Are the Jackets Really Contenders?

Photo credit: USA Today

It usually comes at this point in the season where the Blue Jackets begin to heat up and make an unthinkable run for the playoffs, and then fall just short. Not this year, though.

No, the Blue Jackets are on a roll already in a playoff position, but the question is: are they really who we think they are? Currently holding a nine-game winning streak, which ties their franchise record from a couple of seasons ago, some believe that the Blue Jackets are playoff contenders. Others are still hesitant to believe that the Blue Jackets are the real deal just yet. However, Columbus acquisition, Sam Gagner will attempt to help prove the doubters wrong over the course of the final four months of the regular season. Gagner, who signed a one-year deal with the Jackets over the summer, is experiencing an amazing turnaround story of his own. While he had only 16 points in 53 games with the Philadelphia Flyers last season, Gagner has almost that amount in goals alone so far this season, and has only played about half as many games.

The leadership has also seen a big step up, as Nick Foligno has improved significantly from last year to this one. In his first year as the team’s captain, he failed to even reach the 40-point mark, but this year has put his name towards the top of the team leaders in points with 23. At the end of last season, Foligno mentioned to the fans on Fan Appreciation Night that the team was “very disappointed” of how they played overall, but left them with a promise that the Jackets would “make if fun for [the fans]” if they stuck with them. Not only have they made Columbus hockey entertaining for the fanbase, but they have more than exceeded expectations from last season to this season, at least so far.

Another reason behind their climb in the standings would be the lack of injuries the team has had to deal with, specifically for goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. In the past couple of years, the Jackets roster was infected by the injury bug. And although it allowed players like Joonas Korpisalo to make a name for himself in the spotlight, the Jackets would be much better off not having to rely on back-ups to overcome an already large setback. This has been apparent all season for Bobrovsky, who is having a tremendous season with 19 wins (leads the NHL), a save percentage above .930, and a goals against average under two. All of which are capable of producing a winning team, simply because the defense doesn’t have to worry about every shot on the net that is against them. Bobrovsky isn’t giving himself too much credit for how the Jackets have been performing lately, stating in an interview with FOX Sports Ohio, “We play for each other.”

It seems though, that the most important reason for the Blue Jackets’ improvement is thanks to head coach John Tortorella, who earned his 500th win on Sunday night after the Jackets defeated the Vancouver Canucks in overtime. Tortorella commented on his achievement Sunday in an interview after the game, “I don’t think it’s really an individual thing, wins and losses. I think it’s a team thing.”

Photo credit: USA Today

Instead, as John Tortorella mentioned shortly after, a team is brought together more if a coach shows they he cares about them, and he has surely showed that through the first quarter of the season. The ability to communicate with his players on a personal level, is an ingredient for building a winning club. When he came to Columbus early last season, with the Jackets in an 0-7-0 hole to begin the year, Tortorella didn’t have any knowledge of the players, especially their life outside of the game. As time has gone on, he has had a chance to learn where his players are coming from, their strengths and weaknesses, and yes, their names. In an interview prior to his coaching debut with Columbus, he admitted that he “didn’t know who [the players and staff] are” because of him having to focus on other things in such a short period of time. Part of the idea of creating good chemistry originates from a coach that the players can trust, and over the next several months, Tortorella had the opportunity to learn about the team. Not only does he have the ability to relate with players now, but he also has the experience that is required to build a solid team through his knowledge of how the game works. Already with a Stanley Cup title under his belt as a head coach with Tampa Bay in 2004, he can now add “the only American coach to reach the 500-win mark in the NHL” to his list of achievements.

In just a season, the Jackets have went from fourth-to-last to fourth place in the league, although there is still plenty of hockey to be played. But for a team that had just 24 points at this point last season (20 less than they do now), there sure is a lot of light at the end of the tunnel for this young Columbus team.