When Rick Nash was traded to New York, the Blue Jackets had few positive expectations for their future. They had a new president of hockey operations, a lame-duck general manager, and had just finished 30th in the league while having to trade away their franchise cornerstone. The players were locked out. In a franchise history rampant with low points, this was the absolute nadir.
Fast forward two years.
The Jackets are coming off of just their second ever trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and notched their first ever playoff game wins along the way. They set franchise records for wins, points, and goals scored, and put a scare into the division champion Penguins over a tough six game series. They were the youngest team in the league, to boot.
That turn-around has been nothing short of astonishing. I'll be the first to admit that, had you told me in September of 2012 that we'd be right here, right now, I'd have never believed it.
Well, the Jackets made believers out of a lot of the hockey world this past spring. But, with great attention comes great expectations.
Many prognosticators look at the Metro Division and see a wide open field of teams. The Jackets didn't suffer any major personnel losses this summer--Ryan Johansen contract situation notwithstanding--and so most looked to the Jackets for another step forward.
"I think the high expectations from the outside mean that we're getting some respect," said GM Jarmo Kekalainen. "The main thing is that we know what's expected of us, of our team. Both on an individual level, and as a team. It's not about just one season. It's not about making it into the playoffs or winning a couple of playoff games. It's every day what's expected of being a Blue Jacket. That's what we're trying to establish."
But, for a club notorious for its slow starts in each of the past two seasons--slow starts that definitely affected where they finished in both years--expectations can be a dangerous thing. In response to a question about expectations against a prediction of a second-place finish in the Metro, team president John Davidson wasn't interested in that.
"Where you're picked [to finish] is up to other people," Davidson said on Wednesday. "There's been an identity established by the Blue Jackets that we're a hard team to play against. We're still young, and that's a good thing. I thought our young people handled it very well."
"It's up to us to have a better start to the season to give us a chance to end up in a place like [second in the division]."
It has to start in camp this week, and head coach Todd Richards hopes that the team is ready to do so.
"What we want is to try to get up to game speed right away," Richards said. "It starts in practice: how you practice, the intensity, the physicality. As coaches, we try to stress: 'play it like games' in practice. You want the players to get better individually, and when a guy does that it makes the whole team better. It starts in practice."
"I think the one thing that will make us faster and better this year is the depth of this group," Richards continued. "What you're starting to see is the benefit from poor seasons three years ago, because these draft picks are starting to come through. I saw a lot of talent up in Traverse City."
Obviously, if Johansen is holding out and Nathan Horton isn't 100% at the start of camp, that depth is going to get tested.
The truth is that only the Blue Jackets know what they're truly capable of. They have the horses to be a competitive playoff team capable of making a run in the East. But, if they come into camp with the mindset that they've arrived already, they could be in for another slow start which, in turn, will make for a tougher road to get there.
We will see soon enough whether this team is hungry to fulfill the expectations of what much of the hockey world thinks they can achieve.