Gearing Up: Defining Success
Expectations have never been higher for the Columbus Blue Jackets. As preparations for the season begin in earnest, whet measuring stick will we use to gauge success or failure?
With the Traverse City tournament coming later this week, and training camp beginning in only a fortnight, the ice is in at Nationwide, traffic on the hockey sites is picking up, and the rumblings of fan expectations are growing louder by the day. Why not? This is a club that finished with its fourth highest point total in history last year (including extrapolating the 55 points earned in the 48 game 2012-13 season to a full season 94 points), despite a horrific injury streak that saw over 500 man-games disappear in the medical wing. This is the club that posted a 10-4-0 record in March, followed by a 5-0-1 record in April, including a 12-1-1 streak from the Ides of March to the end of the season. Sure, Artem Anismov and Marko Dano are gone, but Brandon Saad is here, the other youngsters have a full year under their belt, and the injury board is clear for the time being. How can you not be optimistic?
We're going to skip right past the traditional Columbus paranoia/fatalism that predicts tornados while the sun is shining and assumes the worst will befall the club. At the same time, I will not succumb to my own tendency to be overly optimistic and reserve my curbside seat for the Stanley Cup parade. Instead, let's focus on what "success" would mean for the team this year. Is a Stanley Cup necessary to be deemed a success? Is a mere playoff appearance enough? Something in between?
There is, of course, no right or wrong answer to this question. This is as individualized as you can get, with opinions likely ranging from A to Z . . . and beyond. Those who consider anything but an undefeated national championship season a failure for the Ohio State football team will likely consider the Cup a necessity, while some of the more battered members of the fan base would be satisfied with much lower aspirations. Is "success" for the Blue Jackets this season strictly a numerical determination, or is there more that comes into play?
From where I sit, the calculus of success is multi-variable, particularly this year. Consider that in the three seasons since the Blue Jackets hit bottom in the 2011-12 campaign, firing Scott Arniel and limping in with a mere 65 points (the third lowest point total in Blue Jackets' history), the club has posted three of the top four point totals in club history (including the extrapolated 2012/13 results). This has all been done while replacing the front office and turning over virtually the entire roster. While those things have happened before, they were usually done in a reactive fashion. Instead, what we've seen under John Davidson, Jarmo Kekäläinen and Todd Richards is an orderly progression from old regime to new, from a star and supporting cast to a true team. Brick by brick. We only caught a glimpse of what the cohesive unit was capable of last season, but that taste whetted the appetites of the fan base for more. The question is: how much more, and how soon?
Eliminating one extreme is relatively easy. I don't think that anyone -- coaches, management, fans or players -- would consider anything less than a playoff appearance as a successful season, and rightly so. Injuries derailed last year's effort, and only the tiebreaker prevented a playoff appearance in the abridged 2012-13 campaign. Otherwise, the club could have been on a three-year string of playoff appearances. However, adversity happens, and how the club responds to adversity is also a key to success. In many ways, last season was a success, despite the lack of a playoff appearance, as the club showed its utter refusal to surrender, showed some real chemistry, and did all of that while providing some invaluable playing time to the likes of Alexander Wennberg, Cody Goloubef and others.
What about the other extreme? Is a Stanley Cup necessary for this season to be deemed a success? I don't think so. One of the great things about hockey is that once a club is in the playoffs, anything can happen. If your goalie is hot, and a few guys can park the puck in the net, good things can happen, and Columbus is as equipped to do that as anybody, and more so than many. However, to say that a Cup is not out of the question is a vastly different proposition than saying that it is required for the season to be a success. When camps open in two weeks, there will be thirty teams with a single goal: to skate the Stanley Cup around the ice in June 2016. Only one team will actually do it, however, and it strains credibility to think that none of those other 29 clubs could be deemed as a success.
Winning the Cup is hard. Very hard. You need the talent, the coaching and the front office support, to be sure. But you also need a lot of luck. Your key players have to stay healthy. The coach has to know which buttons to push and when. Players need to avoid extended slumps, and if one player has a slump, somebody else has to be there to pick up the slack. Lots of moving pieces, and only some of them are ultimately controllable.
I looked at the records of the nine expansion clubs that have joined the NHL since 1990 -- 25 years ago -- to see how they have fared. Those clubs (Anaheim, Atlanta/Winnipeg, Columbus, Florida, Minnesota, Nashville, Ottawa, San Jose and Tampa Bay) have played a collective 168 seasons of hockey, and have earned precisely two Stanley Cups (Anaheim & Tampa Bay). Four other times, clubs have reached the Stanley Cup Final (Anaheim, Florida, Ottawa & Tampa Bay), and expansion clubs appeared in the conference final another eight times (Anaheim twice, San Jose three times, Tampa Bay, Ottawa and Minnesota). So, in just 14 out of 168 opportunities have the most recent expansion clubs made it beyond the second round of the playoffs.
Certainly, a few of the expansion clubs have impressive playoff resumes. San Jose leads the pack with 16 playoff appearances in 23 years of existence (while still holding the NHL record for most losses in a season). Yet, the Sharks remain looking for their first Cup. Ditto for Ottawa, with 15 playoff entries in 22 years on the ice. Tampa Bay has only appeared eight times in its 22 year history, but has both a Cup and a Cup Final appearance. Anaheim has a Cup, a Cup Final appearance, and two conference final appearance among its 11 playoff years. Nashville has exited in the first round in six of its eight playoff entries over 16 years, while Winnipeg (nee Atlanta) and Columbus have yet to emerge from the first round in their two playoff showings over 15 and 14 year tenures, respectively.
The numbers simply reinforce the fact that this Cup deal is a really, really difficult thing to do. I think the Blue Jackets need to move beyond the first round of the playoffs to be deemed to truly have had a successful season. Does that automatically qualify the season as successful. For me, maybe. If they go to seven games in the second round, and lose by a goal, I'll probably still call it a success. Get swept in four, probably not. So, if we're going to try and put a quantitative measurement on this, the second round is a must, with the Conference Final highly desired.
Of course, success is not just a quantitative exercise. How well did the team play? Did they succeed as a unit, or ride the backs of one or two guys? What adversity did they face and overcome? How did the youngsters develop? Were they a better team on April 8 than they were on October 9? For me, all of those questions have to be answered in order to solve the equation of success. It very fashionable in this day and age to try to cram everything into an equation or Excel spreadsheet -- and those elements are necessary and good. But the quantitative only truly has value when it is considered with all of the qualitative evidence as well. The optics have to confirm the numbers at some point.
So, there's lots of room for debate, but suffice it to say that a successful season will see playoff games being played at Nationwide in May. Until then, let's enjoy all of those interim successes. Stay tuned.