By Rick Gethin
Last season was a year that many in Columbus would love to forget. The more cynical among them were saying “same old Blue Jackets”. Was last season bad? Yes, by any stretch of the imagination. Were the fans disappointed in the play of their team? The answer, of course, is a resounding “yes”. The players were, too. With season ticket sales down over 24% from a season ago, the fans are showing the old “wait and see” attitude.
Maybe I wear rose-colored shades, but I believe this young team needed a season like last year to get their minds straight. They now know how tough it is in the NHL to make the playoffs. It’s an “intangible” that you can’t put a stat on.
There’s an enthusiasm coursing through Scott Arniel that is palpable. He brings an excitement not felt in Nationwide Arena in quite some time. With training camp only a few short days away, he says “It’s hockey, it’s about to start. And it’s exciting!” He alluded to the fact that the pace of practices will be high throughout the season and that hard practices make for easier games. He has a belief that there are three things that must happen for ths team to make the playoffs. Number one is that the teams “compete level” has to be high throughout the season. Number two is that they have to believe that they can win every game. And number three is that they have to come together as a group.
Scott Arniel has instituted some changes in the dressing room that give it more of a “warmer” feel. Gone are the hospital-like plain walls. In their place is a mottled Union Blue color scheme with the words “Hardcore Hockey” sitting above the players seats. It seems to be more a philosophy than a literal term. It speaks to the “compete level” that he alluded to earlier.
Arniel brings a strong work ethic to the confines of Nationwide Arena. “You come even earlier to the rink and you leave even later. I want to have success. I want to make sure that I’ve turned over every stone. I’m a stickler for detail and I’m an attention to detail guy. I want to make sure that I cover all of the bases.” He said that he’s been doing a lot of paperwork and can’t wait for this weekend to lace up the skates. This guy just oozes excitement.
But it’s not just the coach showing this excitement. Defenseman Kris Russell, not known for showing a bunch of emotion during interviews, was practically bubbly during the Media Day scrum. “I think the way I play fits with Arniels game plan. He wants to play with a lot of speed and he wants the defensemen jumping up in the play. I want to get the other teams thinking that I’m always coming (up the ice). As a “D” corps, if the other teams know that we’re coming up the ice, that gets in their head.”
Columbus center Antoine Vermette echoed the enthusiasm of Russell. “I think, after last season, the fresh start with a new coaching staff is bringing a new level of excitement. He also thinks that having the season that they had last year was what they needed to have in order for the team to understand how tough it is to be at that playoff level every season. “Every year, you have to show up and do it again. The league is tough now and there are no easy games. You have to show up every day.”
Does this mean that the Blue Jackets are a lock to make the playoffs? Far from it, I think. But if they show up and give it all they’ve got, every day, this club might just surprise a few people. Most pundits have Columbus finishing right about where they finished last season. And that just shows that not too many people are looking with any depth at this team.
I’ll leave you with this little gem. Chicago blew up the team starting soon after winning the Stanley Cup. Detroit is getting quite old. St. Louis and Nashville are both going to be tough team to play against, again. Columbus is on an upward path to redemption. With the Central Division being arguably the toughest division in the NHL, who can predict with certainty how this race will play out?