The Magazine: Full Mettle Jackets

Ryan Kennedy
bluejackets

For 33 beautiful minutes, the Columbus Blue Jackets were a playoff team last season. With everything on the line and trailing Nashville by a goal after 40 minutes, the Jackets had blitzed the Predators with a 25-shot third period, resulting in three goals for and none against, seizing a crucial two points at home in front of a bonkers crowd at Nationwide Arena.

“I don’t know if the building has ever been so loud,” says left winger R.J. Umberger. “We were ready to go to the playoffs.”

But at 10:02 p.m. Eastern time, the Minnesota Wild officially knocked off the Colorado Avalanche 3-1 and the Jackets were relegated to ninth in the West, missing the post-season for the 11th time in 12 campaigns.

“It was tough to swallow,” says scrapper Jared Boll. “We did our job that night and then we had to watch Minnesota and Colorado on TV. It’s tough to rely on another team to get you in. But coming so close just makes you want it more this season.”

Boll is the longest-tenured player in Columbus now, heading into his seventh season with the team. He also lives year-round in the city, meaning he knows expectations are higher than usual.

“I’ve never heard this much buzz and seen so many fans excited for the season to start,” he says.

The one thing the Blue Jackets have is hope. The city of Columbus has been passionate about its only Big Four pro sports team, despite its lack of success on the ice. Fans survived more than a decade of woeful management and thanks to new team president John Davidson and GM Jarmo Kekalainen, that much-discussed culture change has taken root. Now it’s time for the Jackets to stop watching TV in April.

The Jackets were known for years for one player: Rick Nash. He went to the Olympics, he repped the franchise at All-Star Games and he inevitably headed to the World Championship while many of his elite peers were battling for the Stanley Cup.

But the years of losing took a toll and when Nash wasn’t moved at the 2011-12 trade deadline, a public war of words with then-GM Scott Howson put the franchise in an awkward spot. Howson eventually traded Nash that summer to the New York Rangers in a blockbuster deal that saw Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Tim Erixon and a first-rounder come to Columbus, but by then the Jackets had already limped to another fifth-place finish in the Central Division.

“It was such an odd thing,” Umberger says. “Everyone was expecting he was going to move on, but we didn’t know when.”

To his credit, Nash held a meeting during the odd period, in which he let his teammates know he was always available to answer any questions they had about the situation. On the ice, he was still playing like a captain.

“He handled it as well as he possibly could,” says defenseman Jack Johnson. “We were last place, or almost last, but there wasn’t one game where he took the night off.”

Once players returned after the lockout, the post-Nash Jackets got off to a typically rough start. The team went 3-6-1 out of the gate, taking up their usual spot at the bottom of the Central. According to defenseman James Wisniewski, different guys were trying to replace Nash’s individual excellence on their own, even if sniping wasn’t their forte. On top of that, Columbus was integrating more than a half-dozen new faces into a lineup that was just figuring out what it was all about. Davidson was hired back in October, but his effectiveness was hindered by the fact the lockout had rendered the world NHL-free. On Feb. 13, he relieved Howson of his duties and brought in Kekalainen, the first European GM in league history. The change was almost instantaneous, though the seeds had been planted by the players after the debacle of 2011-12. Johnson recalls a meeting after the season in which the Jackets tried to put a stop to their also-ran status by asking what they wanted as a group.

“What do we want? We want to win the Stanley Cup,” he says. “That’s why you play. If you don’t win the Cup, who cares what you did?”

The players committed to getting into better condition during the summer and with Davidson and Kekalainen coming in, that hunger was reinforced and coach Todd Richards’ tenacious motivation supported.

“It’s about how you play the game,” Davidson says. “You have no chance if you get outworked. No chance. Discipline, discipline, discipline is what it’s all about. We attacked what we could control. The work habit issue had to be addressed and it was.”

With Nash gone, the Jackets knew they weren’t outscoring anyone, so wins would be earned by staying out of the box, playing defense and keeping the puck out of the net.

“Sometimes hard work beats talent,” Wisniewski says. “We’re so tenacious, we’re always in your face, we hit, we play fast. It always seems like we have one more guy on the ice.”

But the most important guy on the ice turned out to be goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. He was traded to Columbus by the same Philadelphia team that fleeced the Jackets (no pun intended) in the Jeff Carter trade two years prior and came in with a chip on his shoulder after being jettisoned in favor of countryman Ilya Bryzgalov. While Bryzgalov was failing again to live up to his massive (or “humangous”) contract with the Flyers, Bobrovsky put up stunning numbers with Columbus, racking up a 2.00 goals-against average and .932 save percentage en route to the Vezina Trophy, usurping flailing starter Steve Mason along the way. In a perverse bit of karma, Mason, who led the Jackets to their only playoff berth to date in his Calder-winning rookie season of 2008-09, was dealt to the Flyers at the trade deadline, paving the way for Philly to buy out Bryzgalov this past summer. Days later, Bobrovsky signed a two-year contract extension with Columbus.

