An Expectations Reset
The Blue Jackets once again find themselves at the bottom of the standings. How will fans readjust their expectations for the team they once thought of as a potential playoff darkhorse?
I find my life is a lot easier the lower I keep my expectations. - Bill Watterson
Nothing really worth having comes quickly and easily. - Eknath Easwaran
Expectations can be a funny thing with sports teams and especially sports fans. Identical team records can resonate differently depending on what the fans were expecting that particular season. A team with championship aspirations may not handle losing well and put pressure on themselves to win. A team with no expectations of winning could play with no pressure and actually perform better than expected.
Fans will react differently to wins and losses based on the expectations set for their team. A multi-game losing streak for a team that is supposed to make a deep playoff run? That could create some angst in the fanbase. An unexpected playoff push at the end of the season for a team that was supposed to be at the bottom of the standings? That would create a lot of fun and excitement.
What are Blue Jackets fans thinking now? The expectations for this season were the greatest in franchise history. A first-round playoff win seemed like the minimum this team should accomplish.
On October 24, 2012, John Davidson was hired as President of Hockey Operations for the Columbus Blue Jackets just two weeks after leaving the St. Louis Blue organization. At that time, the Blue Jackets franchise was a mess.
First off, there was no hockey being played due to the lockout. The team had spent the first ten months of 2012 unloading veterans for young players and first round picks.
The organization had finally acquired a #1 center for superstar Rick Nash prior to the 2011-2012 season. They had also added a veteran scoring presence in Vinny Prospal and bolstered the blue line by signing James Wisniewski. That season never got off the ground and fans, who had restored their playoff expectations, were left to watch the team finish last place in the league for the first time in franchise history.
By the time the following season finally started in 2013, no one really had any expectations of the team. There were so many new faces and numbers on the jerseys. Nash was in New York. His #1 center was moved to Los Angeles the previous trade deadline. A new goalie had been acquired that summer as well. It was difficult to identify the "core" of the team at the start of 2013 and who was going to be counted on to score goals or play the important minutes.
Five or six weeks into that season and the team was meeting expectations - dead last. It was not really a surprise for fans. Many were just happy to have hockey back after the lockout left them without games to attend in the fall of 2012.
Then, a funny thing happened that spring. The team, with its young players and no household names, began to string together wins. A lot of them. So many wins, in fact, that the front office threw out its "brick by brick" approach and acquired superstar forward Marian Gaborik in an attempt to provide some offense over the final weeks of the season.
Ultimately, that team came up a tiebreaker short of making the playoffs. Fans were disappointed as they left Nationwide Arena, despite providing a raucous environment in that final game against Nashville. Overall, because the expectations were so low to start the season most fans enjoyed the wild ride to the end. The vibe around the team was positive, that they were on an upswing after figuring things out over those final 30 games. The team was heading to the Eastern Conference the following season as well which was seen as a plus.
The team landed Nathan Horton in free agency that offseason. The Jackets also added two highly-touted rookies to the roster in Boone Jenner and Ryan Murray. Fan expectations increased after the 19-5-5 finish from the season before. There was quiet optimism and finally a real sense of belief that the playoffs were in reach for this team.
After struggling out of the gates, the team met those expectations and qualified for the playoffs for the second time in franchise history. They tangled with the Pittsburgh Penguins through six games before bowing out of the postseason. Again, expectations were raised for the following season.
The 2014-2015 season was doomed from the start as the team battled an absurd number of injuries throughout the year. They struggled in the standings, as one would expect with 508 man-games lost. Expectations, though, did not dip for the following season.
The team finished on a ferocious 15-1-1 tear to end the season with a mostly healthy lineup. That built up the confidence that this team could compete for a top spot in the East without the massive amounts of injuries. The front office also went out and added forward Brandon Saad to the lineup.
Pundits were calling the 2015-2016 version of the Jackets the best team in franchise history. Expectations were at an all-time high in Columbus.
That has all come crashing down. The Jackets sit at the bottom of the standings with the last third of their season still to play out. They are nearly assured of one of the top picks at the upcoming NHL Draft.
While the short-term expectations are fairly clear - see what the young kids can do at this level - the longer term view is murky. Does the front office think the team can compete for the playoffs in 2017? Are they in a "wait and see" mode until the prospects are NHL ready?
Where does that leave the fans? Year Four of this front office group is coming to an end and, in the standings at least, the team is still among the worst in the entire league. What is going to be fan expectation going into next season?
Right now, there is a glaring hole at center with Ryan Johansen now in Nashville. There are not really any prospects in the pipeline that project to be a top line centerman. It could take some time to get the quality of talent on that top line to compete deep into the playoffs.
It is reasonable for fans to expect to see improvement, any kind of improvement, in the standings next season. The team can only go up from here. It is why this front office was hired in the first place.
Consistent playoff appearances? Those expectations might need to be tabled for two to three years. This is going to be a very young team the next couple of seasons. Some prospects still need a year or two before they are "NHL ready." Hockey into late April and May as a yearly occurrence is probably a few years away.
Are fans ready for that? Will their expectations match what has happened on the ice the last couple of years?
The sooner that reality sets in, the sooner the losing will not drain on the fans. It hurts worse when you are expected to be a top team, like this season. It rolls off your back a bit easier when you are expecting the team to play poorly.
Eventually this team will command the highest of expectations every season, but there is still work to do until then. These losing seasons will make those playoff berths and playoff wins all the more sweeter. Because nothing really worth having comes quickly or easily.