Up until fairly recently, the Columbus Blue Jackets were the worst team in the NHL. Thanks to a recent five-game winning streak, they are now only among the NHL’s worst, and according to many they’re on the rise. Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch joined Bill Littlefield to help us understand what may be the NHL’s least understood team.
BL: Last weekend, the Blue Jackets beat the Red Wings twice in a home-and-home series. Columbus is not yet quite in Detroit’s league figuratively speaking, but is it fair to say that they might soon be one of the better teams in the league?
AP: Well, I think it has to be pointed out first that Detroit is no longer in Detroit’s league if that makes any sense. The Red Wings are not the team that they were just a couple years ago. Still, for the Blue Jackets it’s a big hurdle. It’s the first time they’ve ever beaten them back-to-back. The Blue Jackets feel for the first time—I think a lot of people have faith that things are going to be built the right way here. They’ve made a lot of changes. The league has made some changes that should help them off the ice, moving them to the Eastern Conference for next season. The All-Star Game is going to be here eventually. It was cancelled by the lockout. They’ve got a lot of young prospects. They have three first-round draft picks, so after a long, tough path for this franchise, many believe the sun is beginning to peak on the horizon.
BL: Last summer, the Blue Jackets traded their best player Rick Nash to the New York Rangers for three guys and a draft pick. It would appear that it’s been their young, relatively unheralded players who have been carrying the team lately. Is that how you’ve seen it?
AP: Yeah, for sure. They’ve gotten a very significant push from their younger players. Matt Calvert, a young player, this is his second pro stint. He’s been a very effective player. And I think the player that they’re most excited about from his play this year is a kid named Ryan Johansen. He’s had a big test this year going up against some of the best centers in the league. This is the process that he has to get through and has to prove himself and so far he’s done it.
BL: I have seen conflicting reports about attendance at home games there. Are fans coming in great numbers and coming enthusiastically as well?
AP: They’re in the bottom third of the league for sure. When you consider they’re [place in the] standing[s], you would suggest that’s exactly where they should be. But the crowd for the Chicago Blackhawks game, an overtime loss on Thursday, you could start to feel the building start to come around again. And in the early years of this franchise, when hope was in abundance, this was a very fun building to watch a game in. And the people here are certainly hopeful that the game on Thursday against the Blackhawks is the beginning of the rink returning to that state.
BL: The recent winning streak suggests that it would be possible for the Blue Jackets to make the playoffs this time around. Do you think they do it?
AP: Well, it’s fascinating. The joke here locally is that it’s almost a George Costanza reality here with the Blue Jackets. For 12 years they tried to be good. They spent money. They expected to be good. And they weren’t good. And now this year they have embarked upon a rebuilding path. They have cut salary away, they’re in the bottom five teams in the league in salary. They weren’t expecting to win this year. And now they’re winning, of course, right? So who knows? This is the beauty of pro sports, right? You have to play the game. I think it’s a very tall order for this team to make the playoffs. And if I may be blunt, they’re just not good enough. I think what they’re doing right now is entirely impressive and laudable. And if you pay attention to hockey closely you realize that at every season as the playoffs begin to come into focus, the play on the ice really ramps up. And when that does the really good teams really begin to separate themselves.