The Stanley Cup.
It is the reason hockey players around the world take up the game, put in countless hours of training, and often leave home to play for various organizations on the way to, hopefully, the NHL. It is the best trophy in sport and represents the pinnacle in team success. And until recently, it barely existed in the vocabulary of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
As the Jackets floundered as an organization through their first 12 years of existence, the Stanley Cup never entered the thought process when trying to define success. Heck, there was one playoff appearance before last season, and that run ended 16 wins short of Lord Stanley's Cup.
Not just a personnel change in the form of the Rick Nash trade. Not change in the form of Sergei Bobrovsky, who finally provided stability in net. No, it was a cultural change and it started at the top. John Davidson entered as the new President of Hockey Operations. Shortly thereafter, he hired Jarmo Kekalainen as GM. The message soon become clear - this team was no longer just going to hope to be competitive. The famous "brick by brick" mantra was touted early in the tenure of JD and Jarmo. It may be difficult to remember that Davidson has not even been with the Blue Jackets a full two years. Fans at the time of his hiring seemed to think "brick by brick" signaled more than just two years.
Whether it was the presence of JD, Todd Richards as coach, the result of the Nash trade, or going to Bob as "the guy" in net, Columbus came agonizingly close to tasting the playoffs after the lockout-shortened season in 2013. Fans were excited about the progress coming off the horrendous 2011-2012 season. The last game of the regular season actually (gasp) mattered. It had been four years since the last couple weeks of the season were worth watching other than to see some young guys and hoping to improve draft position.
But it wasn't good enough. Fans filed out quietly after the Jackets were officially eliminated from the playoffs. Almost immediately JD, Todd Richards, and many of the players all said the same thing - "It wasn't good enough." They had failed in their goal of making the playoffs, because the only chance of winning the Cup is qualifying for the postseason.
The same scenario played out this past season. It was the most successful season in franchise history. Finally, FINALLY, a playoff win. Two in fact. But the run fell 14 wins shy of that ultimate goal. So while fans were once again excited and the city had come together around the playoff run, the team was saying the same thing - "not good enough."
The last couple years have brought about a change in the expectation of players. You can find interviews with almost anyone in the organization and they all say the same thing - We want to win a Stanley Cup. That's the stated goal. They're not shying away from it. Fans shouldn't either. That is the point of sports, of competition. Are you better than the opponent? Hockey measures its best team in the form of the Cup.
All that said, what will a successful 2014-2015 look like for you? I think, realistically, we can all agree that a "Stanley Cup or bust" mentality doesn't do anyone any good. This team is still extremely young with its best years ahead. Regression is never good, so a playoff berth is a very nearly a "must." Of course, there is some context here. What if Horton never recovers to 100%? What if Johansen doesn't sign? What if Bob suffers another injury? Long injuries at key times to important players can always derail postseason plans. The Chicago Bulls aren't the same team without Derrick Rose. The Oklahoma City Thunder struggled a couple seasons ago without Russell Westbrook. The Detroit Red Wings missed Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg for extended time just last season. The Canadiens weren't the same without Carey Price. Does your definition of success depend on the personnel available throughout the year? It's not an excuse, but major injuries to big-time players can be devastating.
So are fans to the point of expecting at least a playoff round win? Does the team need to win three playoff games, one more than last year's amount? The Metropolitan Division is fairly wide open and many teams are having injury issues as well. Is a second place finish out of the question?
Personally, I think another playoff appearance would be a success. Depending on how the Johansen and Horton situations shake out, I don't think it is too much to think of advancing to the second round of the playoffs. This team kept the bulk of its team from last year, in which they collectively gained 120 games of playoff experience (I guess technically 114 since McElhinney never played). Only a handful of those players left. That collective experience should certainly help this season and (hopefully) postseason.
Even with all of that, it would not be too crazy for fans to dream about the Eastern Conference Finals, and with a bit of luck even a SCF appearance. Sure, that might seem unrealistic or rather outlandish for this franchise, but the Stanley Cup is the goal now for their organization. It may not happen this year, but it should start becoming a realistic expectation very soon.
Until then, we can dream of the Blue Jackets skating off of playoff ice after going through a handshake line as winners. Who knows, we could see that in less than seven months.