The Blue Jackets Learned Lessons They Should've Known All Along
The Blue Jackets had a wildly successful regular season. What happens when it ends in disappointment?
You know what it's like when you want something so bad, then you finally get what you're asking for, and it kind of sucks? Maybe it's a t-shirt that doesn't fit quite right, or a car that constantly breaks down, or a gadget that's buggy and won’t run the newest apps?
It's not an entirely fair comparison, but the Columbus Blue Jackets playoff run, if you can call it that, after a strong 2016-17 season felt a bit like that. The Jackets weren't supposed to be in the Stanley Cup playoffs. No revisionist history here - from diehard fans to seasoned analysts, many picked them to finish in the bottom half of the league once again, if not dead last. Almost no one believed in them - except maybe the players and coaches themselves - but it didn't matter.
To be clear: Getting to the playoffs didn't suck. A 16-game winning streak, good for second longest winning streak in the National Hockey League's 100 year history, didn't suck. Zach Werenski, Seth Jones, Sergei Bobrovsky, and Cam Atkinson did not - by any stretch - suck.
But there were a lot of lessons to be learned this season - some new, thanks to experiencing the uncharted territory of a Blue Jackets 50-win, 108-point season. Others lessons old and familiar, like coaches not adjusting their game plan when it's clearly not working, or underestimating the stability a few grizzled veterans can bring to the lineup.
Learning those lessons - things we should know by now - wasn't so fun. Every bump, bruise, and non-call in the first-round playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins served as a reminder of how far this team has to go. Getting to the playoffs only matters so much, it's what you do with it that counts. If you can’t win faceoffs, stay out of the penalty box, or capitalize on the power play, you won’t win in the playoffs. We’ve seen that teams like the Penguins will always get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to calling penalties. It’s just how the world works. But, again, we knew this. Or we should’ve.
What struck me in the series was that the Penguins always looked composed, never chasing the play. They were patient, they let the pucks come to them, and they absorbed most of the Blue Jackets hits like water balloons tossed by a younger brother.
By contrast, it was game four before the Jackets really seemed to settle into the series. A win was great and much deserved for the organization and its fans. Still, it’s not a surprise to say it was too little, too late. Aside from Werenski, the team just doesn't have a player who opponents are forced to reckon with every time he's on the ice. By my eyes, that element wore down the Jackets, who had to account for multiple scoring threats spread throughout the opponent’s lineup. Meanwhile, the Penguins stayed fresh by giving space to Gabriel Carlsson if it meant shutting down Brandon Saad.
At times, I was reminded of what now feels like ancient history, the old days when the team waited for Rick Nash to step up and make a play. Every so often, when Nash would miss a game, the team would suddenly play better, finally winning after a long losing streak. Third and fourth liners became stars for the night. But the team doesn’t have a player like Nash anymore.
Whether players were nervous to make a mistake or blinded by the bright lights of the big stage, the lack of assertiveness from a team that preached accountability all season long was more than noticeable.
The Blue Jackets aren't the Penguins - they don't have a Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, or Phil Kessel. They can't take it slow and turn it on when it matters. They have to go hard every single shift. They have to play their game and force the opponent to adapt, not wait to see what Crosby is going to do and then react. Going for the big hit and missing only puts more stress on a team that played above expectations all year long. The team needs more skill, and yes, while some of that will likely come in the form of a maturing Oliver Bjorkstrand or Pierre-Luc Dubois, the answer isn't simply to get younger and more inexperienced. Guys over the age of 30 matter, too. Ask Patric Hornqvist.
Whatever happens next, as the memory of this series fades, the Blue Jackets should feel good about themselves. They’d do well to take each bump and bruise as a serious lesson from a team that’s been there and back more than once. Alexander Wennberg can't disappear when the games count. Bobrovsky, likely to win his second Vezina trophy since coming to Columbus, can't let in goals that the league's best goalie should be able to stop in his sleep. Head coach John Tortorella can't outcoach himself and get away from what worked in the regular season.
Yet for every negative, there’s a positive (or two). We see that old dogs can indeed learn new tricks, and Tortorella should win the Jack Adams because of it. He's turned Cam Atkinson into a budding superstar, and instilled accountability in a locker room that's needed it for nearly two decades.
It's undeniable that this season held more good than bad. Werenski is here for the next decade (or two). So is Jones. That feels great. But the road to the Stanley Cup gets harder to traverse the closer you get to the ultimate prize. To ignore that and simply rest on the success of the regular season would be a mistake. To panic and add an expensive superstar who doesn't fit with the team as constructed would also be a mistake.
So what's next? Well, you etch in stone the lessons that you should know by now. You ignore the bumps in the road that are inevitable. You don't forget that getting what you ask for doesn’t always live up to expectations. And you realize that, sometimes, the lessons you have to learn can just plain suck.