The tandem at the top of the Blue Jackets organization is entering their fourth (!!) season together in Columbus. John Davidson was hired as President of Hockey Operations in October 2012 when the league was still mixed up in a lockout. Jarmo Kekalainen was hired as General Manager just a few months later as the season got underway.
The theme over and over again in 2012 and into 2013 was "brick by brick." This was the polite way of telling fans that a rebuild was going to take time to make the team a contender. There was going to be no mortgaging the future for a "win now" mentality. Fans were mostly on board with this message as JD and Jarmo had proven track records at other NHL stops. There seemed to be credibility in the front office, finally.
Fans know how those first three seasons went. Perhaps the early success clouded their judgment of the brick by brick approach. "Hey, we almost made the playoffs last year and went toe-to-toe with the Penguins. Why can't we be Eastern Conference champs next season?"
Another slow start out of the gate plagues the Jackets right now, an apparent rite of passage in Columbus and into CBJ fandom. Before fans can have a Cup parade down High Street, they must first suffer perpetual losing for umpteen years. That might have been in the fine print of those original expansion agreements. Someone go check on that.
So here we are again. Another season of high expectations. Another season of saying all the right things going into training camp and preseason. Another preseason where the Jackets looked like the best team in the league at times and tickled the fancy of Blue Jackets Nation. The team looked "loaded on paper" and they were poised to be the best in franchise history. The top line was going to be unstoppable. There were actually no major injuries to speak of. It was finally going to be "the year" in Columbus - the stage was set.
Seven consecutive losses to start earned Todd Richards the pink slip as head coach. John Tortorella was brought in to right the ship, and the team has been mostly average in his first few weeks on the job. They sit in 30th place and have yet to win in Nationwide Arena.
There is little doubt that the future is bright. Kekalainen's drafting has been lauded as superb by many analysts and scouts. Many of those players cannot help the situation right now, though. The AHL-affiliate, filled with many of these prospects, has been doing well this season. The bricks they spoke of are coming into place, they just aren't all in Columbus yet.
Unfortunately for fans, the bed is mostly laid for 2015-2016 from a roster standpoint. Outside of Jack Johnson and Fedor Tyutin, the team on the ice was put together by this front office. [EDIT - Boone Jenner and Ryan Murray were on their entry-level contracts with the current front office took over.] Sure, many of the players were brought into the fold by Scott Howson, but the current front office signed this group to new contracts or traded for them, outside of two defensemen. This is the team fans were told was going to compete for the Stanley Cup this year. Three games into the season, and Jarmo was not happy:
The results have not gotten a whole lot better since then. The players and the front office have said the things you would expect to hear as fans, but the results remain the same: late game collapses and blown leads, an inability to prevent goals after scoring, losses for one reason or another. The season is nearly 20% gone. They have won four games.
There is no easy reason to point to either (other than just playing poorly), no mountain of injuries like last season. Perhaps the Tortorella hiring will eventually right the ship, but the hole is so deep it may not matter for the spring of 2016. It is very early and always difficult to project playoff teams, but the Jackets currently are given a 1.8% chance of making the postseason.
Given the cap situation, there are not many immediate deals to be made to help the situation. Because of many of the current contracts and status of some of the players, this is going to have to be the group that figures it out and turns it around. The odds do not seem likely. If it goes south, what is the foundation that is going to be left for the future bricks?
There was never a timeline put on those "brick by brick" comments a few years ago, and for good reason. No management team is going to put themselves on a deadline for being Stanley Cup contenders. Did the playoff berth mask some of the deficiencies within the organization? Is the short-term plan of trusting this "core" group of players never going to materialize into consistent playoff appearances?
This next month feels like a tipping point, not just for this season but for the franchise as a whole. Will the on-ice results finally turn around under Tortorella and will it be enough to be within striking distance of a Wild Card spot in a few months? In the bigger picture, will this be a wasted year in the rebuilding process if the team does not get their stuff together? Might there be a fire sale to make way for those prospects on their way up? It seems like such a jumbled mess for a franchise filled with optimism just a couple months ago.
Time is running out to prove that this season is not simply a waste. Basic math tells us the team needs something like a 40-19-7 finish just to even think about having a chance at the postseason, or nearly a 66% winning percentage the rest of the way. The probability seems quite unlikely. If it does not happen, then what is the future for the team?