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Late-season surge has Columbus Blue Jackets franchise thinking it has finally turned a corner

FILE - In this April 5, 2013 file photo, Columbus Blue Jackets' Nick Foligno handles the puck during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the St. Louis Blues in St. Louis. After a dramatic run that fell just short of the playoffs, the Columbus Blue Jackets are back for another season with high expectations. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, FILE)

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FILE - In this April 5, 2013 file photo, Columbus Blue Jackets' Nick Foligno handles the puck during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the St. Louis Blues in St. Louis. After a dramatic run that fell just short of the playoffs, the Columbus Blue Jackets are back for another season with high expectations. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, FILE)

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Things have changed with the Columbus Blue Jackets, not so long ago the lovable losers of the NHL.

"We feel, going into the season right now, that we have every right to win as much as anybody else does," said John Davidson, the club's director of hockey operations. "I'm not sure that feeling was there going into last season."

The reason isn't hard to pinpoint. The Blue Jackets were in their accustomed place in dead last in the NHL standings after the first 19 games (5-12-2) of the season, shortened to 48 contests because of the lockout.

Then, all of a sudden, they caught fire. They went 19-5-5 the rest of the way and had the second-best record only to Pittsburgh in the final two months of the season.

They won before increasingly large and vocal crowds at home, then went on the road and continued to win.

So, even though they tied for the final playoff spot and lost on a tiebreaker, there's an entirely new and different feeling about the Blue Jackets, whether it's from an excited fan base or newfound respect around the league.

"What the players did was help energize a franchise that was middle to below-middle in how people looked at it in this community," coach Todd Richards said on Tuesday. "No one was overly excited about it."

That's not the case now, with season-ticket sales up and a definite air of expectation about the club as it opens training camp on Wednesday. The Blue Jackets play their first exhibition game on Sunday at home against the Penguins. The season opener is at home on Oct. 4 against Calgary.

After years of dysfunction, defeats and dumb trades, the fast finish has piqued the interest of a lot of people. Some NHL experts believe the Blue Jackets' late surge—along with a shift to the Eastern Conference—mark the club as one that is on the rise.

Suddenly, they are considered a team to be reckoned with, with the league's best goaltender (Sergei Bobrovsky) from last year, a solid, young defence (featuring Jack Johnson, Fedor Tyutin and Dalton Prout) and a rising offence (Marian Gaborik, Mark Letestu and Artem Anisimov).

The club signed Bobrovsky to a new two-year contract this summer after he won the Vezina Trophy as the league's best goalie. The 24-year-old Russian had a breakthrough season with a 21-11-6 record, a goals-against average of 2.0, four shutouts and a .932 save percentage.

The other big addition was former Boston Bruins forward Nathan Horton, who agreed to a 7-year, $37.1-million deal. He's out until at least the middle of December after shoulder surgery, but in time will give the club a goal-scorer with an edge.

Marian Gaborik, acquired at the trade deadline last year, has scored 40 or more goals three times in the NHL, and has had at least 30 in four other seasons. He battled nagging injuries last season and is counted on to add punch to an offence that was ranked 25th in the league—the Blue Jackets scored 115 goals, exactly the same number that they gave up.

Veteran sniper Vinny Prospal was not resigned, even though he led the club with 30 points. The Blue Jackets believe they have other young players who can pick up for his absence.

"The scoring will have to come from a group of guys, not just one individual," general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. "I don't think we are a team who has a huge star or somebody that'll carry the biggest load in scoring. I've said this the whole summer long, we're going to get some growth from inside.

"We have a good young team, we have some good young forwards who are going to be better."

He's referring to players who made big contributions last year such as Brandon Dubinsky, Nick Foligno, Cam Atkinson, Matt Calvert and Ryan Johansen, along with touted budding players like Boone Jenner, Ryan Murray and Jonathan Audy-Marchessault.

For a change, there's a feeling that the players aren't embarking on a season with false hopes and will be overmatched in talent.

"I know we missed the playoffs, but we did battle right to the end," Davidson said. "People took notice, not only in our own city but around the league and the world of hockey. Our players and coaching staff earned that. It's nice to have that in the bank a little bit.

"I know people have higher expectations of us going into the season—and that's a good thing."

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Follow Rusty Miller on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/RustyMillerAP

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