|@Skrauts photo of the end of the season celebration|
When we last left this history, the 2012-13 season was hanging in the balance due to a labor impasse, I still had my original arthritic knees, and the Columbus Blue Jackets were firmly and definitely ‘THE LAST PLACE TEAM’ (emphasis not added) in the minds of the hockey intelligentsia. By the time the dust settled after an abbreviated 2012-13 season, the CBJ players and coaches had treated the fans to one of the best story lines in all of hockey, coming a mere point short of making the playoffs after a furious charge through the western conference. One wonders if in future segments of this history whether we will look back at the courage and tenacity of this year’s roster as a turning point in the franchise’s fortunes.
At long last, after months of tooth grinding frustration by fans, the NHL and the NHLPA agreed to a collective bargaining agreement in early January. The new agreement called for an abbreviated 2012-13 season of 48 games following a one week training camp. This arrangement did not bode well for the CBJ, as the short training camp would not allow much time for the sweeping roster changes to jell. But labor peace brought a more seismic change to the Blue Jackets. The 2012-13 season was to be the last that the CBJ would play in the Western Conference. In 2013-14 the CBJ would be playing in the Eastern Conference. In their division would be Pittsburgh, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Washington and Carolina. Out of the proverbial frying pan of the Central Division of the Western Conference into the fire of the Leaders, er, uh, Legends, er, uh, Atlantic, oh, okay, Division D of the Eastern Conference (yet to be officially named). This is a huge benefit to the CBJ fans, for who the number of away games that start at 7 PM will go up drastically as opposed to the 10 and 10:30 PM starts. In that regard, we will have no more of those than the rest of the league, as the 2012-14 season calls for a home and away with every team in the league. In addition, our fellow Atlantic Division (estimated name) teams are much more natural rivals then most of our current Western Conference brethren. Of course if you want to be a rival, you have to be more than a door mat, which leads us to the 2012-13 season.
The Run-Up to 2012-13
A significant change, not yet been mentioned in this history, prior to the 2012-13 season that ultimately had a huge impact outcome of the season occurred in the coaching ranks. Todd Richards had been affirmed as the Head Coach over the summer. The only coaches that Richards retained were goaltender coach Ian Clark and young Dan Hinote. Gone were the inexperienced coaches of 2011-12. In their place, Richards hired Craig Hartsburg as Associate Coach, and Keith Acton as an assistant coach. These additions brought decades of experience to the coaching ranks, which soon bore fruit. Using the time afforded to them by the lockout, this group of experienced coaches reviewed their roster and forged a tight checking system that fit the makeup of their team. All that remained was to be able to implement the system.
The other important part of the run up to the 2012-13 season was the relationship established with our AHL partner the Springfield Falcons. Brad Larsen was hired as the head coach, and he had an opportunity to confer with the NHL coaches. A system was decided upon, and there was unity of system between Springfield and Columbus. Larsen proved to be an excellent choice, and with a large number young players slotted into the AHL do to the labor woes of the NHL, he had a lot of talent at his disposal. Larsen also had the unusual luxury of a full AHL training camp with a set roster, and he put the time to good use. The ‘Hatched and Hungry’ Falcons roared out of the gate, and in spite of ultimately losing a lot of talent to the NHL, they kept to their winning ways, ultimately capturing the AHL Northeast Division title. They are currently in their playoff series as I write. It is difficult to overstate the importance of the job Larsen did in preparing players to come to the NHL ready to go, which was amply demonstrated over and over again in the NHL 2012-13 season.
Hurry up! Let’s Play Hockey! The 2012-13 Season
With a new collective bargaining agreement in hand, the NHL quickly rushed its 30 clubs into a weeklong training camp with no exhibition games. On January 19, 2013 the puck dropped on the 2012-13 season. The Blue Jackets started the season off right with a shootout win in Nashville. After coming home and losing to the Redwings in a shoot out on a highlight reel move by Brunner, the CBJ went on a quick road trip for back to back games against the Coyotes and Avalanche. The Coyotes were intent on proving which team had the better work ethic, and walked all over the Jackets in a 5-1 win. The next night the Jackets succumbed to the lure of trying to run with the Avs, and lost 4-0 in the first game they were shut out in the season.
