If anyone has ever switched companies while staying in the same career field, you know just how vastly different two organizations conduct themselves while trying to achieve virtually the same thing. In this regard, sports teams are absolutely no different. All 30 teams are vying for the same Stanley Cup. All have a different identity. Well, the good ones do at least.
It appears the Columbus Blue Jackets have achieved relative mediocrity. They’re a playoff bubble team that pulled themselves up out of the NHL cellar while becoming a team known for a blue-collar, hard-working attitude. This is a stark contrast to the years of ineptitude when the Jackets really didn’t have any cohesion or sense of self.
Some mistake team identity for meaning most famous person on a team. Rarely is that the truth. When it is the case, it’s usually to a franchise’s detriment.
All it takes is a quick peak at the Blue Jackets’ Rick Nash era. He was the star on a beleaguered team and their sole source of hope for winning games most seasons. The overall strategy often appeared — or simply was — collapse in the defensive zone, pray opponents don’t score, get the puck to Nash and hope some magic happens. It was anything but a winning formula.
Nash isn’t without fault, but the supporting rosters assembled around him were an atrocious hodgepodge of players with varying playing styles and mentalities. It was only during the coach Ken Hitchcock era the Jackets found any kind of continuity. They played air-tight defense and got the puck behind the adversary’s goal line, making a defender or two turn their backs to the slot, opening up offensive opportunities.
Hitchcock is a Stanley Cup, Jack Adams Award winning coach, but even his system was doomed to falter with a roster filled with players who didn’t have the mindset or character to play key roles. It was a team of individuals instead of a group of individuals comprising a team. When Hitchcock’s guidance and vision were gone, the coach Scott Arniel reign of terror began.
Now the Jackets had a roster without any real strengths outside of Nash’s outbursts of greatness and a coach without a (good) plan. Arniel’s professional hockey players looked completely loss on the ice. He shuffled lines as if he were drawing names out of a hat. He went from an attempt at a high-octane offense to a team that essentially played prevent defense, trying to weather the storm of the club’s worst season.
Things begin to change when Nash was traded to the New York Rangers. Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinksky, prospect Tim Erixson and a first-round pick were the return. Some people still view it as “four quarters to Nash’s dollar,” but that’s to completely ignore that those additions began to forge the successful identity and brand we see today: defensively sound, hard-working and relentless forechecking.
Subsequent additions have largely mirrored what Anisimov and Dubinsky bring to the table. When Marian Gaborik was traded, it wasn’t a question of how much gas he has in the tank. The issue was he obviously didn’t fit the team and system. When was that ever said about any other outgoing Jacket?
When every Blue Jacket come out with legs churning, bodies crashing into the boards and fighting every puck battle as if a nuke will go off in Columbus if they fail, you know the Jackets have a great chance to win the game. When a line or player deviates from the relentless forechecking, positional system, it sticks out like a sore thumb doused in fluorescent highlighter.
The Jackets have no superstars — as of now — not named Sergei Bobrovsky. Well, when you have a roster comprised of smart, hard-working, high-character, two-way players with varying degrees of offensive upside, you don’t necessarily need one. Columbus is top ten in scoring and have five players poised to score 20 goals this season, with Ryan Johansen on track for a team-leading 30.
The Detroit Red Wings had a team that killed you by never letting you touch the puck. The Chicago Blackhawks kill you with their breakout speed. The Blue Jackets find success when they fiercely battle in every facet of the game, however seemingly minute. They will always frustrate and often completely discombobulate their opponents.
All these factors have combined to pull the Jackets up to the ranks of respectability. If they keep it up, legitimate playoff threat might become part of their identity as well.