Let’s take a trip back down memory lane to The Cannon’s Season Predictions. I had the Blue Jackets finishing dead last in the Metro, thinking they had a chance at dead last in the NHL. I was firmly in “show me” mode after last season. I’d heard the promises of change and hope and “buying in” and “this is finally the year” and, frankly, I was sick of hearing it. I wanted this team to actually prove to me – on the ice, not through words – that they could back up what they were talking about in press conferences.
I didn’t believe that they could do it. I thought that the team wasn’t cut out for success, that Torts wasn’t the coach for the job, who could help turn around a team with veterans who, by and large, hadn’t tasted success. I thought the young players would hear horror stories and tune him out before he ever got to work with them, a la Vancouver. I thought the locker room was irreparably broken, entitled, and needed to be blown up and rebuilt from the very beginning. I was frustrated, angry, and mostly just tired of this team spinning its wheels anywhere from 22nd to 27th place.
I was convinced that this team wasn’t building for this year. I didn’t think all of the pieces – Alexander Wennberg, Zach Werenski, William Karlsson – could take steps forward. I thought Sam Gagner was washed up. I thought the team was going to play Dalton Prout 82 games, we were going to be a slow, gritty, grind it out and hit people type of team. I didn’t think Sergei Bobrovsky could stay healthy for any meaningful stretch of hockey. I thought, like last season, we were going to get massacred out of the gate and be out of the playoffs by Thanksgiving, and that we’d be talking about the draft by Christmas.
I gave up my season tickets because I was tired of paying for a terrible product, and I wanted to see real, actual improvement on the ice – not just empty promises and words.
I was wrong.
Holy hell, was I wrong.
Columbus has shown it to me this year. Right now, the Columbus Blue Jackets – our beloved hockey club – are the best hockey team on the planet. I have never been happier to be wrong.
First and foremost, before anything else, this team begins at the back. Sergei Bobrovsky has been a monster this season, regaining his Vezina form and winning the NHL’s player of the month for the month of December, the first Columbus Blue Jacket to ever win the award. He’s unquestionably one of the top three or four goalies in the entire league, showing night in and night out what made him an icon in this town. Bobrovsky has shown confidence in his defense in front of him in ways I never expected that we could see here.
What the Columbus Blue Jackets have done this year has been nothing short of historic. Not magical, not a fluke, not random bounces and puck luck and a benefit of some unsustainable shooting percentage – it has been an historic turnaround under excellent, timely coaching, a willingness from veterans and young players alike to buy in to a system that utilizes each of their skills, does not ask them to do too much, and puts them in position to succeed. All of the credit in the world should go to John Tortorella, and if he does not win the Jack Adams, it is a damn shame. Torts has changed the culture in this club, removed all sense of entitlement, and helped install a belief that this team can play with anyone on any given night. They fear no one, and they never say die.
I was wrong about the pieces in this town. I thought there was no way that Alex Wennberg could replace Ryan Johansen, there was no way that Werenski could step in and succeed right away, there was no way that Cam Atkinson could take a step forward. Alex Wennberg has been the surprise of the season for me. Wennberg has taken a monster step forward this season, leading the NHL in power play points this year. He’s been physical along the boards, coaxing opponents into defensive zone turnover after defensive zone turnover, leading to numerous opportunities for the offense. I never saw that coming.
Zach Werenski is beyond words amazing. He is 47-8-5 since he left Michigan to go pro last April. He is the best playmaking defenseman this club has ever had, bar none. Werenski is a not just a Calder candidate, but he deserves to be a Norris candidate. He’s among the NHL leaders in points scored, he’s the backbone of the NHL’s best power play, and he’s completely transformed the attack.
Speaking of that power play. Holy hell, where did this come from. Other than my wildest dreams, that is. Columbus is leading the NHL in power play percentage, and it is absolutely no fluke. Having the two aforementioned players on the ice along with Cam Atkinson (who, by the way, is now a bona fide SUPERSTAR in this league and if he is not an All Star, they should scrap the entire event), Sam Gagner, and Captain Foligno. How good of a unit is this? Brandon Saad, who is having a stellar year, doesn’t actually fit on the first power play unit. Think about that. One of the best forwards in the league this year doesn’t actually fit, and the unit doesn’t miss him in the slightest. It’s artwork what they do every single night, and I almost expect them to score every time they take the ice.
I was in “show me” mode after last year. I thought this team was just full of talk, full of entitlement, and I gave up my tickets in protest because I was sick and tired of financially contributing to an organization that didn’t appear, from the outside, to care about getting better or about putting a winning product on the ice. I had had it, and all of the good will from 2013-14 was spent.
My girlfriend and I bought a quarter season ticket package together for the rest of the year. We’ve been watching and talking about the games for months now. In the middle of a classic Rose Bowl on Monday, we both were pining for more hockey, more Columbus Blue Jackets hockey to watch. We were there to see them beat Edmonton on Tuesday night, and we’ll be there on Saturday evening as the team honors John Tortorella for his 500th win as a head coach.
At stake? 2 points, another step forward in a long march toward the unknown, and winning some new fans along the way. This is a great hockey team right now, through 35+ games of the season. But the real season, we all know, begins in April. Columbus appears to be a near lock to make it.
Will this team make history? It’s unlikely. I don’t expect any of that. I don’t want to look too far ahead, just like the team. I want to take this all in game by game, and enjoy the ride. This has been the most fun following this club has ever been, and I want to soak every single second of it in.
I was wrong. I didn’t see any of this coming – the streak, the fun, the memories. The lesson here is to never lose faith, to never give up believing that this year can be the year.
Just because they lost last night doesn’t mean all of this is for naught. This city rallied around this team in ways we’ve never seen before. This is a legitimately good hockey club, be damned what the PDO says or what anyone else has to say. The coach believes it, the players believe it, and the fans believe it. You don’t win 16 in a row without being a magical squad.
Go Jackets. I was wrong, and I’m sorry.