The CBJ came home from this road trip to face the Blackhawks, who were coming out of the gate on what was to be a franchise record winning streak. The CBJ played them tight, but lost 3-2, before beating Dallas 2-1 in the first night of a back to back. On the second night of the back to back they went to Minnesota and lost 3-2 to the Wild. Following the Wild game the CBJ came back home for a 6 game home stand starting on the last day of January.
On the first date of the home stand, St. Louis handed the CBJ a 4-1 loss, but in the next game the Jackets beat a battered Redwings team 4-2. This concluded the first two weeks of the season, in which the Blue Jackets played 9 games in 14 days, establishing a trend of playing more games than most everyone in the league, that would last until the final day of the season, and ultimately haunt the team (that’s foreshadowing there folks). For instance, the LA Kings only played 7 games over that stretch, whereas the CBJ had already played 2 back to backs, one of which was on the road.
So the CBJ emerge from the first two weeks of the season with a 3-5-1 record, which is kinda respectable considering the number of games played, the amount of change in the roster, and the scant time available to get the team to jell. At this point in time there was no real number one goal tender, as Mason and Bobrovsky were still trading off in the goal. In addition, the team was prone to mistakes, and during this period Richards was frequently quoted as saying they did not give a 60 minute effort. In addition, early on Bobrovsky had shown a tendency to let in an early soft goal in the first couple of minutes of a game. He often clamped down after that, and the team learned that even if the other team scored first that it did not necessarily mean they were going to score a bunch on Bob.
February was a rough month for the CBJ in the 2012-13 season. Though February started with a win over Detroit, home losses to LA, Calgary in OT, and Edmonton followed in rapid succession. Surprisingly, this was followed by a 6-2 butt whipping that they laid on the San Jose Sharks. Unfortunately, that left the CBJ only going 2-3-1 over a 6 game home stand. And, the road loomed once again. The 6 game road trip had the Jackets bouncing around over time zones like a super ball, with games in LA, Phoenix, and Anaheim, to start the trip, followed by Detroit, St. Louis and Chicago at the end of the trip. The Jackets went 1-5 on this trip, with the sole win coming over Detroit, a 3-2 win at the Joe when Vinny Prospal scored with 24.7 seconds remaining in the game. This was a classic game of early season Bobrovsky. He gave up a goal in the first 18 seconds, and by the 3 minute mark the Redwings had 2 goals. The defense and Bob tightened, and shut the ‘Wings out the rest of the way, while the CBJ crawled back into the game with a power play goal and a greasy Dorsett goal, to set up Vinny’s heroics.
The Jackets limped back home after this road trip, and then lost 5-4 in overtime to Dallas to finish the month. The Blue Jackets finished the month of February 5-12-3, and were dead last in the NHL. Visions of lottery draft picks danced in our heads. But slowly, and surely this team was gathering momentum, as 5 of the 6 preceding road games were one goal games. The Jackets were close and working hard at turning it around. At this point, as a fan, it was safe to say that the games were entertaining even if they were not rewarding. That part of the fan experience was about to change.
Along with the change building slowly on the ice, the organization was undergoing changes as well. On February 12, 2013, General Manager Scott Howson was relieved of his duties. Howson was the architect of the franchises sole appearance in the playoffs, and helped to solidify depth in the organization. Unfortunately, he made an unwise coaching choice, and thus became the architect of a stunning reversal of fortune for the franchise, culminating in a cap team finishing dead last in the league. With the hiring of Craig Patrick in December, 2011, Howson began to look at talent differently, as Patrick urged him to evaluate talent based on the character of the player. In that, Howson proved to be adept, and he managed to make the Nash trade on reasonable terms, thus gutting the heart out of a New York Rangers team that had looked ‘one scorer away from the cup’. While the Rangers did manage to make the playoffs in the eighth seed, they sorely missed the character players now playing for the Columbus Blue Jackets. As of this writing, Howson has assumed the position of Assistant General Manager of the Edmonton Oilers, and in that position I wish him well.
