The November word of the month for the Columbus Blue Jackets was “consistency.” Or maybe “inconsistency.” It depends what article you’re reading. Heck, it might be both.
That message is the only regular thing right now: the Jackets seem impossible to figure out. They’re a roller coaster, a bucking bronco, a mind-blowing ride that brings joy one night and crushing defeat the next. WLWLWLWL, to close the month. Blowout here, monster game there. Consistency was noted no less than six times in Rick Gethin’s latest article with John Davidson at Fox Sports Ohio. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve heard consistency as a problem just in a single game. “We need to play a full 60 minutes,” someone will say. It’s unending.
But the core of the problem, at least for the fans, is summarized by Tom, the Dark Blue Jacket. In his semi-recap following the 11/28 loss versus Nashville, he notes that the team would “have to start playing every night like they want to win.”
It’s a nagging concern — potentially a real problem as the year continues. If the team isn’t playing like they want to win, we suddenly have to ask huge questions about the mentality of the players, the value of any skater (or groups of skaters) on the roster, the structure of the coaching, and overall hockey organization. It’s a slippery slope from this point into the abyss if the core of the club is corrupted, if this is the key to all the flip-flopping results. Thankfully we’re not actually at that point, but the solution to the problem isn’t in the room. Or, at least, it isn’t yet.
The Solution isn’t in the Room
The problem is that “play like the want to win” suggests a team can will victories from their souls. That just doesn’t happen in the ultra-competitive NHL. Sure, a single night can benefit from the perceived push of one man (or a small group of men). The long-term success of a team, of a franchise, depends on the talent of the players.
For Columbus, this talent-first idea hasn’t always been a bright spot. In essence, the problem hasn’t been the locker room, the culture, the mentality. Rather, the problem was that the talent was never in the room to begin with. But starting today, we’re closing in on return of the three most talented players under contract with the Blue Jackets.
Over the past two weeks, we’ve been watching a team climb out of a losing funk and sit at .500 hockey. But news just off the playing surface has become a steady positive drip, and we are in reach of tangible reasons to expect improvement.
It’s Hard to Outwork if the Talent is Missing
The two themes replayed ad nauseum in Blue Jackets comments or commercials are the John Davidson axioms: the team will be built brick by brick, and the team will not be outworked. The former is a long-view philosophy, so this isn’t usually a concern in-season (excepting, of course, trade fallout). It’s the latter that fans have latched onto, as first noted in Davidson’s opening press conference as team president.
Outworking is not an easy task. When every other NHL squad also has blood-lust for the Stanley Cup, it’s a war every night. To expect any one team to work harder than the 29 others is daft. The illusion of outworking comes in the form of superior play and a hunger for the puck. Strictly speaking, directionless physicality isn’t important here. It’s the ability to elevate play that matters.
Today, the shift toward talent starts again but should happen at a rapid pace. Brandon Dubinsky should make his return tonight after six games out with injury. He has been an elite possession forward with the Blue Jackets, and thrives against most competition. Prized free agency catch Nathan Horton has been skating for a few weeks and is nearing return. Marian Gaborik was supposed to be out four to six weeks with his knee injury, and we’ll hit the lower end of that horizon in about 10 days.
The Wait is Almost Over for the Columbus Blue Jackets
By almost any standard, that’s a very sudden talent gradient. Without any additional effort, the Blue Jackets (a .500 hockey team to close November) will be infused with three first line players over the span of about a month. The particular distribution of Dubinsky, Horton and Gaborik throughout the roster isn’t even crucial at that point. Merely inserting the three leaders and moving youth or marginal NHLers back to the AHL is sure to have a positive impact.
The key right now is to not worry about panic moves to secure the roster — at least not in the forward ranks. The goal must be patience. To date, management has show their restraint, and the rewards are about to come. The Blue Jackets managed to push through November without taking any serious missteps. By the end of December, we’ll get to see the real team.
If all goes well, the word of the month in December will be “turnaround” as the Columbus Blue Jackets should finally have the talent to compete on a nightly basis.