The end of the 2011-2012 season saw the Blue Jackets finish in 30th place. They went 29-46-7 for a measly 65 points. They then proceeded to lose out in the draft lottery for the number one draft pick. The club, at this point, seemed rudderless. A culture of mediocrity seemingly played out year after year.
On July 1, 2012, Nick Foligno was traded from the Ottawa Senators to Columbus in exchange for Marc Methot. Both players were in need of a change of scenery and a fresh start. No one knew it yet, but this was the season of change in Columbus. Their franchise player, Rick Nash, was traded to the New York Rangers in late July.
What would be the mindset of a player being traded to a team at the bottom of the league? How could one get excited about that? I sat down with Nick Foligno a few weeks after Columbus was eliminated from the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs to reminisce about the trade that brought him here, new faces on the roster and where the team is headed in the future.
"Honestly," said Foligno, "I think with the situation I was in with Ottawa, I was excited for a fresh start. I never said ‘oh no, I’m going to a team that’s obviously struggling,’ I never once had that enter my mind. I thought it was going to be a great opportunity for me to go to a team where maybe I could start over and really become the player that I wanted to be."
"I felt that Columbus was the place that would allow me to do that. I was really excited when I got the call. Obviously, the emotions of getting traded for the first time take place. I was excited and looking forward to the opportunity. I like that we were a young team and I wanted to really help be a part of something that would turn it around. I thought that would be a really proud point for me in my career to be a part of something that would help bring a winning organization to Columbus. And, so far so good."
The change within the organization accelerated that October, when John Davidson was brought in as the President of Hockey Operations. This perked up ears around the league. His "brick-by-brick" philosophy became the mantra for a team that had no identity. Foligno was in on the ground floor as the club began to reinvent itself.
"With the lockout (2012)," he said, "my first camp here was a little weird. But coming in, I think you could see the new faces were bringing a different attitude and a different life to the team. You add a guy like Brandon Dubinsky, his character alone demands winning and expects excitement. Then you have Artem Anisimov and Sergei Bobrovsky, which turned into a goalie battle (with Steve Mason). Bobrovsky ultimately took over and ran with it.
"There were other new faces, too. James Wisniewski was a guy who had his year cut short the year before, and then he was finally healthy and ready to go. Adrian Aucoin, a veteran guy. So, when I first got here, there was this new blood that came in that was excited. And then you have JD (John Davidson) and Jarmo (Kekalainen) come in and really solidify what needed to be done for this organization."
Change doesn’t happen overnight, and for Columbus, this amounted to a sea of change that was sorely overdue for the struggling club.
"When I first got here, it didn’t turn around right away. I think it took a little while because you still had that mentality of ‘oh, here we go again’ when you lost. Now, when JD and Jarmo came in and said we were going to be a hard-working team. That’s how we were going to get out of this. I think the coaching staff put that in our heads, too. And, we just bought in.
"The last half of that year (2012/2013) was incredible the way we played as a team, our mentality. And ultimately, when we lost a game, it was ‘alright, let’s get back at it.’ That’s what winning teams do. They get right back on track the next game. You could see that in our team. We were talked about as being a resilient team, when we had a bad game, we came back and won that next one, where that might not have been the case in previous years. It says a lot about our team."
Foligno was one of the bricks that Davidson characterized as essential for Columbus to build upon as they began to change the course of the franchise. New faces, new direction and a new philosophy were just what they needed as they embarked on this new journey towards respectability.
"From that point on, yes, I do believe that we started to put down a foundation and the guys were in place. You could see our young talent starting to develop. I don’t think I foresaw the young talent we have this year and what they did to really help bring us to the next level, in the sense of we didn’t quite make the playoffs last year, so this year we got into the playoffs and we need that much more next year to go far in the playoffs.
"All of those things, tied together, are really exciting me for what’s to come for this team."
Accountability became a hallmark of the club, as players, coaches and the front office staff all pushed each other to be better in all facets. This accountability took root in 2012 and grows stronger with each passing season. How apparent was this to Foligno as it unfolded?
"When Jarmo and John Davidson came in, I think it was because the new faces. Guys had to step up and show they wanted to be a part of this team and wanted to help turn it around. I think that’s when you started to see the accountability, guys doing what it took, accepting their roles and understanding that this is what it’s going to take to win in this league.
"I think from that second half on (2013 season), you really started to see the accountability where guys weren’t taking a shift off and working extra hard. Then, having a great summer and coming back and doing it all over again this season."
The change had been implemented by this point, although it is an ever-evolving thing. Columbus has made major strides in just two short seasons, while staying on an upward trajectory. It becomes harder with each passing day to move forward, and yet, successful clubs do this as they strive to get better.
"I’m really proud of the fact that we caught on so quick and we have those things in place to allow us to do what we’ve done," Foligno said. "But, there’s still lot’s of work ahead."
This is the first installment of a multi-part series with Nick Foligno talking about the past, the present and the future of the Columbus Blue Jackets.