|New GM Jarmo Kekalainen|
On February 13, 2013 President of Hockey Operations John Davidson hired Jarmo Kekalainen as General Manager. Jarmo had been serving as GM for the Jokerit Team in the Finnish Elite League, and became the first European born General Manager in the National Hockey League. Davidson had worked with Kekalainen extensively in St. Louis, and was well aware of what he brought to the table. In a development that was distinctly unfamiliar for long time Blue Jackets fans, this move was widely hailed across the league as an excellent move. In off the record comments, some Western Conference executives stated the opinion that he was an arrogant prick, which made me like the selection even better. It’s ok if that’s how the opposition views our General Manager. (Editor’s note: If the CBJ don’t use umlauts, I’m not gonna either)
Kekalainen came with a reputation for being a shrewd judge of talent, so sitting in last place at the end of February, with 3 first round draft picks in the 2013 draft made you feel pretty good about our prospects, even if the team wasn’t doing too well. But all of that was about to change.
As March rolled in like a lion, the CBJ were sitting 30th in the league, playing entertaining hockey and ending up on the wrong side of close games. Long suffering fans were content with entertaining hockey, and visions of lottery picks in June danced in our heads. And then the worm turned, and we may find that March of 2013 was a pivotal month in franchise history. The beauty of March was that there was an extended home stand, 9 home games in 10, starting with the last game of February. And after losing the first two games of the home stand in overtime, the CBJ began an extended run of winning hockey.
As mentioned above, the end of February, and the start of the home stand was an overtime loss to Dallas. This launched a franchise record of 12 consecutive games in which the Blue Jackets at least got a point. March began with an overtime loss to Chicago, followed by a shoot out win against Edmonton, and an overtime win against Vancouver when Matt Calvert scored with 56 seconds in overtime.
|Perhaps a defining moment in the 2012-13 season|
That success was followed by a moment that seemed to define the team’s confidence in itself. The next game was the first of a home and home, back to back series with the Detroit Redwings. In the first game of the series, with the CBJ wearing their road whites at home at the request of the Redwings, Sergei Bobrovsky pitched his first career shutout, and the CBJ won 3-0. The game was ‘marred’ (snicker) by an incident late in the game, where Vinny Prospal took an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for pointing at the scoreboard following a late third period scrum. This moment came to be famous, and showed that the players had supreme confidence that the Blue Jackets were a team that could beat anyone on any given day. The team validated Vinny’s confidence by going to Detroit the next day and beating Detroit at the Joe in a shootout, with Joey and Matt Calvert converting for the win.
Confidence was high among the players as the team returned to Nationwide Arena and commenced stalking the eighth place position in the standings. Shoot out losses to powerful Vancouver and Chicago teams were followed by a 1-0 shootout win against Phoenix in which both goal tenders earned a shutout, Bob’s second of his career. The Jackets then closed out the long home stand with wins over Nashville and Calgary. This left them with an 8-0-4 record for the period of the long home stand, and the aforementioned franchise point streak of 12 games.
The CBJ then went out on a four game road trip, losing to Nashville in a game in which a well rested Predators squad seemed to have the CBJ’s number. Then it was out to the western Canadian swing of Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary. The CBJ lost the first game to Vancouver in a shootout, in which both goal tenders once again pitched shutouts, Bobrovsky’s third career shutout. Two days later, the CBJ lit up the Oilers for four goals, but the Oilers came back and scored a couple of goals late in the third period to take the game 6-4. This game included the controversial wave off of a goal by Matt Calvert for a ‘distinct kicking motion’ as he was hauled off his feet in the crease. Further comment at this point would just make me angry if I think about it, so time to move on. The CBJ followed up this disappointing finish with a solid game against a fragile Calgary team, winning 6-4. This left the CBJ getting only 3 of a possible 8 points on the road, which was a disappointing result when they played pretty well in 3 of the 4 games.
The CBJ closed out March by returning to Nationwide Arena and beating the Anaheim Ducks 2-1 in overtime when Mark Letestu scored late in the overtime period. More importantly, the two points garnered in this game moved the CBJ into sole possession of 8th place in the Western Conference with 12 games left to play. Using their 9-2-5 record in the month of March, the Blue Jackets had vaulted from last place to playoff position in one month, capturing the attention of NHL audiences everywhere.
