The Columbus Blue Jackets have been a bit of a surprise as of late as they have been winning more often than not. They have amassed an impressive record going into Tuesday’s game against Vancouver with an improbable 5 game winning streak, a pair of overtime losses and a string of just 1-goal losses. Is that a good thing? Is it sustainable and will it earn them a spot in the playoffs? Are they winning the battle and losing the war? In other words, could a victory streak now ruin the Blue Jackets chances of landing the overall top pick in the upcoming draft lottery? Let’s take a look, shall we?
Lifetime membership in the lower echelon of the league
As is well-documented, the Blue Jackets seemingly have a lifetime membership in the lower echelon of the league and some might even argue that they are the doormat. True, they have made the playoffs only once in their 12 years of existence and were promptly shown the door by the Detroit Red Wings in a 4 – 0 sweep. True, the team has lacked an identity and even the former face of the franchise, Rick Nash, took flight. The team’s losing ways on the ice have become ingrained in the organization from the top to the bottom – until recently.
The Davidson and Kekalainen Show
The hiring of John Davidson as the President of hockey operations began the much awaited change in culture of organization. He then recently hired Jarmo Kekalainen to replace Scott Howson as GM. While neither could match Howson’s law credentials, nonetheless, they have brought a much higher sense of hockey acumen that was previously devoid in the front-office. Herein, starts the change in culture: a change of such great magnitude that it shakes the very core of the franchise, from the front-office to the equipment manager. And, that change has begun. Davidson has coined the phrase, “brick by brick”, in his illustration of what it’s going to take to turn Blue Jackets franchise around. Kekalainen’s prior relationship with Davidson in the St. Louis Blues organization spells of a natural chemistry between the two. Just as importantly, Kekalainen will be charged with making sure his talents are put to use by meticulously selecting in the upcoming draft.
Prospal’s passion infectious
Eventually, the change has to get to the coaches and players as is evident with the gritty, relentless, and win-at-all-costs playing style the team is quickly adopting as the hallmark of its identity. This is especially needed in the absence of super-stars and all-stars. To see the sheer passion of Vaclav “Vinny” Prospal become infectious amongst his teammates is a sight to behold. The new additions of Antem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky and Nick Foligno have played major roles in transforming this team into an opponent that can beat any team on any given night. The young players like Cam Atkinson, Matt Calvert and Ryan Johansen have been undergoing a true growth spurt in their respective game. None of this would be possible without head coach, Todd Richards – perhaps, the most underrated coach in the league.
So, perhaps the change in culture is helping induce a much more spirited effort on the part of the Blue Jackets and helping the younger players to thrive in a winning atmosphere. How can that be a bad thing? Hasn’t that been a perennial problem of this team in its failure to develop correctly its prospects? How many Columbus first round draft picks can you think of that materialized into world-class players? Were they busts? Did the good ones get traded? Who’s still left? The answers to these questions are downright depressing and have been well-chronicled. Nevertheless, if I may remind you, Rick Nash is the only star this team ever hatched out of its first round draft picks over 12 years? Can you believe that? For good measure, throw in Jakub Voracek into the mix if you want as he has been having new found success with the Philadelphia Flyers. Of course, neither player is with the Jackets anymore. Derrick Brassard, another Jackets first round pick, still has a question mark on him but his days to have blossomed have long come and gone. With 3 first-round picks headed to Columbus barring trades, the winning culture could be even that much more important. Young players who could instantly contribute need to be surrounded by positive energy and winning is one of the best medicines.
Short-term gains at the expense of long-term success
But, hold it! Are short-term gains coming at the expense of comprising the long-term success of this team? Wasn’t the plan to get the highest picks in the draft and build from there? By moving up the ladder in the standings, the Jackets are diminishing their chances of landing the overall number one pick. With the trade deadline just weeks away, what will the Jackets do? What seemed like a sure bet of the team giving up current assets such as RJ Umberger and Derrick Brassard in exchange for high draft picks or promising prospects is no longer that easy of a decision. This is true especially if the winning ways continue and they are on the verge of making the playoffs. All of a sudden the idea of getting a couple of rentals may appear enticing. This move could get the team some immediate help so as to squeak into the Stanley Cup playoffs for only the second time in franchise history.
Bird in hand is worth two in the bush
I will submit that the Columbus Blue Jackets must continue with the culture change with its focus on winning, grit and perseverance. To strip down the team of its current assets and lower its chances of winning and thereby drive up its chances at landing the overall number 1 pick in the draft would pose a significant risk. There are no guarantees that the cream of the crop consisting of Seth Jones, Jonathan Drouin or Nathan MacKinnon could turn around the Jackets like this core of players is doing right now. If in doubt, just ask the Edmonton Oilers. The Oilers loaded up on number 1 picks the last 3 years and are still trying to find their way back to the playoffs. Make no mistake, there is no doubt that the Jackets must fully leverage their selections in this draft and Jarmo Kekalainen will be hyper-focused on this task. By all accounts, it appears that there is a bevy of talent for the taking in this year’s draft. So, even if the Jackets end up with 3 lower first round picks as a worst case scenario, the team could still load up with future stars. So, in spite of the possibility of moving down the draft lottery ladder, winning today should never be compromised in favor of high-draft picks. The intangibles that come with winning far outweigh any draft pick. It is those intangibles that are embodied in the term culture that will propel this team forward regardless of the talent level. I will leave you with this thought – a bird in hand is worth two in the bush!