“We need to learn” has been heard an awful lot in Columbus but the Blue Jackets remain a frustrating mess.
You can always count on the Blue Jackets to learn from their mistakes—after they’ve tried everything else. The club, 0-7 on the season, has given up 34 goals already and lost every game by at least two. Sergei Bobrovsky, the 2013 Vezina Trophy winner, has an .835 save percentage and a siege mentality, and his blueliners have performed admirably if their objective has been to make their defensive zone as welcoming as possible for opposing players.
Columbus fans, understandably, are frustrated. They’re calling for trades. They called for head coach Todd Richards to be fired—and they got their wish after a 4–0 loss to the Islanders on Tuesday night led to the fiery John Tortorella being brought in put things right. They’re trying to cope through self-deprecating humor: What’s the difference between a triangle and the Blue Jackets? A triangle has three points. And when their rage overcomes them, they’re punching out glass partitions at Nationwide Arena (probably while yelling “Don't make me angry … you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”)
And me? I’m recognizing a pattern. No, not the obvious one—that the Blue Jackets have a habit of starting the season with all the urgency of a Windows operating system booting up. The pattern I’m recognizing, rather, is that for years many of their big losses and bad efforts have been punctuated by postgame comments about learning. To show you what I mean, here’s a sample, just a sample, of 10 such comments I compiled from news reports spanning the last two seasons:
• Oct. 9, 2015, after losing 4–2 to the Rangers: “I’m not going read into too much after one game,” Nick Foligno said, “but it’s a great lesson for us to learn. We played for 57 minutes. They showed us what 60 minutes looks like.”
• March 4, 2015, after losing 5–3 to the Capitals: “Whether we go on a hell of a run or not, it’s about getting better every day,” David Savard said. “This year has been tough, but stay positive and keep learning.”
• Jan. 11, 2015, after losing 5–2 to the Islanders: “This team needs to continue to learn,” Foligno said. “We’re young. We’re obviously not where we want to be.”
• Nov. 23, 2014, after losing 4–2 to the Flyers: “It sounds like a broken record, but we have to learn to play a full 60 [minutes],” Jack Skille said.
• Oct. 9, 2014, before the 2014-2015 regular season, commenting on the team’s slow starts in recent years: “It’s uncomfortable,” Bobrovsky said. “It’s a bad feeling when you’re behind early. It’s tough emotionally. It’s an experience for every player, and we learn from it.”
• April 29, 2014, after losing to the Penguins 4–3 and being eliminated from the playoffs: “How we played, how it feels to lose, the experiences … we’ll think about it and learn from it,” Ryan Johansen said.
• Dec. 30, 2013, after losing 5–3 to the Penguins: “They didn’t have an answer for us in the second period,” Foligno said. “We were starting to take over the game. But good teams capitalize on stuff like that. We have to learn from this.”
• Oct. 19, 2013, after four losses in six games: “When you lose, you have to learn from it,” Boone Jenner said. “The negative stuff, if it happens again, I guess you didn’t learn from it.”
• Oct. 11, 2013, after beating the Sabres 4–1: “We were focused on making sure we came out with such a good start, because you learn from the past,” Foligno said. “That’s the good thing about our team. We have enough character to learn from our mistakes.”
• March 20, 2013, after beating the Predators 4–3: “There’s a lesson in there for us,” Vinny Prospal said. “We got a win … in regulation, which is the goal every night. …But we have to learn from this. ... It should be a 4–1 win.”
I’m sure the Jackets aren’t the only team that uses the rhetorical device of learning to discuss their mistakes, and certainly I’d love for a team to learn rather than not. I also recognize that there are things to learn in the NHL (e.g., new systems and teammates, and how to overcome spells of injuries).But some things don’t need to be learned dozens of times as a professional hockey player: That putting in 60 minutes is expected, that holding a lead is important, that allowing three goals in less than two minutes is a bad idea. That’s the stuff of midget hockey (and that’s insulting to midget hockey).
I do credit the Blue Jackets for acknowledging their mistakes and for focusing on how to get better, but when you consider the larger body of their learning comments, they begin to look like something out of Groundhog Day or a living example of Einstein’s definition of insanity (“doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”).
And speaking of Groundhog Day, to quote Bill Murray’s character, weatherman Phil Conors: If the Jackets don’t turn things around soon under Tortorella and apply what they’ve learned, “I'll give you a winter prediction: It’s gonna be cold, it’s gonna be gray, and it’s gonna last [them] for the rest of [their season].”
Jonathan Peters, an Ohio native who has followed the Blue Jackets since their inaugural season, is a lawyer and journalism professor at the University of Kansas, where he teaches media law. He writes regularly for the Columbia Journalism Review and his work has appeared in Esquire, The Atlantic, Slate, The Nation, Wired, and on PBS. Follow him on Twitter @jonathanwpeters.