The month of March also featured Sergei Bobrovsky seizing the reins of the number 1 goal tender position. Bobrovsky was absolutely en fuego, and recorded the first 3 shutouts of his career. He also captured the hearts of Blue Jackets fans, as the swelling crowds responded to the team’s momentum.
During this pivotal month in the 2012-13 season, the CBJ took full advantage of a lengthy home stand. Historically, we have often seen the Blue Jackets squander such opportunities with indifferent play. The 2012-13 team made the home stand special with their hard working style, converting their effort into success. Solid goal tending is a good thing to have by the way, in case you had noticed.
One of the best things about being home on disability following knee replacement surgery is that you don’t have to pretend to be productive for several hours on the trade deadline before the tension takes over and you bail out and go home to watch the Twitter feed (I have a great boss!). This year I was glued to a largely inactive Twitter feed all day with no shame. And while there was general lamenting of the slow pace of the trading, it wasn’t that bad of a way to spend the day.
With a little bit less than an hour left before the trade deadline, the news came that the CBJ have traded Steve Mason to the Philadelphia Flyers for back up Michael Leighton and a draft pick in 2014. In consideration, this was a good trade for the CBJ. Mason was an RFA at the end of the year, and we were not going to give him a qualifying offer. This way we secured the asset, and perhaps benefitted. Mason has made real steps towards claiming the starting goal tender position in Philadelphia since the trade deadline, and I wish him well against all other Eastern Conference Opponents. I wish him white hot death when he is playing against us, but that’s a fan thing.
As Blue Jackets fans sat nodding over their phones, ipads, laptops, or computers that this was a good trade, there came the single electrifying tweet: Gaborik to Columbus. After frenzied scrambling for information, right at the trade deadline came the news that the Blue Jackets had traded Center Derick Brassard, Defenseman John Moore, and injured winger Derek Dorsett (sob! snif!) for winger Marian Gaborik of the New York Rangers, a perennial goal scorer. Davidson and Kekalainen had looked over the landscape, surveyed their team’s gutsy climb from last place to eighth place in the month of March, and decided that reinforcements were appropriate.
This was a stunning move that shocked both the fan base and the NHL, but sent a shot out that the CBJ were serious about this winning stuff. In addition, Kekalainen acquired Blake Comeau from Calgary for low round draft picks. Comeau would play important minutes as injuries mounted down the stretch.
The CBJ paid dearly for Gaborik. Gone were 3 players who were part of the fabric of the team. Brassard still has the potential to be a gifted center, but John Moore will play important minutes for the Rangers , as he did for us. Once he is healed from his injury, Derek Dorsett will fill that heart and soul role for the Rangers that he always did for us. DD will be the subject of some future post regarding all he is and was for the CBJ.
Gaborik is an elite talent, and raises the speed level of the forward group significantly. It was a trade that should help both teams.
An April for the Ages
There is no finer thing in hockey fandom than to be in a playoff race late in the season. Scoreboard watching becomes an obsession, the games take on more weight, and the TV becomes accustomed to epithets being hurled at it during away games. The Columbus Blue Jackets gave their fans a solid taste of this joy, and the fans will surely thirst for more. Beginning April in sole possession of eighth place, but with other team’s ‘games in hand’ starting to lurk ominously in the conversation, the team girded itself for the playoff push.
The Jackets began April with a home win over Nashville, and then traveled to St. Louis where the Blues handled the CBJ 3-1. The next game, a home game against Minnesota, was one of the few games in the year where the team just didn’t seem to show up, and they lost 3-0 to the Wild, in a game that would come back to haunt them in a most important way. The players seeming upset by their poor performance took it out on the next opponents, with a 4-0 shutout of the San Jose Sharks, and 4-1 win over St. Louis. At this point, the NHL schedulers took over. These two games were the final home games for the 2012-13 season, save for the last game of the season. The next 6 games were on the road, which had not been kind to the CBJ. If they wanted to remain in the playoff race they would have to do so on the road.
