Friday night in Raleigh against the Carolina Hurricanes, the Columbus Blue Jackets simply ran out of gas. The scoreboard showed it. The schedule coming in showed it.
The Hurricanes’ 4-0 win was their first game after three days off while the Blue Jackets played their fourth game in six nights. The Hurricanes dominated the game in every aspect as you would expect.
But for over 29 minutes, the game was still 0-0 despite the Hurricanes’ dominance. That’s where this story begins for the Blue Jackets.
Making No Excuses
The Blue Jackets poured everything they had into their game Thursday night against the Florida Panthers. After being embarrassed in the two previous games with the Panthers, they wanted to make a point to keep the game competitive. They did that and then some to the surprise of basically everyone.
The Blue Jackets’ 6-3 win Thursday opened a lot of eyes. Without Elvis Merzlikins, Joonas Korpisalo and Zach Werenski, the team played with passion and got a desired result, one of the biggest “upsets” of the season. This was a big moment for this young team. It showed that they can keep up with anyone as long as they keep their compete up.
The Blue Jackets were hoping that momentum would carry them Friday night. They needed something to carry them as energy was an obvious question. But for half the game, the Blue Jackets were fighting with what they did have. It wasn’t until Jordan Staal scored at 9:22 of the second that the Blue Jackets trailed.
That’s the point we need to focus on. These Blue Jackets were fighting through whatever fatigue may have been present. It would have been easy to fold. Teams could make excuses when you have a dead tired team against a fresh one. The Blue Jackets just continued competing and fighting. They were a couple of bounces away from being in the lead before the Hurricanes took over in the second half.
This is what is setting the Blue Jackets apart from other teams. This is that identity we keep hearing about. For the Blue Jackets, this is their standard. They will not make excuses. They will fight until the final horn sounds. This is the big lesson the young players are learning this season. They are seeing firsthand what it means to be a Blue Jacket.
This is why you will never, ever see them embrace or engage in tanking. While some fans will become outraged at this, tanking is not part of the Blue Jackets’ DNA. Don’t even try to bring this topic up to GM Jarmo Kekalainen.
The Blue Jackets’ are 7-2 in February with some quality wins in there against the Capitals, Maple Leafs and Panthers. This winning will do more good for the team than any tanking will do. There is a difference between playing the right way and not getting the result versus flat out tanking.
The Blue Jackets will still see their share of losses this season. But that’s not because of a lack of effort. Their defense still gives up a lot of shots. Their goaltending overall has been suspect over the last couple months (except for J-F Berube.)
The Blue Jackets have a huge mountain to climb to get into these playoffs. It might not be in the cards for them ultimately this season. But it’s still better than flat out tanking.
The Argument Against Tanking
Are you feeling lucky? If your team hopes to land a coveted spot in the lottery, the right combination of ping-pong balls have to come out of the machine. Even if you have the worst record, there’s still an 80% chance you miss out. Just ask Steve Yzerman how this experience has gone for him and the Red Wings.
Tanking does not guarantee you the ultimate prize. So why would you want to do that? In one sense, that team would be guaranteed a pick no lower than a certain spot. If they want to maximize their odds, I suppose you could do that. But what kind of a message does that send to the team? What about to their fans?
It takes luck in this system to land the top pick. The Maple Leafs got lucky. It has worked out for them with Auston Matthews. But now they need to win in the playoffs.
But what about teams like the Buffalo Sabres? They’ve won the lottery three times! Jack Eichel, Rasmus Dahlin and Owen Power are their three number-one picks. They still haven’t made the playoffs in more than a decade.
What is the difference between the Blue Jackets and Sabres right now? Culture. Plain and simple. It’s what happens in the locker room. It’s also what is and isn’t acceptable.
During that decade of the Sabres’ not making the playoffs, the Blue Jackets under John Tortorella got to four consecutive playoffs. Why? That’s because they had a standard. They played the right way and everyone bought into it. That took them farther than anything the Sabres have done so far.
Even the Oilers have just one playoff series win in the career of Connor McDavid so far. They suffered through a lot of the same things the Sabres did with having a problem with the culture around the team. So you wanna tank do you? Good luck with that.
Blue Jackets On The Right Track
While they still have a lot of things to address, this February surge for the Blue Jackets shows they are on the right track. There is evidence the locker room is coming together. They are back to reestablishing their standard. This will bode well for them in future seasons.
As for the question about getting better, the Blue Jackets’ situation in that regard looks strong. They have two first-round picks in 2022 to add to an already strong prospect pool. They have cap space available to them that could be turned into another pick or even a good player given the LTIR situations around the league. They have multiple ways of being able to improve without having to depend on flat out tanking.
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Need an example? Look at the Panthers under Bill Zito. Aleksander Barkov was second overall in 2013. Jonathan Huberdeau was third overall in 2011. For years, they struggled. But Zito came in and made the right moves early on. Now look at them. They’re among the elite in the NHL. They landed a player like Anton Lundell 12th overall in 2020. He is on some Calder ballots as we speak. You can get good talent outside the top-five picks.
In the end, the Blue Jackets 7-2 run in February should be seen as a good thing. They’re showing progress towards what their future will look like. They have reinforcements coming soon and ways to improve their team. Yet it’s their culture that makes their outlook bright. Tanking is not their standard nor will they ever engage in it.
Sorry tankers. The time has come to take that mindset out of your thinking if you’re rooting for the Blue Jackets.
I am a fully credentialed writer who covers the Columbus Blue Jackets, Cleveland Monsters and Erie Otters as well as the Ontario Hockey League and NHL Draft. The 2021-22 season will mark eight seasons with the Hockey Writers. I am also the site’s Credentials Manager.