"Columbus has been good for me. I think this is good for Columbus."
Those were the words of late Columbus Blue Jackets owner John McConnell when he founded the expansion team in 2000. Popular among players and fans of the team he saw as a gift to the city, McConnell died in 2008 no doubt expecting his team was on its way after going through the growing pains of expansion.
It hasn't worked out that way.
They did make their first (and only) playoff appearance under Ken Hitchcock in 2008-09, but instead of being a launching point, that four-games-and-out appearance has taken on a very Atlanta Thrashers-like flavor.
Hitchcock was fired in the middle of the following season, and in a cruel twist his next job was leading the division rival St. Louis Blues to the top of the league table this year. The Blue Jackets fired Hitchcock's full-time replacement, Scott Arniel, half-way through this season. After being the tough Central Division's fourth playoff entrant in 2009, Columbus will suffer its third consecutive fifth-place finish in the Central.
And it is by far the worst.
The Blue Jackets are currently on pace for 59 points, which would be the fourth-lowest total since the NHL lockout and the lowest in the last five years. (The 2006-07 Philadelphia Flyers finished with 56; the 2005-06 Pittsburgh Penguins finished with 58 and that same season's St. Louis Blues finished with 57.)
How did things get to this point? In one sense, former general manager Doug McLean laid the groundwork with years of unsuccessful building, and Scott Howson continued the flailing by failing to reverse McLean's mistakes. His biggest blunder contributing to this year's failure was deciding to enter the season counting on goaltender Steve Mason despite considerable evidence that was a bad idea.
But the Central Division has only gotten stronger, keeping the Blue Jackets in a difficult division -- and no team finishes in last place overall without also having its share of awful luck.
If You're Not Good, Try To Be Lucky. But Be At Least One Of The Two...
For the Blue Jackets, that means even Howson's best-intended summer moves have backfired. A review of some of the mitigating circumstances:
James Wisniewski was a pricey, overpaid summer free agent acquisition, but he still could have helped the team. Unfortunately, one of Wisniewski's weaknesses is his discipline, and he earned a preseason suspension that took him out of the Blue Jackets' first eight games. Later in the season, Wisniewski broke his ankle and missed 17 more games.
Less heralded acquisition Radek Martinek was also supposed to improve defensive depth, but he suffered a concussion seven games into the season and hasn't played since. Martinek is notoriously injury-prone, but one thing he didn't have in his history was a serious concussion history. Until he became a Blue Jacket. (Note: It's been pointed out Martinek did suffer a concussion at the World Championship last summer; so there was some warning.)
Offseason trade acquisition Jeff Carter was supposed to provide a much-needed offensive cog and help to franchise star RIck Nash. Instead, he broke his foot in the season's opening weeks, missing 10 games -- then dislocated his shoulder and missed 10 more in January. Carter scored 15 goals and 25 points in 39 games as a Blue Jacket, but his injuries kept him from making a bigger impact before it was too late. He became a trade deadline casualty.
For the Blue Jackets' saga with Carter, it gets worse -- in two ways.
First, the first-round draft pick they sent to Philadelphia to acquire Carter was used on Sean Couturier, who already has 11 goals as a rookie in a limited role.
Meanwhile, the main chip Howson acquired for Carter was offensive defenseman Jack Johnson from the Los Angeles Kings. Johnson has gaudy offensive numbers from the blueline -- much like Wisniewski, who is signed for six years and $33 million. The problem is Johnson is very suspect at playing defense, and he's minus-92 on his career despite playing several different roles of decreasing defensive responsibility in Los Angeles.
As if that weren't enough, the franchise's only big star has requested a trade, and the way that information got out around the trade deadline has created a soap opera of bad feelings and criticism around the club. For Columbus fans, the offseason to-do list now includes dealing with a trade of Rick Nash that has already been in the headlines for two months and now will linger into summer.
As Blue Jackets blog The Cannon described it:
We knew the next 20 games wouldn't be pretty. I'm not sure anyone imagined just how ugly they might become.
The way things have gone for Blue Jackets fans, you half expect the NHL Draft Lottery in April will make them the first 30th-overall team since 2007 to not keep the 1st overall pick. It's been that kind of year.