The Columbus Blue Jackets finally had something to look forward to on Wednesday night when they hosted the Buffalo Sabres at Nationwide Arena. The game was a later start thanks to TNT broadcasting the game. Although the season had been rough to that point, the national broadcast showed some evidence that the Blue Jackets were starting to earn more respect around the league.
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But then the game started.
In less than 7:30, the Blue Jackets not only trailed 3-0, they hadn’t even registered a shot on goal. Their first shot was taken by Marcus Bjork from over 160 feet away.
Then 22 seconds after Rasmus Dahlin’s goal made it 3-0, Tage Thompson made it 4-0. Joonas Korpisalo wasn’t even comfortable on the bench yet. Elvis Merzlikins was beat on the first shot he saw coming into the game ice cold. That was just the beginning.
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Before the first period ended, the Sabres added two more goals. Those two goals were scored by the same player. That same player had two goals earlier in the period!
In all, Thompson finished the first period with four goals and an assist. He did all that on just 5:14 TOI. What in the world is going on here?
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Give credit where it’s due. Thompson’s outburst is indicative of the kind of player he’s becoming. He’s among the NHL leaders in goals and is tough to defend partly because he’s 6-foot-6. He had the game of his life.
But if you are the Blue Jackets here, full stop. In a season full of low and embarrassing moments, this game ranks right at the top. When the dust finally settled, it was Sabres 9, Blue Jackets 4. Oh yeah, the nation got to see it all.
This Isn’t Just About the Loss
Let’s set the scene for you. NHL teams lose games. They can lose handfuls of games in a row because it is the toughest league in the world. Any team can beat any other team on any given night.
The issue with this 9-4 sham isn’t the loss itself. It’s just one game in an 82-chapter story. The issue with the game is how it happened. Leaving the first period down 6-0 should never happen under any circumstances no matter what’s going on with the team.
The Blue Jackets had no answers and no pushback in that period. They allowed the Sabres to steamroll them in their own rink. Fans paid good money to watch this game live. As Erik Gudbranson said postgame, “it was a waste of everyone’s time.”
The game was definitely a waste of time. It left such a sour taste in everyone’s mouths. Trust me when I say that everyone on the Blue Jackets from top-to-bottom was embarrassed about the game.
But here’s what we need to talk about. After watching (and re-watching, yes I watched the full game twice somehow), there is one big takeaway that must be brought up after this kind of performance.
There are no exclusions to who shares in the blame here. This game put everyone in the Blue Jackets’ organization on notice, the players, the coaches and management. Everyone.
Everyone Is Under Evaluation
Before we really dive into this, let’s make one thing clear. Even in a 9-4 game, unless the team already made their mind up a long time ago, you can’t make decisions on raw emotion. Just imagine what everyone was feeling after the final buzzer. The team left the ice to chants of “Fire Larsen.”
While 9-4 shouldn’t be the only factor to make decisions on, 9-4 definitely puts everyone under the microscope and deservedly so. Tough questions have to be asked of everyone in that locker room.
When the Blue Jackets held a belief they could be a playoff team this season, it raised the bar. Sitting last place in the Eastern Conference and basically playing out the string with 56 games to go is a failure. While injuries have played a key factor in this season, that doesn’t excuse this mess. Other things that were under the team’s control have not worked out so far. Those things being the goaltending and team defense. While we’re on that topic, the offense has dipped as well even with Johnny Gaudreau in the fold.
With everything that has gone wrong, everything top-to-bottom must be evaluated. Keeping things status quo in the future would be unthinkable given their current place in the standings.
We’re going to ask one big overarching question and then ask questions on down from there. The biggest question is “Are the right people in place for the Blue Jackets to fulfill their promise of a bright future?” This is a fair question because of the season as a whole. The 9-4 game was not their only awful and embarrassing moment of the 2022-23 season.
- The Blue Jackets started 0-3 by losing all three games by three goals.
- The Blue Jackets fell down 5-0 at home to the Arizona Coyotes before falling 6-3.
- Before heading to Finland, the Blue Jackets lost 4-0 to the Boston Bruins and then 7-1 to the New Jersey Devils. The Devils’ game was especially embarrassing considering they were outshot 53-21.
- In Finland, the Blue Jackets lost to the Colorado Avalanche 6-3 and 5-1. This caused Patrik Laine to question why they even went in the first place.
- In their last eight games, including their 3-1 win over the Calgary Flames on Friday, the Blue Jackets are just 2-5-1. Most of their games have been at home to boot.
The Blue Jackets will enter Sunday’s home game against the Los Angeles Kings with a 9-15-2 record and squarely in the Draft Lottery discussion. With 56 games still to be played, you can expect many, many long nights ahead.
It’s time to start asking questions. It starts straight at the top with ownership.
Ownership: Do they still trust the direction of the team?
Ownership wants to win. That was evidenced by signing off on the approval to being Gaudreau in. Their commitment to spending money is not an issue.
