"The one thing we're trying to change in this organization is the culture."
So said James Wisniewski to me after the final game of the season when I asked him about the team's 19-game closing to the season in which they went 11-8-0. I went into the dressing room that night with the intention of asking some of the guys what that finish said about the character of this team. Two of the players I talked to were Wisniewski and Jack Johnson, and the answers they gave were telling.
Anyone who's followed this team over the last decade has heard the questions about the leadership and culture of the Blue Jackets. There have always been rumors and discussions about there being a "Country Club" atmosphere in the Jackets dressing room, and the ensuing debate always centers around whether or not it's holding the team back because there just isn't enough edge. Not being in the clubhouse each and every day, I can't comment on the truthfulness of that notion or the overall effect if it exists.
One thing we do know, however, is the player who tends to be the lightning rod.
Of course, what I mean is that at the center of that debate is almost always Captain Rick Nash. We don't know what Nash is like when it's just he and his teammates in the room, but to some fans, Nash's almost shyness with the media and lack of overt feistiness on the ice is an indictment of his lack of leadership. To other fans, the position of Captain is more ceremonial than anything in this day and age of the league, and Nash is doing just fine by leading by example on the scoresheet each and every year.
On whichever side of that debate you may fall, one thing that I noticed after the trading deadline was a blossoming of other leaders in the dressing room. For his part, Nash handled the trading deadline through the end of the season about as well as he could, considering the information that came to light. One could never argue that he checked out while on the ice, as he carried his usual share of the load scoring as the club got hot at the end of the year. However, it appeared to me that as the seeming inevitability of Nash leaving this summer became more and more apparent, some other voices may have been rising in the dressing room.
With some young talent coming up through the system as the team rebuilds (or reshapes, depending on your choice of verbiage), it's never been more important to have a steady leadership group in the dressing room. If Nash indeed leaves, it's going to fall to the guys who will be here over the long haul to shoulder that load. R.J. Umberger has always been a guy who does his part in terms of being a leader, and Vinny Prospal also showed his mettle this year in that department.
But, it may be two of the newest Jackets--including essentially THE newest Jacket--who may also be stepping more into the forefront of the leadership equation. Enter Jack Johnson and James Wisniewski. Regardless of who gets the "C" if Nash leaves, it's clear that these two guys will play a prominent role--and raise prominent voices--going forward.
After that last game, as we approached Johnson, Jared Boll called him "Captain Jack" rather loudly. Lori Schmidt followed up by asking him if that's another nickname, and Johnson responded, "No. He just came up with that one. I don't think that one's gonna fly." Oh, but it probably could in the right situation. Johnson has been a captain of the 2010 US team at the World Championships, and interim coach Todd Richards has noted that Johnson's attitude and work ethic are infectious. Richards noted that night that, "nobody works harder than Johnson."
It would have been easy to be traded from a playoff contender to the 30th-place team in the league and be upset about it. Coming from LA, Johnson reflected on his early experience as a Blue Jacket, and in so doing laid a foundation for his leadership role next year. "It's been awesome. I've had more fun here than I've had in five years of professional hockey," Johnson said. "It's kind of a bummer for me that it's ending so quickly because I've only been here for 20 games, but it makes me excited for next year. It makes me excited to come back during the summer."
Johnson showed flashes of having fun over the final 21 games of the season. It's also clear that he's meshing with the guys in the room. "Truthfully, it's the guys in the room," Johnson noted. "The guys in the room are awesome. They made it so easy. The coaches were great. From the day I got here, they just told me to be myself and to any athlete in any sport that's music to your ears."
If ever there was an attitude that you want to be at the forefront of a rebuilding dressing room, it's Johnson's.
As to the biggest question around the team's finish, what does an 11-8-0 finish say about the character of the team, Johnson again built up his team and showed the positive attitude that the team needs to have. "Obviously, there's a lot of character in here, but also some good hockey players," Johnson said. "I don't know what happened at the beginning of the year; obviously this league's too good to dig yourself in a hole early. You have to get off to a good start to make it a little bit easier on yourself later on, but there's some good hockey players in here and this team's not far off."
The other guy in the equation now is Wisniewski. Limited to basically half the season due to suspension and several injuries, that didn't limit his ability to be a leader for this team. When I asked about the character of the team surrounding the finish, he didn't hold back. "The one thing we're trying to change in this organization is the culture, not accepting mediocrity, wanting to have pride," Wisniewski told me. "That's the biggest thing. I don't care what anybody says; they can say it's easier to play this time of the year because there's nothing to lose, but all of the other teams are scratching for points. Phoenix; Colorado had to win to keep their hopes alive. Beating Detroit [affected their playoff seed]. It takes a lot of work to win in March and April, so you gotta tip your hats to us. We put our nose to the grindstone and kept working."
Indeed they did, and while I know the 22 points in the last 19 games doesn't mean much overall--and certainly doesn't mean anything when next season starts--it does say that this team didn't punch out when it would have been easy to do so. As I noted in my numbers-crunching piece, this year's March and April was by far the best finish of the last three season when the playoffs weren't really happening (though, it can be argued that they didn't happen in '10-'11 because of March and April).
I asked Wiz a question about the Power Play with he and Johnson, as it had had success that night. In the midst of that answer, he noted something else indicative of his leadership. After missing time with a concussion, it made sense for him just to sit out the remainder of the season. Why risk further injury for a team that was clinched into the 30th position? But, that's not Wiz, and that's also part of his leadership. "That's pretty much what we're hoping to do," Wisniewski said of the PP success. When he continued, however, he again stressed how he's working to change the mindset in the dressing room. "Obviously with me coming back from two weeks with a concussion, It feels good. We're trying to change the culture to a winning culture here, and to be able to go into the offseason with a positive note and guys feeling good about coming here next season to hit the reset button to start over."
Only time will tell how the makeup of the dressing room changes. We probably won't know Nash's fate until the draft in June. Even if Nash stays, however, and remains the captain, it's clear there are some guys stepping up and trying to take on more of that leadership mantle. Wisniewski and Johnson are two guys leading that charge, and the team appears to be in some good hands in the room going forward. With no slight to Nash intended, the attitudes on display from the pairing of Wisniewski and Johnson, new players next season--either rookies or guys new to the organization--should have a good foundation to help take this club forward.