The Columbus Dispatch
Jackets trying to look at big picture
Playoffs play second to staying on track
The 2020-21 NHL season was like a rally car race in the rain. The schedule was reduced because of the pandemic, it started in January, the divisions were rejiggered, the border was closed, glaciers were melting, and so on, and so forth.
The Blue Jackets flew off the course. They finished last in the Discover Central, whatever the hell that was. They finished 28th in the league, which had 31 teams at the time. They parted ways with John Tortorella, the greatest coach in team history, and ceded to the trade demand of Seth Jones, arguably their best player.
That’s a wicked skid. Like any good Finnish rally car driver (and, by the way, Finland is loaded with rally car drivers), Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen steered into the skid. It is the proper corrective measure, but it is counterintuitive. You see where you want to go and you turn in that direction — but easy, like, without whipping the wheel around.
It doesn’t feel right, but it is. Doug Maclean couldn’t make a turn without hitting a tree. Scott Howson needed a fair supply of Bondo. Even Kekalainen, from the land of rally car driving, doesn’t feel comfortable with steering into the skid.
“We’ve talked about building the right way,” Kekalainen said. “It’s going to take some time. But it’s frustrating when you go through stretches like this. Everyone wants to win the next game. That becomes, ‘We’ve got to win the next game.’ But as management, you’ve got to keep your eye on the big picture. If you want to build the right way, you’ve got to suffer a little, too.”
You’ve got to be cool when you’re going sideways.
“Everyone in the locker room believes we can still make it to the playoffs,” Kekalainen said. “The coaches believe. Management does. At the same time, I don’t believe in making knee-jerk reactions for short-term gains. It’s hard, because I hate to lose.
“We’ve got a plan. It’s going to take a little while. You’ve just got to be patient.”
Saturday night, the Jackets (16-16-1) beat the New Jersey Devils 4-3 in Nationwide Arena. It was their second regulation victory since Nov. 26. It was one of those games the paying fans were happy to experience during this rebuild, or reset, or whatever they’re calling it.
It was a celebration of Jake Voracek’s 1,000th career game and he set up two goals by Oliver Bjorkstrand. It was one of those nights when Brad
Larsen, as the coach of the home team, has the second line change and can manage matchups and loose his young (and old) players to create and embrace optimism.
Conversely, there are nights on the road when their defense, which is young and without much sinew, can be exploited. That’s especially true when Zach Werenski is absent, as he was recently in COVID protocol
“We knew (defense) would be a challenge this season, and it has been lately,” Kekalainen said. “We’ve got to keep the puck out of the net and play better D, in units and as a team. We can get enough scoring, but as a five-man group, we’ve got to defend.”
The Jackets have lost eight of their last nine road games. The streak began at the end of November with successive meltdowns in Nashville (6-0) and St. Louis (6-3).
Prior to Saturday night, as they wobbled with a raft of injuries and infections, they suffered two horrific losses in a row, both at home: a 7-4 nunchucking by the Carolina Hurricanes, who came back from a 4-0 deficit; and a 7-2 guillotining at the hands of the Tampa
“Goaltending has struggled, too” Kekalainen said. “(Daniil Tarasov’s injury) is too bad, because the young kid is part of the future. There are times when you’ve got to hold your breath to not get too excited about the games he has played. Then, he gets hurt.”
The organization is all about the rebuild, or the “reset” as Kekalainen calls it.
The future is in the futures.
It’s in Tarasov, who is 0-2 in three appearances – with a 2.40 goals-against average and a sterling .937 save percentage. It’s in Cole Sillinger, who is playing a regular shift at center at the age of 18; and it’s in Kent Johnson, who may or may not be a center and has yet to make the jump from the University of Michigan; and it’s in their one or two firstround picks in the next draft, which might both be lottery picks.
Is it in the Jackets third first-round pick from 2021, defenseman Corson Ceulemans, a freshman at the University of Wisconsin?
It seems to be in Alexandre Texier, who has finally exploded on the scene, and Yegor Chinakhov.
Is it in defensemen Jake Bean, Adam Boqvist and/or Andrew Peeke? Emil Bemstrom?
Is it in the 2023 draft, for which the Jackets have two first-round picks (one conditional), which are both potential lottery picks?
The Jackets, despite their recent struggles, are still on the playoff bubble. Good for them. They may or may not be in the playoff running by the time they reach the midseason mark Jan. 27, or when they hit the trade deadline March 21. But that’s not the point.
Play the kids. See what you’ve got. Hang onto the wheel.