However, they must ask if the right people are in the right places. They didn’t commit over $82.5 million to be in last in the East and 30th in the NHL. They will have to decide if John Davidson, Jarmo Kekalainen and the rest of management is capable of getting out of this hole. There was clearly a belief in this group before. But you have to wonder if that feeling has changed given the events of this season.
Management: What actually made them think this was a playoff team this season?
The Blue Jackets believe in what they’re doing. They tune out what others think of them while conducting their business. But you have to wonder what made them think they can make a huge jump in the standings in just one season?
Kekalainen has been the GM with the Blue Jackets now for over 10 years. What does he have to show for his efforts? One playoff series win. That’s it. That is not nearly good enough. The Blue Jackets have never won a playoff series in the second round or beyond. For someone who has always said their goal is to win the Stanley Cup, this is a vastly underwhelming performance.
Kekalainen has done a lot of good things for the Blue Jackets. He is still the best GM they’ve ever had. However he’s had 10 years to build something strong with them. Yet they’re in a roster reset and occupying the basement in the East. That’s completely unacceptable.
Taking it one step further, the team said their offseason goal was to take steps to reduce goals against. As of this writing, the Blue Jackets have allowed 106 goals in just 26 goals, which is over four goals per game.
Management is accountable for the roster they put together. The fact that it got worse from last year is not a good look. One must wonder if they can get the team to the next level and beyond. The gap between them and the NHL’s elite remains wide. That was true in 2012. It remains true in 2022. Management must be better and start to deliver on the promises they’ve made.
They must decide who is part of this core and who isn’t. They must decide if the coaching staff is able to get the most out of the roster. Their action or lack thereof will be watched and judged accordingly.
Coaching: Why does the team look so unprepared on a lot of nights?
The coaches have many jobs to perform. Among them are the practices and getting the players ready to play. They also make decisions on who plays and how much. They also decide how the lines look before and during the game.
The most consistent line so far in 2022-23 has been the line of Eric Robinson-Sean Kuraly-Mathieu Olivier. When healthy, they’ve had some strong moments together. Brad Larsen’s trust in them is seen through their matchups against the opposition’s best.
The fact this line has been the most consistent is an issue. It’s on the players for not performing as expected. But it’s also on the coaching for not doing enough to help the players. While there have been efforts to find combinations that work, not much has stuck. Gaudreau and Laine, who were thought to be linemates of the future, are currently on separate lines.
While blame cannot be placed on the coaches 100%, they do share in it. Leaving the first down 6-0 against the Sabres is as bad as it gets. How does that happen? Where’s the preparation? And is enough being done at practice for these players?
Larsen is a great person. Just ask anyone who knows him. But is fair to ask if his style is working with this team. One thing to watch for here is adjustments. The good coaches can adjust between games and in game to set their teams up for success. Can Larsen successfully make the necessary adjustments to allow the Blue Jackets to stay in games even if they’re not at their best? All too often, once the Blue Jackets lose momentum, they don’t get it back.
In fairness, the coaches can only play the players available to them. This is where injuries and availability have to be taken into account. A good outcome would be getting the most of the players who are available and remaining competitive. There have been too many nights where that hasn’t been true. That falls on the coach’s lap.
Players: What can you do to be better?
The answers here will vary depending on which player you talk to. But one thing is true. Everyone can be better somehow. They have to be. Their overall performance this season has fallen way short of expectations. What do they do about it?
This is where we will start to learn about how players perform under scrutiny. Who can handle the pressure and who can’t? Who can put the past behind them and deliver better performances game in and game out?
As Larsen has said, the players dictate what he does on the bench and with the lineup. If they show that they aren’t a fit for the organization moving forward, their play will demonstrate that. Even if they don’t agree with a coach’s decision, how will they handle that and any other challenges presented to them?
The players as a whole must play better. There’s no sugar coating it.
Officially on Notice
The 9-4 game ensures that no one on the Blue Jackets is safe from criticism and question. What they can control is how they decide to handle the circumstances in front of them moving forward.
Ownership must decide if the right leaders are in place. Management must decide if the right coaches are in place and what the roster looks like. Coaches must do everything they can to set the players up for success while helping them develop. Players must start performing better and with more consistency.
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The current state of the Blue Jackets is completely unacceptable with all parties involved sharing blame.
Fans ask yourself this. Do you think the right people are in place for the Blue Jackets to reach the promise of their bright future? When Kekalainen says they’ll be better eventually, do you trust him? Do you trust the leaders will make the right decisions? Do you trust the coaches are the right ones moving forward?
If the answer to any of these questions is no, know you are not alone in thinking that. Their place in the standings speaks loud volumes given their thoughts about being a playoff team before the season.
From now on, everyone is officially on notice. Everyone from top down must be better. No excuses. This is the National Hockey League. This is the best league in the world. The only thing that matters is results.
The Blue Jackets have failed delivering results. Now what are they going to do about it? That’s where the real story begins.