Those of us who are fans of the Columbus Blue Jackets
like to say that we're the only team never to have lost a playoff game. Of course that implies we've never played one, because nobody wins Lord Stanley's Cup
without a struggle. And in fact that is true. Columbus
sports fans are a bit spoiled because of the Ohio State University
. Ohio State may not have won a national championship since 2002, but the Buckeyes are always
good. The Blue Jackets have a different record. Normally we're out of the playoff hunt by the NHL All Star-Game
. We're the Loserjackets
as one wag stated when I suggested talking about hockey
Much of the blame has been laid at the feet of former General Manager Doug MacLean. MacLean was a skilled promoter, and did a good job of getting the Jackets to Columbus and established with the local fans. But he was a bad GM. He was a bit of a control freak, often moving behind his coach's back. In fact, he took over the head coaches job because he couldn't just let it go. He made arbitrary draft picks even when he and the scouting staff agreed on a different player, most notably the 2004 draft of right winger Nikolai Zherdev. Zherdev proved a gifted but mercurial player, when the staff's favorite, defenseman Dion Phaneuf, went on to be named the hockey's top defensemen in 2007. MacLean rushed prospects to the NHL, which may have hurt the chances of top draft picks like Gilbert Brule.
He also promised that success was just around the corner. It never arrived. The Jackets were pretty good for first and second year teams during their first and second year, but they never got better after that. They had perennial All-Star Rick Nash but little else. They could score a few points but played little or no defense. And after six years with the team obviously headed backwards, Ken Hitchcock was hired to coach the Jackets over MacLean's head. The GM himself was fired soon afterwards. He was replaced with former Edmonton Oilers staffer Scott Howson.
The result has been competent, steady leadership. Ken Hitchcock has won a Stanley Cup with Dallas and just got his 500th win as a coach, which in hockey shows he can both win and stick. Howson has made few dramatic moves, but has steadily improved the talent in Columbus without overspending. The season began with a rough patch, but the Jackets have turned into a darned good hockey team, playing a solid checking game.
This year, they appear almost certain to make the playoffs, and not as an 8th seed. The team has some supporting players to compliment Nash and a bunch of talented young players-- Steve Mason, Jakub Voracek and more to compliment him. They're deep, physical and disciplined. And a lot of fun to watch, particularly as they seem to like each other. No snakes in the Blue Jackets Clubhouse. Nationwide Arena is filling back up and the crowds are getting loud and rowdy. TV ratings are the highest they've ever been. People are starting to talk hockey in the supermarkets. And we're finally talking about the playoffs with a straight face.
And you know what, it's a lot of fun. Go Jackets! Carry the Flag!