Jim Kelley
Thursday February 21st, 2008

Judging by their place in the standings, they don't look like much.

The Columbus Blue Jackets, formed in time for the start of the 2000-01 NHL season, have never been considered a playoff contender. This season appears no different, given that they are parked in 12th place in the Western Conference standings, five points behind eighth-place Vancouver after having played two more games than the Canucks.

The Jackets have given up 14 more goals than the paltry 150 they've scored and they're an uninspiring 2-5-3 in their last 10 outings.

Still, five points is, well, just five points. And in an era of two- and three-point games and head-to-heads where there are points you gain that your opponents don't, well, five points is nothing. That's not to say the Blue Jackets can make it to the postseason, but there are finally some players on board who seem to want to try.

"I don't think anyone knows what the future holds," said Michael Peca, a veteran who is savvy enough to know that if the Jackets don't win their next two starts (Thursday at Ottawa and Saturday at Montreal), he may well be a trade-deadline option for Columbus. That doesn't mean he wouldn't like to help the Jackets find their promised land.

"We're trying to be the first team in franchise history to make the playoffs," he said during a recent swing through Toronto. "I know that might not be easy, but we're trying to stay together as a team and make that happen. I think the older guys here understand how it works and that you can't do any more than you can do, but while we're together, we want to keep it that way. We don't want it to be the case where pieces are getting traded off [because the team doesn't have a shot come Feb. 23]. We want to have this team kept together."

That's not an easy lesson to learn or even teach in Columbus, a franchise that can be likened to the Matthew McConaughey character in Failure to Launch. Columbus came into the league with the Minnesota Wild, one season after the Nashville Predators. Those franchises struggled much like the Jackets, but in recent years they've soared. Columbus has always stayed home at playoff time.

The Jackets have paid a price for that. There has been a succession of coaches and last season ownership ousted general manager and president Doug MacLean, who was there two years before the Jackets' first game was ever played. Not much has changed in that time, but with Ken Hitchcock, the highly successful former coach of the Dallas Stars (1999 Stanley Cup Champions) and Philadelphia Flyers, now driving the bus, the team feels it is close. So close it can almost taste that first postseason berth.

For much of the season, the Jackets were within a win or two of that coveted spot. Hope has faded recently, largely because they have been losing the games that a young team on the rise simply needs to win. After a memorable 5-1 victory over Detroit, the Jackets have fallen to the St. Louis Blues, 5-1, and Toronto Maple Leafs, 3-1. That brought back all the old doubts about Columbus.

It hasn't been easy changing the mindset of losing. Critics -- Hitchcock is sometimes still among them -- argue that the Blue Jackets aren't there yet largely because they haven't embraced the challenge. The loss on Tuesday in Toronto set the veteran coach on edge. At practice the following day, he and the coaching staff left the ice so the players could run things. The idea, Hitchcock later told the Columbus Dispatch, was that the Jackets needed to learn to "invest more in each other. They have to learn to trust each other, lean on each other and push each other to a different level than we're getting right now.

"In my opinion, we're not invested enough to be successful. We have to invest more and it can't always come from the coaching staff. At some point, it has to come from the players."

It's a big part of the Hitchcock philosophy that leadership and success come not from the top down, but from the bottom up. Veterans like Peca, a former captain in Buffalo, and defenseman Adam Foote, the current captain and a standout with Colorado during the Avalanche's most successful seasons, come into play.

The Columbus lineup is littered with young players. MacLean had his problems, but it's not like he's left the team without talent. Rick Nash, 23, is an All-Star and Nikolai Zherdev is among the brightest young stars in the game. Goalie Pascal Leclaire is among the league leaders in most every stat category and the bulk of the team is under the age of 25 and made up primarily of MacLean's draft picks and acquisitions. But they haven't grown up yet, and Hitchcock isn't just waiting for the younger stars -- particularly Nash -- to step up. He's force- feeding the process. He knows that if they don't, at least some of the veterans will likely be gone and the process will have to start all over again.

