The Columbus Blue Jackets sprang into being 20 years ago, and this would be their 20th season if the NHL hadn’t decided to cancel one back in the day. And yet, for all that time they’ve been around, I know very little about the team. I know Jeff Carter didn’t want to play there and Artemi Panarin didn’t want to play there and Sergei Bobrovsky didn’t want to play there, but that maybe Mitch Marner would have. I have heard that cannon they love more times that I’d like. But that’s really about it.
I think it’s time to fix that.
Bright Lights, Small City
I’m going to start with Jeff Carter, because I have a pretty good idea how he felt after being traded there. Columbus is a small city by American standards, with 1.37 million people in the urban area. Jeff Carter comes from London, Ontario, a small city by Canadian standards with a population of about 400,000. Columbus is a college town, and London is a university town, and they’re both, well, a little dull.
Wikipedia tells me that the county around Columbus was set aside for Canadians who weren’t really into that British colony idea after the Revolutionary War and wanted to settle across the border. We’re basically more like cousins than our two countries usually are. So for Jeff Carter, he was being asked to go home again, and he responded in the worst possible way.
It’s not exactly unusual for someone from dullsville to grow up and want his fame and fortune to come with bright lights and big city fun. This is a problem teams like the Flames, the Oilers and the Jets have too. I really understand it, because I don’t live in Toronto, I live in London, so Columbus would feel a little like a big London to me too.
A hockey team can attract players with more than big city amenities, but Columbus has struggled with that. This is something Leafs fans also understand. There was a long, dark period where no one really wanted to come play for the Leafs. Rumours abounded about no-trade clauses, and no amount of Canadian-sized big-city bright lights could make up for the downsides to the team.
We really believe those days are forever in the past for the Leafs. Are they for Columbus?
Columbus hit the ice, 20 years ago, as we’ve always expected expansion teams to begin — really bad. Vegas was years away from changing everyone’s minds about that, so no one held it against them that they only got 71 points in their first season. A look back at their first roster is an exercise in struggling to recognize any names. They did have the famous Espen Knutsen, Ron Tugnutt in net in the twilight of his career, and a guy named Kevyn Adams they took from the Leafs in the expansion draft. Bonus points if you remember why that name seems vaguely familiar.
If no one expected much out of the team at first, they likely didn’t expect them to follow up that first year with 57 points the next, and then 69, 62, 74, 73 and 80.
Finally, in 2008-2009, they managed 92 points, when Ken Hitchcock took them to the playoffs. They lost in the first round, of course. I’m not trying to be mean. The Leafs had just put Ron Wilson behind the bench so he could collaborate on an 11-year stretch of no playoffs, broken only by that one trip to the post season in 2013, and look, we don’t need to talk about that. The two teams were each as bad as the other in those days, and barely squeaking in is not usually how you go all the way to your first cup win.
The Blue Jackets managed to make it to the postseason again in 2013-2014 with Todd Richards as coach, and they lost in the first round. Again. They pulled the trick again with John Tortorella in 2017 and 2018 and then finally last year, they swept the Lightning in round one. That really is their greatest accomplishment as a team. They played Boston in the second round, and the less said about ever doing that the better.
A lot of teams would take a coaching record like Tortorella’s and send him off for a replacement, but the Blue Jackets believed in him, and his three good regular seasons — their best seasons ever — and they stuck with him. And it’s hard to argue with that choice, considering how this season turned out.
The Blue Jackets lost their starter and a bona fide elite scoring forward, and came into this season looking like they should be tanking with an experimental pair of young goalies and a bare cupboard after they bet the farm the year before. And yet, they are not sitting out the playoffs with the un-magnificent seven bad teams.
Columbus finished the shortened season with a points percentage of .579. Exactly the same as the Leafs. The tie goes to Toronto on the strength of three more regulation wins, which gives the Leafs the other kind of home-ice advantage as the two teams meet in August in Toronto in the weirdest playoffs the NHL has ever seen.
About the only difference between Columbus and Toronto is the Blue Jackets have their first round pick no matter what. So if they lose, they are guaranteed a consolation prize, one that could be Alexis Lafreniere, but might end up a top-10 pick if they don’t win the second lottery. If the Leafs lose, the only way they come out with anything is by winning the big prize.
If both teams were bad for years and are now sitting in a tie heading into this post season, they must be about the same, you’d think. And yet, they really aren’t. They’ve taken such different paths, it’s hard to imagine how they ended up here together.
Columbus put all their chips on one spin of the wheel last year, and they hit the Boston Buzzsaw and lost it all. They finished with 98 points, just barely enough to make it into the playoffs in the stacked Metro division. Toronto, two points ahead, sat so comfortably in third place, we all got a little bored in the spring. Columbus fought to make it and Jarmo Kekäläinen, the GM since 2013, went for it hard at the trade deadline.
He didn’t move out Panarin and Bobrovsky, who he had to know were walking as UFAs. He did get Matt Duchene from Ottawa at the cost of their first-round pick last year. He swapped Anthony Duclair for Ryan Dzingel, picked up Keith Kinkaid as an extra goalie and also spent two picks to get Adam McQuaid from the Rangers.
Matt Duchene didn’t want to play in Columbus either. None of those players played in Columbus this year. None!
At the time Kekäläinen was contemplating all of that last year, Kyle Dubas added Jake Muzzin, and quietly prepared his team, loaded with talent, to head to the playoffs. And you know what happened. The Leafs took the Bruins to seven games, which is one more than Columbus did, so nyah-nyah. Yeah, I don’t think that’s even a Pyrrhic victory.
But here we are. They bet it all and lost, and they’ve picked themselves up and battled their way to the exact same spot in the Metro, barely in the last wild card spot, and the Leafs were very uncomfortably in third in the Atlantic and legitimately worried they might not hold it.
Maybe the real story isn’t one of years of dismal results and players who don’t want to know you. Maybe the history isn’t important at all, and maybe the story is one of experimental goaltending vs whatever that was the Leafs had all year.
The next step in getting to know the Columbus Blue Jackets is to look harder at those goalies. That’s next time.