Last time out I attempted to dissect the Columbus Blue Jackets just a little bit, which admittedly is tough just five games into a season, all the while, trying to instill patience, reminding those not to get too high or low following individual breakouts, periods, games, duds, you get the picture.
As any team starts to figure out who they are during the course of the first month and change of the regular season, you’ll hear players and coaches speak about their identity. Who they are, how they play, what makes them tick.
So as Columbus sifts its way through the rest of October, they already face a bit of an opportunity to bank points with three of their next four games at Nationwide Arena — Coyotes, Sabres, and Red Wings. And with a trip to California on the horizon right after Halloween, the schedule just naturally gets tougher.
As we’ve seen the Jackets over the years improve, both in the front office and down onto the ice, the product has produced more unto expectations of a hockey club with designs on winning in the playoffs. Long-gone are the days of daily putrid performances, facing teams like the Red Wings in the later stages of their heyday in the first decade of the 2000s. Columbus now tries to make the playoffs for the third-consecutive season, still trying to make it past the first-round, but arguably with its best group to date packed by its youthful core.
2008-09 First Playoffs
Led by Ken Hitchcock, the Jackets made the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time, losing 4-0 to the Red Wings in the series. Starting out 9-8-3 their first 20 games, 18-18-4 through 40, this season felt like all the prior ones — better but playoffs seemed in jeopardy. It was the exceptional play of that year’s Calder winner, Steve Mason (33-20-7, .916, 2.29), and 10 shutouts which propelled this club to greater depths.
I specifically remember being at a game in Washington, where Mason shut out the Capitals 3-0, sans Rick Nash, ending the Capitals seven-game win streak at home. With 45 saves, Capitals fans were left to question “who is this guy?” out loud to one another.
2009-10 Back to Start
Naturally after the team experienced the one bit iota of success the franchise and fans had been craving, expectations were at their highest entering the 2009-10 season. Instead it was back to the basement of the Central Division, despite one of the better starts in club history (12-6-2) before a stretch that saw just three wins over their next 24 games.
A three-game win streak followed by five-straight losses, and another nine-game skid sealed Hitchcock’s fate. The final 32-35-15 season and 79 points seem respectable on the bottom-line, but make no mistake, playoffs are the bottomline for a team looking to capitalize on its season-success prior. Any enthusiasm and joy that previous year brought was replaced with more retooling as Hitchcock was let go.
Fifth place would be a constant-sight again in 2010-11 and 2011-12. By the end of 11-12 season, the Jackets had regressed to 29 wins, 65 points, prompting change at the top. John Davidson had successfully rebuilt the Blues, and now was tasked for doing the same in Columbus.
2012-13 Close but no Cigar
With the start of a lockout and the regular season cut in half to 48 games, Columbus started out the year under similar fashion. A 5-12 start through the first 20, the dismissal of GM Scott Howson, and trying to salvage the remaining games.
Then something happened. New GM Jarmo Kekäläinen took over, as Sergei Bobrovsky (21-11-6, .932, 2.00) won the starting goaltending job from the inconsistent Mason. A 5-12-4 start through 21 games shifted upward to 17-16-7 after 40. The playoffs were in sights. Winning eight of their final nine games probably would have been enough, typically. But one loss in Los Angeles over the final nine games proved costly, despite closing the season with three-straight wins.
The Wild won the final playoff spot due to more regulation and overtime wins. Bobrovsky won the Vezina and you know the rest.
2013-14 Back in the Playoffs
Columbus set a franchise-high 93 points in their return to the playoffs for the second time, setting up a memorable and fun series against the Penguins. A back-and-forth affair featuring each team that scored first losing in the first five games of the series, including each team blowing at least a two-goal lead in the first four games. Game 6 saw Pittsburgh staked out to a 4-0 lead before Columbus’ relentless finish that brought the deficit to one before falling short 4-3. Again, optimism was at a high following the season and series against the Penguins.
2014-15 Streaks and Injuries
The team was ravaged by injuries all season — led NHL with 502-man games lost — before a 15-1-1 finish that saw the club nearly make it back to the postseason.
It was a wild season that saw the Jackets ride wild streaks and stretches, both good and bad — nine-game losing streak, six game-losing streak, seven-game winning streak, seven-game losing streak, and nine-game winning streak.
2015-16 A Changing of the Guard
The Todd Richards-era came to a close following an 0-7 start to the season and the ushering of John Tortorella coming aboard. Ryan Johansen was traded for Seth Jones, and though the team failed to reach the playoffs, the most successful aspects of the team were beginning to form.
2016-17 The Streak
By now, I was realizing that this team seemed to perform well when I went into the season with zero expectations. When optimism was high, things didn’t seem to start or end well. After a 6-3 opening night loss to the Bruins, and Tortorella talking about how much this team needed to progress, optimism wasn’t that high. But this was all the prelude to an impressive 11-5-4 start through 20, including a 10-0 win over the Canadiens, and of course a magical 16-game winning streak that saw the Jackets at a franchise-best 27-5-4 record.
The team was in Presidents Trophy consideration for much of the season.
Following the streak, the play leveled out a bit. Tortorella admitted he could have handled things differently during the streak, as the team got away from some of the things that made them successful over the later stages of the streak.
A six-game losing streak late in the season dashed their shot at winning the Metropolitan Division, and instead, a third-place finish meant another first-round meeting with the Penguins. Which could have gone better.
Zach Werenski was a Calder nominee, showcasing his offensive dazzle with 47 points, and setting the franchise-rookie scoring record.
The 50 wins, 108 points set the best marks in club history.
2017-18 Capital Punishment
Columbus making the playoffs in consecutive seasons was a franchise-first, and leading the best-of-7 series against the Capitals 2-0 was also a first. Seth Jones continued to emerge as an offensive-defenseman, and a 10-game winning streak in March propelled the team into the playoffs.
The trade in the previous offseason for Artemi Panarin proved gangbusters, as he was a force on the ice, the kind of game-breaker the team needed, and Pierre-Luc Dubois was an emergence as well from the center position. Dubois broke Werenski’s rookie-scoring record by one point (20—28-48) and appeared in all 82 games.