Hitchcock made it happen in Dallas after he took over a team that always seemed good enough to win but never did. He got a lot of credit for the success there, but he'll be the first to tell you that things started to turn around when the players played more for themselves and each other than they did for the coaches who told them what to do. When that happens, a coach has done his job. The players take over and guide the fortunes of the team.

That attitude is what Hitchcock is trying to instill in Columbus. So far this season, the team has stayed close to its goal, but hasn't gotten over the top and time is starting to run out. If it does, someone from the veteran pool of Peca, Foote or forward Sergei Federov will be gone and these promising Jackets will be hanging around the golf course in April yet again.

In the madness that overtakes us as the NHL inches toward its annual trade-deadline carnival, there are some things worth noting that don't involve Peter Forsberg's foot, Mats Sundin's no-trade clause, and the rumors involving seemingly every member of the Ottawa Senators.

For instance, did you know that the two best teams in their respective conferences since the start of the new year are the Nashville Predators and the Pittsburgh Penguins? How's that for a potential Stanley Cup final?

In the 23 games played between Jan. 1 and Feb. 17, the Preds top all teams with 31 points on their record of 13-5-5. That's one point better than defending Cup champion Anaheim though the Ducks had played only 22 games.

The Penguins, meanwhile, have gone 13-5-3 for 29 points in 21 games, the bulk of which have been played without Sidney Crosby in the lineup. Pittsburgh is one point better than the East's other surging team, the Montreal Canadiens who have gone 13-6-2 for 28 in 21 games.

During that same stretch, the perceived best team in the East, the Senators, were 9-11-1, a record exactly equal to the cellar-dwelling Toronto Maple Leafs. That's 19 points in 21 games for each of those two teams.

In the West, the turnaround darling Chicago Blackhawks and the always interesting Canucks have been bottom feeders. Vancouver is 7-8-4 since the start of the new year, good for 18 points in 19 games. The Hawks, who regularly make the highlight reels with their picture-pretty goals, are 8-10-3.

Almost everyone knows that scoring is down, but did you know that overtime games have decreased as well? The perception is that teams in close games will play to get to OT and maybe even the shootout, but in the 897 matches played through Sunday there have been 185 OT decisions (20.6 percent of all games). In 2005-06, there were 281 OT decisions (22.8 percent). Oddly enough, that number was the same in 2006-07.

So far this season, there have been 93 OT points awarded to Western Conference teams and 92 to Eastern squads. Run that out over the full 1,230 regular season games and it computes to 254 OT points, down 27 from each of the past two seasons.

What does it mean? Hard to say. One could argue that teams are becoming more aware of the impact of three point games (two for a win, one for their technically non-losing opponent getting to the extra session). Some hockey people I've spoken to think teams are showing more push to "go for it" in regulation time, especially in division and conference games. The idea is to secure two points but also deny the opponent one that can be crucial in a playoff race and for positioning within the postseason standings.

Interesting pickup in Calgary on Wednesday night as the Flames acquired Jim Vandermeer from the Philadelphia Flyers for a third-round pick in the 2009 draft.

It's interesting because the Flyers appear desperate for defensive help, but they moved a player who had been in the NHL all season in exchange for a draft pick at a time when a playoff berth is seriously in doubt.

The catch is that the Flyers earlier picked up Jaroslav Modry. At 37, he is 10 years older than Vandermeer, but the word out of Philadelphia is that the Flyers had grown tired of Vandermeer's penchant for giving the puck away at crucial times and that the team needed a steadier defenseman to play alongside Kimmo Timonen who is partial to taking chances on offense.

It's also interesting that the Flames now have eight defensemen, but it appears to be a depth move as Calgary has had problems with backline injuries for several seasons at playoff time. In addition, the unit falls off in all-around quality after the top four of Dion Phaneuf, Adrian Aucoin, Robyn Regehr and Cory Sarich, especially when veteran Rhett Warrener is hurt, which is often the case.

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