Even the most die-hard Blue Jacket fan could not have envisioned what transpired next. Personally, I thought their chances dim as they went out on the road. I did not reckon with the resolve, determination, and confidence of the Jackets players however, and they soon proved me wrong. Time and again, with games on the line, the Jackets found ways to win them and keep their hopes alive.
The first road game was against the Wild, but the CBJ persevered to win a 3-2 shootout win in spite of the loss of Artem Anisimov for the remainder of the road trip from a check to the head. The points gained in this win pulled the CBJ into a 3 way tie for eighth place with Detroit and Dallas. The next game was in Colorado, and the CBJ took a late penalty in the game and Colorado scored on the power play to take the lead with only 2 minutes left in the game. However, 30 seconds later Joey laid a pass out into space for Umberger, who went 5 hole for the goal to tie the game. A few minutes later, Nick Foligno hammered home the game winner in overtime, and the CBJ kept pace in the west.
The next game found the CBJ at Anaheim going into another overtime game. Foligno struck again, this time hitting Fedor Tyutin at the edge of the crease for a deflection for the game winner in overtime. The CBJ once again climbed into sole possession of eighth place. The Ducks game was the first game of a rugged California back to back. The next night saw the CBJ in action against the LA Kings. In spite of Dalton Prout scoring his first career goal, the CBJ could not do anything against the Kings, and lost 2-1.
With their backs to the wall, the CBJ traveled to San Jose to take on a Sharks team that they had recently beaten handily, and was willing to repay the favor to the CBJ. The Jackets jumped on the Sharks early, but they responded in the third period, scoring two goals to tie the game at 3-3. With time winding down in regulation, Ryan Johansen pounced on a turnover forced by Blake Comeau’s forecheck. Joey walked down the high slot and buried the game winner with a wicked wrister, to keep the Jackets’ playoff hopes alive.
The CBJ returned home after the Sharks game, and had to sit and watch while other teams played their games in hand. With absolutely no help to be had in the west the Jackets had to sit and watch Detroit go on a season ending winning streak that would ultimately propel them into 7th place in the West. Minnesota was struggling down the stretch, and all of a sudden seemed the most likely candidate to be passed.
With this as a back drop, the Blue Jackets traveled to Dallas to take on the Stars in the pivotal final game of the road trip. This was a game so important in franchise history that our colleagues over on the Union Blue blog launched a ‘money on the board’ campaign so the players would know how much the fans valued the game. Ultimately, more than $5,000 was committed to charity to urge the CBJ on to victory. Cam Atkinson scored early and late, to preserve the 3-1 win for the CBJ and set up the wild home finale.
A Taste of What it Can Be
Saturday, April 27, 2013 was a perfect day for a hockey game in Columbus. The weather was warm as a standing room only crowd gathered in the Arena District with the playoffs on the line. A Blue Jackets win, and a loss by Detroit in Dallas, or an overtime loss by Minnesota in Colorado would propel the Blue Jackets into the playoffs for the second time. Everything was on the line, in a pivotal final game. As a hockey fan, you can’t really ask for something more exciting in the regular season.
|I hope the CBJ make the playoffs!|
The final game against the Nashville Predators even featured Barry Trotz, the Nashville coach, coming out before the game and saying he hoped the Blue Jackets made it to the playoffs. But he also made sure his team was ready to play the spoiler, and the Preds carried a lot of the early play. Nashville finally took a one goal lead in the second period. The roaring home crowd did not disappoint, and stayed in the game until the dam finally broke late in the third period. When Dubinsky scored, the CBJ finally stopped squeezing their sticks and began playing. Soon thereafter Jack Johnson bounced one in off Weber, the Jackets had the lead, and the crowd was deafening. Finally, an empty net goal sealed the deal, and the raucous crowd saluted the players. With chants of ‘MVP, MVP’ raining down on Bobrovsky as he gave away his jersey, the team and the crowd retired to watch the end of the other games. Alas for the good guys, Detroit won in Dallas, and Minnesota won in Colorado, leaving the CBJ eliminated from the playoffs by a single point.
In the early aftermath of this season, it is difficult to say what was accomplished. Our young core of players got a taste of what it takes to make a run to the playoffs. Our veterans proved to be up to the leadership task. JD and Jarmo got an opportunity to see what an engaged Nationwide Arena looks like, and what an awesome thing that can be. The degree to which that carries over to next year is the subject for a future installment.
