We take a look back--not that far, it turns out--to find the biggest blooper in franchise history.
To follow up on Matt's look at the future, we can't ignore the past. Sports bloopers have a way of helping us to laugh at some of the heartbreak we've felt as a fanbase over the years. For all his good or ills over the years, all I'll remember Jose Canseco for is him coming to Cleveland in 1993 and giving the Tribe a home run courtesy of his giant head.
But, for Jackets fans, it's hard to look back on bloopers and laugh jovially; for us, there has never been "good times" that we can fall back on. It's pretty much been a solid decade-plus of kicks to the groin. So, when I sat down to try to pick the team's biggest singular blooper, I struggled. I mean, pithy plays like Mikael Samuelsson lobbing the puck over Steve Mason for a goal come to mind, or if you want to look on the positive side I remember Milan Jurcina dumping the puck deep for a line change, the puck hitting a stanchion and riccocheting sideways into the net behind an unsuspecting goalie.
But none of that really resonates with me.
I'm going way deeper. For me, the "blooper" that really sums up the Blue Jackets' fan experience is the calendar year of September 2011 through September 2012. Is that a cop out? Perhaps. It is the biggest "blooper" in team history? By far.
Setting the Stage
Other than perhaps the summer of 2009 in which the team was coming off of their only playoff appearance, the summer of 2011 was the most exciting in team history. Jeff Carter came over in a trade. The team made a huge splash in free agency with James Wisniewski. Vinny Prospal was added to provide scoring depth after Kristian Huselius went down with an injury. Radek Martinek was brought in for defensive depth. Mark Dekanich was brought in to push Steve Mason.
On paper, it was the most explosive offensive team the Jackets had ever iced. Sadly, that was about the highlight.
At any rate, around this time last year there were legitimate playoff expectations. Scott Howson talked about urgency. We don't want to waste Rick Nash's prime. What could possibly go wrong?
What Possibly Went Wrong
Have you ever watched someone running that trips, only they don't fall right away? They stumble, it looks like maybe they can right the ship, but over a prolonged, painful period of time they slowly crumple into a heap on the ground in spectacular fashion?
That was the 2011-2012 Blue Jackets.
It started in the first pre-season game, with Dekanich suffering a high-ankle sprain after one (very good) period of hockey. He would never play in a game for the Blue Jackets, and played only five games for Springfield. It was a complete loss of a year for Dex, as injury after injury felled him.
It continued in the pre-season, when Wisniewski would get into it with Cal Clutterbuck, the latter baiting the former into a shot to the head. Poor Cal did not miss any time due to the hit, but Wisniewski--in an unprecedented and never repeated "example" punishment--missed 12 games (four pre-season, first eight of the regular season). The team went 0-7-1 while he was out, and never recovered. In a fitting bit of irony, the team won in Wisniewski's first game back.
But, Wiz's string of bad luck wouldn't stop there. He missed 26 more games due to injury, including the awful broken ankle suffered blocking a shot (17 games). He also missed the last half of March with a concussion. Wiz's leadership was missed, for sure, as he missed 34 games total.
Radek Martinek was brought in to play with Marc Methot, and to form the "shut-down" pair for the Jackets' defense. It was a bit of a risky signing, as Martinek was coming off of a serious concussion suffered at World's, and was also dealing with the deaths of a very close friend in the wake of the Lokomotiv disaster. And sadly for Martinek, his head injury reared its ugly head (sorry, that was bad, I know) just seven games into the season, as he was again sidelined with a concussion and missed the rest of the season. His career is likely over.
And then there's Jeff Carter. What needs to be said? He pouted right after the trade went down. He never seemed to mesh with his teammates. As soon as the season was lost, he orchestrated a trade out of town. He didn't play all the time due to injury, and when he did play he often looked disinterested. He scored 15 goals for Columbus, but eight of those goals came in three games. Carter was not the offensive force the Jackets thought they were getting, and he certainly didn't mesh with Nash as was hoped.
To add insult to injury, he was traded to the team that won the Cup. Awesome.
That was just the new guys. Oh, there was more. Steve Mason. The name in and of itself could be classified as a blooper over the past three years, but to focus on the specific time frame that we've outlined, Mason imploded. Again. He looked sharp in the pre-season. But, the confidence just wasn't there. Once things went bad, they went BAD. And the team followed suit.
Beyond that (because, hell, we'd seen it before), there was Scott Arniel. By most accounts, Arniel is a nice guy. Every time I talked to him after a practice or game, he was cordial, even in the face of a pretty awful stretch of hockey. But, it was clear he didn't have what it took to get this team going in the right direction. As the season wore on, he started to lose his composure, culminating in the infamous New Year's Eve Blow Up.
Yep, a one-word heading. The rumors came out in January that Nash might be on the trading block. As we headed into the deadline, the "will he stay or will he go" chatter was deafening. In the end, he finished the season with Columbus. But, the writing was on the wall. He wanted out, and there was probably no way he would play another game for Columbus once the season ended.
It was the final kick to the teeth for a fan-base absorbing more than their share of teeth kicks. The final month-plus of the season was played--and played well, I should point out--knowing that Nash was basically done in Columbus. It gave the fans a chance to say a prolonged good-bye, but it hurt all the more knowing that this season had started with such promise and was ending with the complete implosion of the team.
The Final Straws
The season ended with a dismal, 30th place finish. 29 wins, 53 losses (seven in OT). The Jackets had the inside-track on winning the draft lottery, so of course the proverbial ping pong balls didn't bounce their way: they ended up with the second overall pick. We can't shake our heads at Ryan Murray; he should be a solid player. But, the consensus #1 pick was winger Nail Yakupov, and to lose out on the #1 pick not only hurts the team's offense but also the psyche.
And then there was Nash. After the summer dragged on and Nash wasn't moved at the draft, it seemed each day was a little less likely to see a reasonable deal get done. Then, finally, on July 23rd, the deal went down. While the return can be debated (I personally found it to be about what we should have expected), there's no debating the symbolism of trading your franchise player because he's played four playoff games in his entire career.
And, of course, there's the All Star Game, and the current state of all-things-labor in the NHL. The one silver lining to come out of a dumpster-fire-inside-of-a-larger-dumpster-fire of a season was that we'd have the All Star Game this coming season.
Now, thanks to the lockout, there's a better-than-average chance that the ASG won't be happening this season. Given that 2014 is an Olympic year, we might not see the game in Columbus until 2015 at the earliest. Hooray!
So, as you can see, if I have to pick the "biggest blooper" in team history, I can do nothing else but select "September 2011 through September 2012" as the biggest blooper in team history. The expectations set up last summer combind with the results in multiple areas are by far the biggest aggregate blooper in franchise history, and is one that probably won't be eclipsed any time soon.