the Coyotes, F Matthew Lombardi (shoulder) and D David Schlemko (shoulder) are out indefinitely. The status of D Derek Morris (upper body) is unknown after he suffered an injury Thursday in Nashville. For Columbus, former Coyotes defenseman Adrian Aucoin (lower body) will play for the first time since Jan. 29, taking James Wisniewski’s spot next to Jack Johnson on the No. 1 defensive pairing. Wisniewski remained in Columbus because he just became a father. D John Moore (lower body) has also been cleared to play for the first time since Feb. 2. F Cam Atkinson (ankle) is day-to-day.

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