COLUMBUS, Ohio – The Columbus Blue Jackets are on the verge of setting two franchise records this season.
A loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday would push the Blue Jackets’ winless streak to 10 games, a new franchise record. It also held Columbus to four wins through the first 20 games of a season, the fewest ever.
Think back to some of the truly terrifying seasons this 23-year-old franchise has produced and realize you’re in for another one.
Blue Jackets coach Pascal Vincent didn’t take it easy in his first year as an NHL bench boss, giving Patriots forward Patrick Laine a healthy scratch in Sunday’s 5-2 loss to Philadelphia. He benched veteran Johnny Gaudre in the third inning in recent games, sent two top prospects to minor league Cleveland (Kent Johnson and David Jiracek) and made an entire season’s worth of bold moves in a month’s time.
Laine and Gaudreau fought hard. The power play is a collection of nerves and incompetence. All over the ice, but especially on defense, the Blue Jackets are second-guessing their decisions in a sport that requires an instinctive response under pressure.
It’s ugly to the tune of 4-11-4. The Jackets are 0-7-2 with a win over Tampa Bay at the National Arena on Nov. 2, which seems like a year ago.
The Blue Jackets’ lone area of weakness is their penalty kill (87.3 percent), which is fourth in the league. Otherwise, the Blue Jackets are 27th in rebounding (2.68 per game), 28th in turnovers (3.63) and 30th on the power play (9.8 percent). It seems they are in a different league. Boney Jenner, the Blue Jackets’ leading scorer, was ranked 137th in the league before Monday’s games.
The Athletic asked Blue Jackets president of hockey operations John Davidson for a few minutes on the players’ day off Monday.
Davidson A few months into his first tenure with the Blue Jackets in 2012, he fired general manager Scott Howson, replacing him with Jarmo Kekalai in mid-February. After nearly 12 years, Kekalain is the third longest-tenured GM in the NHL, and Davidson stands by his side — though both men have faced heat from fans.
He also supports Vincent and his coaching methods, and has a strong sense of the best way — no, the only way — out of such a losing streak. The conversation went like this:
You’re about a quarter of the way into the season, and clearly, no one is happy with what happened. Big changes coming?
Now no rash moves. We’re in a business with people above us (majority owner John P. McConnell). They are as good as it gets. We keep in touch. We keep driving this, keep pushing. There are no white flags. There is no feeling of ‘woe is me’. Alas, it does not work. It’s an emotional game, a tough game. But the improvements we’re seeing with some of our younger players — Alexander Tessier, Kirill Marchenko, Adam Fantilly, those guys — we want them to continue, and we want our best players to start playing like they can play. That’s what we want, and that’s what we expect to see.
The power play seems to be gone. Your core players are not producing. They are making critical mistakes at critical moments in games. Would you describe this team as weak now?
In some ways, yes. As you said, we made critical mistakes and it hurt us. Sunday night (a 5-2 loss at Philadelphia) basically, what’s the score, nine games in 16 days? My feeling was we didn’t have any fuel (Sunday). But that’s how it is. When you look at our power play and what we’ve done on it, you’re looking at our best players…we don’t have too many of our best players playing at the top of their game, and that’s where the problem lies. . We have to make them go. It’s very simple. Your best players should be your best players. If they are not, it is difficult. We had a staff that played really well. Boone Jenner is a great captain and a wonderful horse for us. Our penalty kill shows that we work hard and deny shots. That’s a remarkable improvement. But we need more from our best players.
Is that Gaudreau and Laine or are there others?
When you stop and analyze some of them… someone like Zach Wrensky, he really cares. But he is not at the top of his game. There is something called rust when you realize and remember that he missed an entire season with his shoulder. When you get on the ice and expect your game to be A-level, and it’s not, it’s easy for anyone to lose confidence, no matter who you are. I know Z is a fighter. will come But it was hard.
When you watch Gaudreau and Laine play this season, what do you see?
They are good players. Very good players. We know that. But this year they have not played their best. We’ll see how it goes. We’ll just have to see how it goes. We need them. It’s very simple. If you stick around long enough, you’ll see that many players pass out at some point, even the great ones. You lose your confidence and it can be hard to get it back.
Is this club’s list made the right way? In other words, are Gaudreau and Laine leaders?
That’s a good question. It’s a valid question. Johnny is more of a quiet guy, but I think he has some fire in him. When it happened three games ago, when he sat (in the third period against Arizona), I watched the last few games and he fought. I think it’s getting better. I think he has a lot of pride. He has a different personality than Patrick. Patrick is another … they are both proud men. It’s a matter of finding their games and many of our other players feed into it.
What do you think of Coach Pascal Vincent’s tactics, benching, healthy streaks, etc.?
A coach is a coach. Coach works closely with Jarmo. Every day things are discussed, and Jarmo fills me up. Bold moves made by Pazzi… sometimes you have to make bold moves. If the issues are recurring, they need to change, and you have to find a way to make them change. Sometimes you have to be brave about it. So, yeah, I have no problem with that. A guy like Kent Johnson … there are areas of his game that he needs to improve on, and I think he’s going to do that in Cleveland. He is getting more ice time at the AHL level. He’s getting great coaching from his staff there. It’s coming along. Here’s what you need to do to develop young players. We are obviously not ready to win yet.
Most of the young players – Fantilly, Dmitry Voronkov, Kirill Marchenko – were just as good, maybe better than you expected, right? Here are the players you thought you knew…
Fantilly is ready to work with a smile on his face, isn’t he? This child wants to be the solution. He will be a very good player in this league. He has already been a good player for us. Marchenko has a great spirit and attitude about him, no question. He likes to play hockey. Voronkov has really been a bright spot for us. He certainly can’t interact directly with non-Russian players, but he knows what to do on the ice. Here are some positives if you’re looking for them.
You’ve been through similar situations before here and in your other NHL stops.
The sad part is, we’ve made pretty good efforts. And we’re in every game, or on every game, for sure. Just look at the points. How many one-goal losses are there? But we are not winning. So we have to keep pushing. All of us. same direction. There’s no other way than to be brave about this stuff, get your confidence and get your game on.
And part of getting through it is figuring out how to get out of it, right?
Although it is difficult, we must remain calm and never panic. We have to push hard and push hard, and we need our best players to be our best players. That hasn’t happened yet. Our best players have to be better. It’s very simple. If we take losses and defeats, we are better defensively in many ways. We are also not better defensively in some cases because we gave up some goals in difficult moments. Many of the improvements would have been much easier to figure out if our top players were playing to reach the top of their games.
You had a day off on Monday. A losing streak like this can weigh on you. How do you want your players to spend that day on the field, away from the game?
Everyone has a different personality. Some men are married with two or three children. Go enjoy your children. Enjoy your dog. The other guys are single and just need to go somewhere and get it out of their heads. Some men need a real break. Everyone is different.
(Photo by John Davidson: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)