Well, here we are in unseasonably hot late April, and the Blue Jackets are done playing hockey for the year. Not an unusual spot to be in. What was unusual was that we finally got a taste of playoff hockey here in Columbus, and the end of the season came a couple weeks later than usual. And while those couple weeks turned out to be a rollercoaster of emotion — well, a rollercoaster than mainly just goes down — I doubt many Jackets fans would trade them for any of the previous seven seasons which ended in whimpers with the “Fantastic Fan-ale.”
We saw in the playoffs just how far they have to go to really compete, and really be thought of as legitimate contenders. And that’s a bit of a tough pill to swallow, especially after all these years of waiting to make the playoffs. What do you mean we finally made it and it’s over already? And now we have to claw and scratch through a regular season next year just to make it again?!
But this is a team that pretty much no one outside of Columbus picked as a playoff team this year. If you go back and look at the various preseason yearbooks published by The Hockey News, The Sporting News et al, you’ll see the Jackets picked to finish somewhere around 12th in the West. I’d say I’m more optimistic than many folks about this team, and I figured them good for maybe 10th in the West. So finishing 7th really was quite an accomplishment.
I can hear the naysayers arguing that Columbus wasn’t really a good team; they just made the playoffs on the strength of Steve Mason’s outstanding rookie season. Well, as a former goalie, I’ve always had a bit of a pet peeve about arguments that seem to posit that the goalie is somehow outside of the team — having a good goalie is part of being a good team, dangit. But yes, it’s true that the season would have come to an earlier, and much more depressing end if all they’d had between the pipes were the perpetually injured Pascal Leclaire and the moody and struggling Fredrik Norrena. And it’s also true that no one really expected Mason to come up and take over the way he did — I was still arguing that he should be sent back to Syracuse in November!
But what a difference Mason’s emergence, and the settling in of Umberger, Commodore et al made for the team. As long-time readers of this blog know, I spent most of the fall and into the winter being pretty disengaged from the Jackets because I was preoccupied with stuff in my own life. I went to the home opener, a couple of embarrassing blowouts in November, and didn’t make it back down to the arena until some time in January. And it was a shocking transformation! The team was suddenly playing as a unit and winning games. The morgue-like silence that had characterized far too many crowds at Nationwide over the past couple years finally had some life again. There were still overly-large swathes of empty seats at most weeknight games, but attendance was rising again and there were even some sellouts. And all of a sudden there was an actual Jackets bandwagon developing! Coworkers who’d previously considered my love of hockey as some idiosyncratic affectation I’d picked up living in Canada (like when I say “bank machine” instead of ATM or put vinegar on my fries) were coming in to my office to ask me about whether Steve Mason was the real deal. It was fun being a Jackets fan again! Something it hadn’t really been in a general sense since that first overachieving team in 2000-01.
It was a big change on and off the ice. Gone were familiar faces — Jody Shelley, Adam Foote (!), David Vyborny, Pascal Leclaire, Ron Hainsey, Nik Zherdev, Dan Fritsche, Duvie Westcott, Gilbert Brule all moved elsewhere since Howson took the reins of the franchise. And some of those guys were real fan favorites, and it hurt a little to see them leave. But making the playoffs killed a lot of that pain. Even I would have to admit that making the playoffs without David Vyborny was more fun than not making them with him in the lineup. And of course they also lost the (somewhat unusually for an NHL team) beloved owner, John H. McConnell, in the offseason.
And of course we got new players to admire. Who isn’t an R.J. Umberger fan after his gutsy playoff performance? Fedor Tyutin was better than expected on the blue line, and after taking some time to settle in, Mike Commodore solidified things back there. Kristian Huselius was disappointing in the playoffs, but his offensive talents were very welcome in the regular season. Antoine Vermette was a latecomer, but he did so much to help secure a playoff spot for this team.
And what can we say about the kids in the lineup? Steve Mason was of course the biggest story. But Derick Brassard was scoring at a Calder candidate pace before his unfortunate injury. Jakub Voracek had a bit of an up and down rookie year, but seeing him step up in the post season made it clear that he has a bright future. We only got a taste of Nikita Filatov, but he showed some real offensive flair in his brief auditions. Kris Russell has continued to have some struggles adjusting to being an undersized NHL defenseman, but that end-to-end rush and goal in Game 4 against Detroit shows why we ought not give up on him just yet. Less-heralded guys like Marc Methot and Derek Dorsett chipped in as well. I know we thought this a few years ago with Nash, Zherdev, Klesla, Leclaire, and Brule, but it really does feel for real now that the core of a very good hockey team is taking shape in Columbus.
There’s a lot of work yet to be done. In a post at some later date, I’ll talk about what I hope to see happen in the off-season. But for now, let’s sit back and reflect on the fact that 2008-09 was the best in Columbus Blue Jackets history. So far.