Sometimes it's just plain awful to be a fan.
We're not talking about the occasional emotional bump and bruise, the kind fans get from a devastating last-second loss or a disastrous season-ending injury -- or even when they watch their favorite team bow out in the conference finals, one round shy of a shot at the Stanley Cup. We mean years of suffering at the hands of a club that almost seems to delight in tormenting those who freely give to it their hearts, minds, time and money.
This is the third in our series on the 10 NHL franchises that take an ongoing toll on their fans, the teams that suggest that their devoted followers are either bottomless wells of hope or certified masochists--or perhaps just a touch crazy. Today we look at the Blue Jackets, a team that appears to be on the verge of paying off on all those years of unrequited faith.
Has any team ever done less with high draft picks than the Blue Jackets? The franchise's pattern of bad choices combined with worse luck was established from the start when, in its first year, Columbus was given the top choice of the discards who were available in the 2000 NHL expansion draft (they took goalie Rick Tabarracci), but only the fourth pick in the entry draft. After the Islanders (Rick DiPietro, No. 1) and the Thrashers (Dany Heatley, No. 2) made their choices, the newly formed Wild grabbed sniper Marian Gaborik. The Blue Jackets ended up taking defenseman Rusty Klesla. Nice player, but not a three-time 40-goal man. In 2001, the Jackets wasted the eighth overall pick on Pascal Leclaire, a goalie who never developed into a starter. There was a home run in 2002 (Rick Nash, at No. 1), but the next year Columbus staked its future on winger Nikolai Zherdev with the fourth overall pick, leaving Thomas Vanek, Ryan Suter, Ryan Getzlaf and Zach Parise (among others) on the table. After that, it was a continual stream of busts (Alexandre Picard at No. 8 in 2004; Nikita Filatov at No. 6 in 2008), near misses (Gilbert Brule at No. 6 in 2005; John Moore at 21 in 2009) and early cash-outs (Derick Brassard at No. 6, in 2006; Jakub Voracek at No. 7 in 2007) that cost the franchise the chance to build a strong, young base for future success.
Most notorious moments
• The Rick Nash debacle: If this wasn't the messiest divorce in hockey history, it sure ranks among the longest and most painful. Nash, the team's captain and greatest player ever to wear the Jackets' uniform, lost faith in management's ability to build a winner and quietly asked out in 2012. Then-GM Scott Howson agreed to the request, but misplayed his hand by announcing Nash's demand, creating a six-month-long distraction and severely diminishing his bargaining power. By the time Howson got around to shipping Nash to the Rangers in July, he was forced to accept four quarters for his dollar (defenseman Tim Erixon, forwards Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov, and a 2013 first-round pick), a move that ultimately undermined his credibility as a GM.
• Playoff misery: It took eight seasons for the Jackets to reward their fans with a taste of playoff hockey... and about six periods to realize they were in over their heads. Matched up against the powerhouse Red Wings in the spring of 2009, Columbus was swept, scarcely putting up a fight until the fourth game. The Jackets haven't been back since.
• The Detroit debacle: Ask any long-suffering Columbus fan to name the moment when his/her faith in the franchise first wavered and they're likely to point out the back-to-back home losses to the Red Wings, 6-0 and 6-2, in October, 2005. Detroit was in the habit of lighting teams up in those days, so it wasn't getting knocked around that stuck in the fans' craw. It was the way that coach Gerard Gallant reacted to them as basically, "hey, no big deal." He said, "To be honest with you, I’m pretty happy with the way [the Blue Jackets] competed tonight. The only thing that killed us was the three-minute span there when they scored three goals. Besides that, I thought the team was good and was every bit as good as Detroit was tonight, except for the score." Fans were appalled by his disingenuous appraisal--a few even wore hip waders to the next game to mock the excremental quality of his response.
• The brutal start to 2006-07: Hope was hard to justify in the early years, but when a franchise record six-game winning streak powered a 9-4 finish to the 2005-06 season, Jackets fans dared to to believe that a corner had been turned. That faith didn't last long once the 2006-07 season got underway. The team got off to a soul-crushing 6-16-2 start, including an eight-game losing skid, and was left to play out the string before Thanksgiving.
• The tie-breaker: Abbreviated or not, the 2013 season played out as perhaps the finest in team history, with an 11-3 gallop down the home stretch guiding the Jackets into a tie for the eighth and final playoff berth in the Western Conference. But a 3-0 loss to the Wild on Apr. 7 proved fatal, helping Minnesota claim the tiebreaker and sending the Jackets to an early tee time...again.
Misfortune? Columbus fans having been dreaming of this kind of "misfortune" for years. A franchise-record eight-game winning streak and a 9-3 romp through January has the Jackets squarely in contention for a playoff spot in the new Metropolitan Division. Even after dropping a tough one to Carolina on January 27, Sportsclubstats.com sets their postseason chances at a promising 60.9 percent.
In the system
There's talent in the pipeline, but is it high end? With the organization's best and brightest (Ryan Murray, Boone Jenner, David Savard) already contributing to this season's success, there's potential, but not a lot of certainty in a system that Hockey Prospectus ranked 14th in its most recent ratings. Oscar Dansk (31st overall, 2012) who earned the Directorate Award for Best Goalie at the 2014 World Juniors after leading Sweden to a silver medal, might be the most promising prospect, although he's still several years away. Forwards T.J. Tynan (67th, 2011) and Jonathan Marchessault (free agent) have elite offensive skills, but neither tops 5'-9". Josh Anderson (95th, 2012) has the projectible frame, but lacks pro scoring touch. Defenseman Dillon Heatherington (50th, 2013) could bring size (6'-3", 196 pounds) to the back end, but his ceiling is a shutdown role.
The real intrigue lies with the trio of prospects that were selected in the first round last summer. Alexander Wennberg (14th) has the size and smarts to be an excellent third line center or an decent second liner. Winger Kerby Rychel (19th) could become a fearsome net front presence, but his skating abilities might limit him to third line at even strength. Center Marko Dano (27th) is a dynamic offensive talent, but there are concerns about his size (5'-11", 183) and durability.
There's plenty of potential in the group, but it's one that GM Jarmo Kekalainen needs to upgrade to get this team to another level.
Better Days Ahead?
There were few magical moments, let alone championships, to look back on when the franchise officially hit the 1,000-game mark on Jan. 23, but there is reason to believe the Jackets are ready to establish themselves as a playoff team this season and for years to come.
The team lacks the star power to compete with the league's elite (for now), but the players on hand deliver an aggressive, accountable brand of hockey that's easy to appreciate and, for the first time, gives Columbus an actual identity. Not just a platitude or a goal, but a consistent presence. You play this team now, you know you'd better bring your work boots.
The previous administration deserves credit for drafting promising forwards Ryan Johansen and Cam Atkinson and trading for game-breaking goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, but this team truly turned the corner when it hired the highly regarded Kekalainen in Feb. 2013 as well as John Davidson in Oct. 2012 to serve as president of hockey operations. The duo added legitimacy and experience to an organization that always seemed a bit too slow to handle a major league fastball. Their legacy in St. Louis--a legitimate Stanley Cup contender built on strong drafts and a commitment to heavy hockey--bodes well for the future of the Blue Jackets.
Are you a Blue Jackets fan? Got a tale to tell? Feel free to share in the comments section below.