Let’s take a quick trip down memory lane, shall we?
The date was May 6, 2019. Despite giving the Boston Bruins all they could handle in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Columbus Blue Jackets eventually lost Game 6 by a 3-0 score to send them into a whirlwind of an offseason.
The question everyone wanted to know was what would the Blue Jackets look like at the start of the 2019-20 season? Would any of their big-name free agents come back? If they could somehow keep the band together, they would be looked at as a true contender.
But instead of what could have been, it was what do the Blue Jackets have left. Sergei Bobrovsky took off for Florida. Matt Duchene took his talents to Nashville. And Artemi Panarin, despite a last-minute pitch by the Blue Jackets to keep him, elected to take less money and made off to New York City.
Here came the critics in full force.
Facing Critics & A Bad Start
With those three players gone, the Blue Jackets were going to turn to a first-time starting goalie in Joonas Korpisalo. They were going to have to find offense without Panarin and Duchene. It was clear the defense was going to have to be the driving force. The critics, for the most part, gave the Blue Jackets no chance in 2019-20.
Jarmo Kekalainen was none too pleased about this. He made his feelings known.
Not only did he say he’d do the whole thing over again if given the chance, he said he expected the Blue Jackets to be a playoff again in 2019-20. He was upset at the critics because of the perceived disrespect that was being given to those on the team. Kekalainen was clearly defiant in the face of all the criticism from the so-called “experts.”
The season didn’t start out the way they hoped either. After an impressive 5-2 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Nov 29, the Blue Jackets lost four in a row including a flat 4-1 loss to the Florida Panthers on Dec 7. That loss was to Sergei Bobrovsky. It also dropped the Blue Jackets to 11-14-4. With just 11 wins in their first 29 outings, the critics appeared to be right at least to start.
If that wasn’t bad enough, injuries, and I mean a ton of injuries, plagued the team all season long. It seemed like if one player got back, two more went down in short order. The Blue Jackets were so banged up that they had to obliterate the Cleveland Monsters and gut their roster out just to have enough bodies. The Blue Jackets seemed destined for a long season but they could at least point to injuries as a reason.
Rising Up Despite Challenges
But you know what? They didn’t do that. They didn’t make any excuses. The Blue Jackets just kept right on plugging away with the next man up mentality. Amazingly (to the critics) or not so amazingly (to the Blue Jackets), they started righting the ship. A 16-2-4 run from Dec 9-Jan 22 not only put themselves back in the playoff race, it showed the hockey world that maybe, just maybe, Kekalainen and crew knew what they were doing all along.
Fast forward to today, May 25, 2020. The unthinkable has happened. The NHL season went on pause due to Covid-19. No one knew what was going to happen next. Time needed to pass in order to reassess the situation. But we finally might be starting to get some clarity as to what might happen next.
Multiple reports have indicated that if the NHL season resumes, it would be with a 24-team format. The top-eight teams (four from each conference) would get a bye while the other 16 teams would have a play-in best-of-five series.
If this happens and all parties approve this, that would mean there’s no more regular season for the 2019-20 season. If there’s no more regular season, that means the Columbus Blue Jackets have made a fourth consecutive postseason.
Well how about that? Yes these are special circumstances no question. But the facts are the facts. These Blue Jackets, despite having their roster decimated by departures and debilitating injuries, made the postseason. That’s the first time in franchise history the Blue Jackets will have appeared in four straight postseasons.
Time to Respect the Blue Jackets
I don’t know about you, but the time has come. I know the team has much loftier goals in mind including winning a Stanley Cup at some point. But all things considered this season, all the challenges they had to overcome and all the critics they had to answer to, the time has come for everyone to put some respect on the Columbus Blue Jackets.
What they’ve done this season is nothing short of remarkable. It’s a top-to-bottom thing as well. From management believing in who they have to coaching putting these players in a position to succeed. This team had every right to say it was too much to overcome. No one would have blinked an eye given all the injuries.
But instead, they said we can still do this. We are good enough to fight through this adversity to put ourselves in position to get to the dance. Under John Tortorella’s leadership, the team bought in and fought with everything they had. The end result, assuming a restart, is that they will continue to play games.
If that wasn’t enough, multiple reports have indicated the Blue Jackets are in the running to become a potential hub city should the season resume. If that’s not respect to the team and the city for what they can offer, I’m not sure what is. They have the facilities and proximity to host up to 12 NHL teams. The league knows that and is doing their due diligence.
Columbus has come an extremely long way in less than 10 years. Think about where the Blue Jackets were in 2011. They had an awful season and lost out on the top pick. Then there was some positive stuff. But then in 2015 after an 0-8-0 start, Todd Richards was out and the Blue Jackets had to make what has turned out to be one of the most important decisions in franchise history. They hired Tortorella to try to bring respect to a team that had long never had it.
Time to Respect Tortorella Too
Tortorella has not missed the playoffs as the head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets in his four full seasons including this season. This is perhaps his best coaching job ever given all of the challenges.
Not only is it time to put some respect on the Blue Jackets, it’s time we put the ultimate respect on both Tortorella and Kekalainen. What both men have done to keep things going in the right direction is a sign of just how stable the team is under their leadership. Remember this clip from Oct 2015? What were the Blue Jackets possibly thinking hiring Tortorella?
Look, I was one of those critics. I thought they’d fall short of the playoffs. Turns out I was wrong. The Blue Jackets went above and beyond to reach their first goal. Who knows what will happen next? Perhaps within a month or two, we’ll have some on-ice action to determine all of that.
But right now, the Columbus Blue Jackets deserve respect, from me, from you, from the hockey world. They’ve earned it in spades based on how the last year has gone for them.
If Kekalainen & Tortorella will be remembered for anything in Columbus, it will be for the permanent respect this team has now and in the future. Nobody will forget that, not anytime soon.
I’m a fully credentialed writer that covers the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Cleveland Monsters and the OHL. I am also the site’s Credentials Manager.