I’ve recently noticed a darker mood among the Columbus Blue Jackets faithful in recent weeks. Whether it’s on Twitter, in the Cannon comments, or even in the writer’s Slack channel (/waves at MrSwift), there is not as much hope for the short or long term future of this team. Each loss is met with doom-and-gloom fatalism.
And yet, this team still sits near the top of the Metro Division standings. I’m reminded of a piece our own Ryan Real wrote last season: The Blue Jackets Are Good, But It’s Not Enough. Notice that it was published on December 19, 2017. It was at the same point of the season as we are in now, and the mood is the same.
So why do we feel this way?
In 2016-17, no one expected the Blue Jackets to be any good, so it made each win all the more enjoyable. Even in the early season, many pundits felt the winning was “unsustainable.” And still, they kept winning and kept proving the predictions wrong. Two years later, things have flipped. Now the Blue Jackets have earned respect all over the league. Many writers picked the Jackets to make a deep playoff run this season. But now that the eyes of the league are upon Columbus, the Blue Jackets are wilting a bit under the pressure. The team no longer plays with that chip on their shoulder, or with the attitude that there’s nothing to lose. They play like a team burdened with these expectations. Especially players who are failing to produce at their best (Bobrovsky, Werenski, Wennberg, BJORKSTRAND, etc).
Cup or Bust
In discussing moves the team should make, the default position in the comments seems to be that every move should be made with the aim of competing right away for the Stanley Cup. But is this fair? And more importantly, is there any move that can guarantee a deep playoff run? History has shown that there is not. A team’s playoff fortunes can depend on the thinnest margins of fate. Is your goalie hot? Have you lost a key player to injury? (Like, hypothetically a headshot that everyone but the Mr. Magoos in the Department of Player Safety saw as a dirty hit) Did Bettman’s ridiculous playoff structure match you up against an unfavorable opponent in an early round?
With so much left to chance, maybe it’s enough to have a team that is consistently in the playoffs. Just get in, and hope for the best. Always try to improve the roster, of course, but don’t expect to find a magic bullet. Only 1 in 31 teams can win the Cup each year. If anything short of that is a failure, then you’re bound to be disappointed.
MrSwift said that he’s having fun watching his Rams this season, but that anything short of winning the Super Bowl will mean the season is a failure. To me, that seems so sad! Heck, even the Belichick/Brady Patriots don’t win the Super Bowl every year. They have made it to the Super Bowl eight times, but that’s still fewer than the times they’ve missed it in the past 17 seasons.
Maybe this is something that you can only appreciate with the benefit of hindsight. The 1990s Cleveland Indians were a playoff staple, but fell short in both of their World Series appearances in that decade. However, their fans still remember those seasons fondly. You had Hall of Famers like Eddie Murray, Jim Thome, and Roberto Alomar, plus other fan favorites like Kenny Lofton and Omar Vizquel. They packed their new stadium and they treated the fans to wins, including many in dramatic fashion. The playoff losses stung at the time, but that’s not what we remember the most.
In that vein, it’s worth taking a step back and appreciating how nice it is that the Blue Jackets are a competitive team. That wasn’t the case just three years ago. Does anyone remember the 2011-12 season? It was a slog. We’ve come a long way since then. I would much rather be in our current situation than be facing another rebuild.
I can understand a Penguins fan being disappointed with anything short of a Cup. They’ve experienced that high, so they know what they’re missing. What have we done to earn that same entitlement? Another first round exit would sting, but any step beyond that should be celebrated as the franchise milestone that it is.
I hate to bring this up, because like most of you I hate when other writers can’t talk about the Blue Jackets without mentioning this. But it’s the Slavic-accented elephant in the room: Sergei Bobrovsky’s and Artemi Panarin’s looming free agency. It hurts to think that they are reluctant to commit to this team and this city for the long term. They are such elite talents that you dread a future that they are not a part of.
I’m guilty of worrying about this myself, and I think we need to stop. It’s like that Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.” There is nothing we can do, as fans, to keep those players. It’s out of our control. So we should enjoy them while we can. We saw last night what Bread can do when he’s at his best. Bob has struggled this season but hopefully he will regain his form. If he does, that’s a player that can steal games for you.
And if they leave, the cupboard isn’t completely bare. There are still several All-Star caliber players like Seth Jones, Cam Atkinson, Zach Werenski, and Pierre-Luc Dubois who are under team control for years to come and are very entertaining to watch.
It’s Not Fun
This has been another common complaint, and it’s a fair one. It’s not fun when the team blows leads late in the game. It’s not fun when they disappear for entire periods. It’s not fun when they play down to the level of their competition, or get outclassed by one of the elite teams in the league. It’s especially not fun when one of those types of games happens in front of the home crowd. But ... it’s only December. You can criticize an individual game all you want, but don’t assume that it ensures only similar performances going forward. It’s a long season, and there is a lot of time to fix things. Hell, it was early March after a loss in Anaheim that some people thought the playoff hopes were completely dead. Then things clicked and the team took off. The lineup we saw last night will not be the lineup for Game 1 of the playoffs, I guarantee. Lines will shuffle, players will get hurt (unfortunately), and there will be arrivals and departures between now and the trade deadline.
We’re not even halfway through the season yet. There are 51 more regular seasons to watch. This is a good team, in a playoff position, which features numerous exciting young talents. Let’s enjoy the ride.