There is no doubt that the 2012-13 Blue Jackets put together the greatest run of hockey in franchise history. The set a record for most consecutive points, but their spirited and determined push from last place towards a playoff berth captured the hearts and minds of NHL fans everywhere like no other Jackets team has done. As a fan, I am extremely pleased, and proud of what the group accomplished. Challenges remain going forward, as they always do, but this group laid it all on the line and performed great feats. They have earned an endearing place in the heart of this season ticket holder for their sheer gumption, and for the fun they had along the way. This was a group that could combine fun with hard work, and that is a potent combination.
So to the 2012-13 Columbus Blue Jackets, players and coaches, THANK YOU! It makes me proud to be a Jackets fan!
The Numbers, 2012-13
There were some striking changes in some statistical numbers for the 2012-13 CBJ along with some other surprising commonalities. Vinny Prospal lead the team in points with 30, following his 45 point season in 2011-12. Vinny notched 12 goals and 18 assists to finish second in goal scoring and in a three way tie for the assist lead with Fedor Tyutin and Brandon Dubinsky. After having Rick Nash lead the team in goals for eight straight years, Mark Letestu ended up leading the 2012-13 Blue Jackets in goals with 13. Vinny tied JamesWisniewski in power play goals with 4. Mark Letestu led the team in shorthanded goals with 2.
Jack Johnson led defensemen with Time on Ice (TOI) with 25:58 per game. Brandon Dubinsky led forwards in TOI with 18:24. Dalton Prout lead the team in the +/- statistic with +15. Cam Atkinson lead forwards in +/- with +9. Derek MacKenzie lead the team in faceoff win percentage with 59.4 followed closely by Brandon Dubinsky at 58.3.
Sergei Bobrovsky finished the season with a 21-11-6 record, with a save percentage of .932 and a Goals Against Average (GAA) of 2.00 in 38 games played. These are stellar numbers, worthy of Vezina Trophy consideration for the top goaltender in the NHL. The .932 save percentage sets a franchise record, beating Curtis Sanford’s .911 and the GAA of 2.00 beats Sanford’s franchise record of 2.60. Bobrovsky left an immediate impact on the franchise’s record books.
The heading for this section is the Latin translation for ‘finished in the West’(at least according to my phone). One of the other unique features of this season is that the Blue Jackets are moving to the Eastern Conference next year. While the teams in the East are going to provide new and different challenges for the CBJ, this seems like a good time to reflect what was accomplished in the West.
First and foremost, there is now an NHL hockey franchise in Columbus. It is established, has gone through growing pains, and in spite of those pains is in a position of stability. The financial arrangements have been made for the long term health of the club, and the Arena District has emerged with Nationwide Arena and its crowds as the centerpiece of an entertainment district that is the envy of many cities. It is certainly widely studied by other areas looking to build facilities.
Over the 12 seasons played in the Western Conference, the Columbus Blue Jackets played 932 regular season games and 4 playoff games. Their record was a combined 366 wins, 458 losses, and 108 overtime losses/ties in the regular season. The team’s winning percentage in the Western Conference was 0.451 overall. The team posted two seasons that were above .500 in winning percentage, 2008-09 with a .561 percentage, and the 2012-13 team with a franchise record .573 score. The next closest year was the 2010-11 team with a .494 winning percentage.
After years of getting beat up in the rugged Central Division of the Western Conference, the Blue Jackets finally had a winning record in the Division in their last year, going 9-6-3 in the Division with a .583 winning percentage in the Division.
The franchise’s history in the west has been a long slow climb to respectability, followed by setbacks that damaged that respectability. This year’s team took great strides in restoring that reputation, and we will need to carry it forward into the East next year.
I have always liked being in the Western Conference, which I perceive to be tougher at this time in history. But I will be extremely happy to get rid of the bulk of those western, late night road games. Those were killers for fans in the Eastern Time zone. Going forward, we will have no more of those games than anyone else in the NHL. And I look forward to those 7 PM road games.
When next we take up this history, it will be against a different backdrop.