Nobody likes excuses.
When you are paying an average of $84 a ticket for a product that is ultimately judged on wins and losses, the last thing you want to hear is more cliché coach-speak about a “young team on the verge.”
The Blue Jackets have seemingly been a “young team on the verge” for all 10 years of their existence. When does all that potential give way to production? Production, of course, is measured in playoff victories and the possibility of an eventual Stanley Cup championship.
It appeared as though the answer had come last season. The Blue Jackets made the postseason for the first time in franchise history, and a single playoff victory would have gone a long way toward erasing the futility of the previous eight seasons.
But one of the NHL’s “Original Six,” Columbus’ archrival Detroit Red Wings, erased those hopes with a four-game sweep of the hometown heroes.
Being unceremoniously swept from the playoffs without even putting up much of a fight left a bad taste in the mouths of Jackets fans; quite the opposite of building hope for the future.
To the informed, however, it still seemed a step in the right direction. In light of this season’s struggles, it now appears that the old adage applies: One step forward, two steps back.
So without relying on tired excuses, what has changed?
“This is a league that you don’t miss steps in. You might miss them early, but you always have to catch up,” Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock said of his team’s development from last year. “That’s what has happened with a lot of our young guys last year.”
What the coach appears to be saying is that his young team overachieved in its run to the playoffs.
Now that this year’s team is starting to show signs of life, Hitchcock’s plan to stick with his younger players appears to be paying off.
After having gone 3-14-7 during a 24-game stretch, Columbus is now 7-5-0 over the last 12.
His “gut decision” to go with a struggling Steve Mason in a recent game against Nashville is an indication that he has a plan and is sticking to it, for good or bad.
The same can be said of his continued faith in other Jackets youngsters like Jakub Voracek and Derick Brassard.
Many voices around the organization have speculated that a stint down in Syracuse, the Blue Jackets’ minor-league affiliate, would prove beneficial to Mason.
“Everybody you talk to, when a young goalie [struggles] like this, it’s finish the season, press the reset button and start over next year,” Hitchcock said of his young net-minder. “Every good goalie has gone through this: [Ed] Belfour, [Tom] Barasso, Curtis Joseph. We can’t afford reset here.”
With the Olympic break looming, and a favorable schedule which finds the Jackets playing eight of 10 games at home, Hitchcock is optimistic that the playoffs are still very much a reality.
“We’ve got to find a way to go 8-2 before the break to stay in the race,” Hitchcock said. “If we go 8-2, who knows how far we can take this thing.”