The Blue Jackets learned a lot from their trip to the postseason last year and are putting in the work to not only get back there but go even further.
Charles LeClaire/Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport
COLUMBUS, Ohio — As the players go through the rigmarole of physicals, photo obligations and media interviews, the underlying focus is one of excited determination. Last year is now behind them as a new season unfolds.
With a largely unchanged roster save for the addition of Scott Hartnell, the chemistry that was forged last year should only become more solidified as this season begins. They’ve either spent time together this summer or kept in touch on a regular basis. There is no feeling of having to get to know one another again after the summer months have passed.
"You can tell already," said Mark Letestu, "guys have kept in contact all summer. The guys are pretty close. I think the continuity on the roster is something that’s going to help us when the puck drops. There’s really no trying to feel your way into what role you’re going to play. I think guys know their roles and know where they fit.
"Sometimes, when you take the guesswork out of whether you’re going to be on the power play, the penalty kill or what line am I going to play on, you can just focus on what happens on the ice."
The players are aware of the elephant in the room that is the absence of Ryan Johansen. They know that he is an integral part of their success. And yet, they all acknowledge the opportunity this presents for players to step up. They also see the value of so many familiar faces on the roster.
"Hopefully, it’s going to serve us well," Brandon Dubinsky said, "from an experience and maturity standpoint. We have some guys that were 20 years old (last year) that were not knowing what to expect, which is natural coming into their first NHL season.
"But now they have some confidence and maturity under their belt. They know what to expect from an 82-game schedule, how tough it is. And certainly into the playoffs, how that takes another step. There are really four steps to a season. It’s the preseason, then the start to the regular season, and then it’s after the All Star game. And then it’s the playoffs.
"Those guys have gotten a feeling and a taste, so they’ll be ready. The veteran guys need to make sure they come in and do their job, which is leading by example on and off the ice. It’s also continuing to try and make their games better."
Taking that shared experience and forging it into a better start than has been seen in the previous two seasons will be paramount. The crucible of the new season is merely a few weeks away, with the team opening on the road against the Buffalo Sabres on Oct. 9.
Eliminating the rollercoaster starts that have been their hallmark for the past few years comes down to attitude and conditioning. Becoming a more consistent team will pay dividends as they grind their way through an 82 game season.
"I think it’s huge," said Nick Foligno. "I think if you look at past teams, like the Chicago Blackhawks, they’ve grown together and that’s part of the reason that they were Stanley Cup Champions.
"Then, you look at our team," he continued, "at the way we’ve been able to have a young group, a core group. We’ve been able to laugh at the old guys like Dubinsky and myself, or even Wisniewski… we’re all at or near 30 years old. We’re a young team that’s been able to grow together. I love that, because that’s how winning teams are made. "
Their starts have not been the most even, as they will readily admit. With an emphasis on consistency, and players across the board stepping up, they are trying to alter the way the early part of the season goes for them.
Columbus head coach Todd Richards talked about three players in particular and the expectations for them, as training camp unfolds. Two of them were rookies last year, Boone Jenner and Ryan Murray.
"I’m expecting them to get better," he said. "They’re young kids that are going to get stronger and better just through their experience. The one guy that worked his butt off this summer, and the only reason I say that is because I saw him firsthand, is Boone Jenner.
"He was here (Columbus), not all summer, but I’d say most of the summer in that weight room. He worked his butt off. It’s that commitment, too. So, I’m expecting them to be better because they’re young guys. I’m expecting them to develop because of the experience they’ve had."
Nick Foligno is a player that provides a veteran presence in the room, yet still feels that he has room to grow and much to offer. He feels that he’s grown as a player, which he attributes directly to the birth of his daughter.
"That’s a real emotional thing," said Richards of Foligno having his 1-month-old (at the time) daughter go through surgery. "Hockey gets pushed into the back seat real quick when you’re going through something like that.
"(Foligno) to me, is one player than can really be a key player for us. He’s a guy that does some things in the offensive zone… we don’t have a lot of guys that can do the things that he does. I’m talking about controlling the puck and having the skill to make a play. He’s a guy that can finish and put pucks in the net.
"I talked with him down in the locker room and everything’s great on a personal level. So, I’m hoping and anticipating for him to get off on the right foot this season."
The players are loose, yet have an air about them of a steely-eyed focus and determination. They don’t look at last season as a success, no matter how good it made everyone outside of the locker room feel. They acknowledge that there is work to be done and room for improvement.
That new journey began today. Where it will end when it’s all over is anybody’s guess. They made many outside of the friendly confines sit up and take notice. How many heads will they turn this season?