The Blue Jackets 2013 media day was a bit different than years past for several reasons.
The simplest change was that unlike previous years, this event was solely conducted by the team's head coach and front office, unlike past events where a relatively brief Q&A with the GM and head coach would segue into individual and group sessions with Rick Nash, Steve Mason, and other notables.
On the one hand, some of this is likely because the team spent much of today sending players out to deliver tickets to lucky Season Ticket Holders, but it also speaks to the change in attitudes within the organization.
Unlike Doug MacLean, who happily spun with the media and used players as a focus or distraction, or Scott Howson, who never quite seemed to enjoy being the focus of cameras and audio recorders, John Davidson is incredibly comfortable and self-assured when meeting the press, regardless of the questions. He doesn't need to have someone else sell the product. He's incredibly gifted at creating excitement with his booming voice and palpable charisma.
GM Jarmo Kekalainen may not be as polished with the media as his boss, but he has a significant advantage - unlike many past Blue Jackets executives, he can let his work speak for him.
With that said, it's not so surprising that the team didn't feel a need for statements, for scripted remarks, or agendas. After a very brief welcome to the assembled press (which included members of local TV, radio, and print media, but also included some correspondents from Cleveland and Cincinnati), they simply started taking questions, and fielded questions from the floor for the better part of an hour.
The air of calm, quiet confidence seemed to radiate from both executives and Coach Richards as they spoke today, and there was no hesitation or air of distraction in any of their answers. (Though it's also fair to say that they didn't necessarily answer every question as completely as many reports or fans probably would have liked.) All three spoke to the raised expectations thanks to last year's run, and made it equally clear that a strong start to the season is important.
Davidson went so far as to say that "We feel that we know who we are as an organization, and we're going to hit the ice with our feet moving." Not surprising, given that a few different results in their rocky opening last season might have meant the difference between a playoff berth and watching on the sidelines.
JD also commented on the changed attitude on the club, stating that the team now feels they have "every right to win" night in and night out, something he felt may have been lacking when he arrived in town.
There's a difference, though, between the assurance that was shown today, and the way the team has tried to present themselves in the past. It's hard to put into words, but there is a something in the air from the club's leadership. A strong sense of having been there, done that, and knowing what it will take to do it again. Or perhaps it's simply the difference of knowing what you CAN do, compared to hoping that you might do something.
That confidence is clear in the way the front office regards the roster that they've assembled, and all three were quite pleased with the performance of their prospects at the Traverse City tournament, the blowout loss to Dallas aside, but want to see an overall performance from those invited to continue into training camp.
"It's not just a matter of skill or physical maturity", said Kekalainen, "We have to make sure that if a player is going to be in the NHL that he is mentally mature enough to handle the responsibility. Their play and performance in camp will show us where they need to be."
Interestingly, while the discussion of players taking the next step began with prospects like Ryan Murray or Boone Jenner, the current roster was not excepted. Cam Atkinson and Ryan Johansen were both mentioned as players the organization wants to see take a step up in contributing scoring, and it was clear they expect strong seasons from a fully healthy Marian Gaborik alongside veterans like Jack Johnson, R.J. Umberger, and Brandon Dubinsky.
"We don't have a single star player who will carry the team," said Kekalainen when asked about scoring, "Everyone has to contribute."
That same attitude also came through from Todd Richards when he came to the podium, who was frequently asked about a "top line" or "top six."
"Last year," Richards answered, "we put R.J. (Umberger), Johansen, and Foligno out against guys like Joe Thornton, and they came out on top. Maybe they were our top line that game. But other nights maybe Artem (Anisimov), Gaborik, and Mark (Letestu) were the guys who stepped it up. I can't tell you if we're going to have a defined number one line. It's just a matter of finding the right combinations at the right times in the game."
The executives were equally confident in talking about Sergei Bobrovsky and the strong core of their defense, but they were also honest about the challenges in the new Metropolitan Division.
"We have to keep working hard, every game. We cannot stop and we cannot let anyone else outwork us," explained Davidson, when asked about the new Division and possible rivalries going East. "I know that Pittsburgh is right down the street, and I know that they are good. We're going to have to work hard against them, and we're going to have to find a way to deal with them. The Rangers are good. The Devils always find a way. It's going to be tough, and we need to rise to the challenge."
The issue of this being an Olympic year was raised, but the coaching staff sees it as a benefit, not a hazard. "The schedule is compressed a little bit, but it's actually not as bad as last season," Richards said, "Guys want to play for their country. They want to show what they can do. That's a great motivator that we can use."
The playoffs are an expectation now, and the team seems ready to carry that weight. All three men stressed the higher expectations on this club because of the way they finished last year, but they also brought up the way players had been given goals to work towards during the offseason when they held their end of season meetings, and the feedback that has come to the front office from S&C coach Kevin Collins has been quite encouraging.
Goals were set. Work was done. The bar was lifted just a bit higher.
The brick by brick philosophy has lead to some impressive construction down on Front Street and Nationwide Boulevard. The club's management has done the right things, said the right words, and projected the air of strength and confidence that has been lacking for so long.
Now, as we prepare for training camp to open on Wednesday morning, it's time to see what the players will bring to the equation as they hit the ice.