The Blue Jackets: Best They’ve Ever Been and Having Fun
by Grant Burkhardt
The first time I saw the Blue Jackets in person this year was an obnoxious night. The Jackets scored 10 goals against the then-unbeaten Montreal Canadiens. Goal after goal after goal. Endless goals. We want 10! chanted the crowd, in a surreal moment. I had taken my sister to the game – her first ever at Nationwide Arena – and by the final horn, something unexpected happened: We had created and practiced a choreographed dance to the CBJ goal song. We’d had 10 chances to perfect it and by the end I think we had something.
There’s been plenty of reason for dancing in the Arena District this fall, because the Blue Jackets are off to the best start in the franchise’s 16-year history. At 14-5-4 entering Monday, Columbus is third in the Metropolitan Division (behind the Rangers and Penguins) and has the NHL’s second-best goal differential. Even if you erase that insane Canadiens game – truly one of the most astounding, nonsensical, hilarious sporting events I’ve ever attended – the Jackets would have the fourth-best differential. This is a team on the rise.
So, what’s different? Last year, CBJ famously started the season 0-7 before firing coach Todd Richards and hiring John Tortorella. The change didn’t click right away: The team finished last in the division, fourth-worst in the NHL. It was a fairly perplexing regression for a franchise that had seemed to finally be finding its way. Three seasons ago, of course, the Jackets made a trip to the playoffs and near-missed against a beatable Pittsburgh. Two campaigns ago, CBJ slogged through an injury-derailed, fifth-place season. And then last year: a wholly forgettable, panic-inducing season. After a weird one like that, the head-scratching has a tendency to morph into genuine curiosity about whether it will ever really come together for the league’s Columbus experiment.
But something’s clicking at Nationwide Arena this year. Not only are the Jackets playing their best hockey ever, but they’re mighty, mighty fun.
In a year of heralded rookies around the league (Toronto’s Austin Mathews comes to mind), Columbus’s Zach Werenski won November’s NHL “Rookie of the Month” award. The power play is the league’s best entering play Monday after being 21st last season. To the eye, they play fast.
But the biggest difference is a reemergence of the man between the red piping: Sergei Bobrovsky, a year after playing only 37 games, is eighth in goals-against average and seems to have regained his taste for eating rubber. Last week against the Lightning, with CBJ already up 5-0, Bobrovsky looked so at ease in the net that when Tampa Bay did put one behind him, the 28-year-old Russian laid face-down on the ice for a few seconds longer than normal, lamenting the loss of his shutout. The home fans gave him a standing ovation.
It was a nice, albeit fairly quiet, moment. Despite the strong start, Columbus is 27th in the league in attendance. That’s, of course, a predictable outcome for a franchise that’s only now entering its adolescent years. It takes perennial success – and a dash of good local marketing, among other things – to build a base of fans who want to show up not only on Fridays but on Tuesdays, and the franchise hasn’t done that. Not nearly. But maybe this is the group of players and coaches – a nice blend of young and old, and a fast, talented, strong-at-the-back group – that’s finally ready for the challenges that lay ahead. Either way, it’s a nice start.