“To win the Stanley Cup, you have to have a goalie like that,” Wisniewski says. “You look at Tim Thomas, Martin Brodeur – Corey Crawford played really well last season for Chicago – for us to have him is important. We’re not going to beat you 5-4.”

Is it crazy for the Jackets to be talking Stanley Cup already? For Johnson, it’s much better than the alternative. “Like you’re just showing up and playing,” he says. “Like, ‘well, I hope we win this one.’ It’s a lot more fun now.”

When free agency opened
 this summer, one of the first names to sign on the dotted line was right winger Nathan Horton. A Cup-winner with Boston, he chose Columbus – and not just because the Jackets offered him $37.1 million over seven years. Horton didn’t want to be in a media fishbowl and he wanted a place with a backyard where he could raise a family. He’s not alone. Players nearly unanimously referred to Columbus the city as “underrated” and young, where the traffic is light and Ohio State football provides a perfect outing on the weekend.

“One of the main reasons I signed here was that I fell in love with the city,” Wisniewski says. “I’m a Midwestern boy and I wanted to be part of something new and special.”

Johnson boasts the most unique experience of all the Jackets. While Umberger was a star for Ohio State in college, Johnson played for blood rival Michigan and even hails from Ann Arbor. He’ll rock a maize and blue Wolverines hat or T-shirt around town and he’s still got some good rivalry jokes.

“How do you get an Ohio State grad off your porch?” Johnson says. “Pay him for the pizza.”

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Johnson knows he and Wolverine alums are seen as arrogant by Buckeye nation, but he’s practically a dual citizen by now and local support has been a big help.

“It’s almost been overwhelming,” he says. “It really has become a second home for me. Of course I’m going to get my jabs – I’d be disappointed if I didn’t.”

Even Davidson was seeking a home, not just an office when he pulled up stakes with the St. Louis Blues and headed to Columbus. He loved the three first-rounders the team had accumulated for the 2013 draft, he liked ownership’s commitment to winning and he liked the local passion. But he also liked the city itself.

“I wanted to go somewhere where I would enjoy living,” he says.

Off-season shoulder surgery will keep Horton out of the lineup until December, but expectations are high in Columbus. Marian Gaborik, acquired from the Rangers just days before the trade deadline, is the type of pure scorer who can put up Nash numbers when he’s healthy and youngsters such as Ryan Johansen, Cam Atkinson and Matt Calvert are expected to make a jump in their contributions. Then there’s highly touted rookies Ryan Murray and Boone Jenner, the latter of whom was slated to start on the top line with Gaborik and Dubinsky.

“Just trying to make the playoffs isn’t good enough,” Umberger says. “We want to be a contender. Last year we started earning everything we got, playing with a chip on our shoulder. The confidence is there.”

Gone is the sad-sack mentality that came with a franchise that had squandered so much in the past, starting at the draft. The organization that took Gilbert Brule over Anze Kopitar, Nikolai Zherdev over Thomas Vanek and Derick Brassard over Claude Giroux is dead, replaced by newfound hope and competency.

“There have been a lot of different guys on the team and a lot of different people in the organization,” Umberger says. “We needed an identity.”

And though the franchise had only two architects before Kekalainen – Howson, now an exec with Edmonton, and Doug MacLean, a broadcaster – Davidson won’t criticize either when it comes to the culture that so desperately needed changing.

“It’s not easy and it’s not always someone’s fault,” he says. “Sometimes a franchise just needs to be stimulated.”

For the veteran Boll, it’s as much a matter of personal pride as it is striving for success.

“The toughest is to see coaches come in and go out,” he says. “Because it means you’re not winning and you’re the ones on the ice.”

To Kekalainen’s credit, he hasn’t replaced Richards behind the bench and easily could have. The ex-Wild coach wasn’t Kekalainen’s hire and has yet to make the playoffs in four NHL seasons. But Richards has his team’s attention and never let them off the hook last season, even when things looked glum.

“We played better than our record showed,” Umberger says. “We lost a lot of close games and it could have gone the other way and ruined our season, but we kept working.”

That caught Davidson’s eye and the players obviously bought in, too.

“Everyone wrote us off and we didn’t hear a word of it,” Johnson says. “We refused to listen to that.”

Instead, they came within a whisper of the playoffs. The Jackets missed the dance by zero points. Minnesota got in via a tiebreaker. And though it’s far-fetched to say the Jackets would have fared better than the Wild against the eventual Cup champs from Chicago, at least Columbus would have had the Vezina-winning, first team all-star Bobrovsky in net and not a banged-up Josh Harding or frozen rookie Darcy Kuemper, as Minnesota ended up with.

Realignment means fewer long flights to Vancouver or San Jose and more reasonable roadies to Pittsburgh, Washington and Carolina, as the team finally moved to the East. And if Nash wants to see how his old team has rebounded from his departure, he’ll get to when the Rangers come to town Nov. 7 for the first of four Metropolitan Division matchups. Obviously, it’s going to be a hot ticket.

As Davidson says, expectations are earned and the Jackets are ready to give their patient fans something to cheer for, once the first 82 games are completed.

This story was from a recent issue of The Hockey News Magazine. Click to Subscribe.