The Columbus Blue Jackets fell just short of a spot in the 2013 NHL playoffs. How close were they? As close as you can be without actually clinching a spot. The Blue Jackets ended the year with a 24-17-7 record and 55 points, matching the Minnesota Wild's total. Minnesota held the tiebreaker by having a larger number of wins in regulation and overtime, giving them the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
While there's bound to be disappointment in Columbus, fans should celebrate over the miraculous comeback the Blue Jackets had after a disastrous start to the season. More importantly, the team is in a much better spot now than they were a year or two ago, which should have fans optimistic for 2013-14.
Heading into the 2013 season, countless writers, analysts and fans predicted that the Blue Jackets would finish somewhere near the basement of the Western Conference. Be honest - you probably did too. Even the most optimistic of Columbus supporters knew that the team had plenty of issues.
The season started off pretty miserably. The club owned the NHL's worst record as of late February, with just five victories in their first 19 games. It appeared Columbus might be out of playoff contention before the halfway point of the shortened season.
Then something happened. Columbus turned things around and Sergei Bobrovsky suddenly became one of the best goaltenders in the NHL. The Blue Jackets strung 12 games together where they earned at least a point. Meanwhile, Bobrovsky was just getting started.
The team rode a seemingly endless wave of momentum all the way back into playoff contention, ultimately ending the year on a 8-1-0 streak in their final nine games.
While the team being competitive is enough to cause plenty of excitement, Bobrovsky's success really has fans talking. Consider how the goaltender performed in the first two months of the year compared to the final two months of the year.
January: 2-2-1, 2.97 GAA (5 appearances).
February: 1-4-2, 2.86 GAA (7 appearances).
Nothing too impressive here. You can certainly pin some blame on the Columbus defense, but Bobrovsky wasn't winning over too many fans with his fairly uninspired efforts.
March: 9-2-3, 1.49 GAA (14 appearances).
April: 9-3-0, 1.73 GAA (12 appearances).
Now those are some statistics that'll get your attention. Backed by a Bobrovsky that many consider to be a contender for the Vezina, Columbus found their stride and collected plenty of wins down the stretch. The team's sudden jump into the playoff discussion brought fans back and rejuvenated a franchise desperately needing a boost.
The success in Columbus stretches well beyond the players on the ice. In October, the franchise brought in John Davidson as the President of Hockey Operations. Davidson recently resurrected a sputtering St. Louis Blues franchise and was hired to hopefully inject life into a stumbling Columbus franchise. We don't want to place too much credit in one place, but it appears Davidson might have performed his second divine act in a small frame of time.
Sticking with the efforts off the ice, you have to give credit to both Scott Howson (former GM) and Jarmo Kekäläinen (current GM) for their transactions which placed the Blue Jackets in a position to win a playoff spot. Howson brought Bobrovsky into the mix by acquiring him in June, 2012. Though Howson was dismissed in February of 2013, it's impossible to overlook his contributions to the current team. As for Kekäläinen, his work at the 2013 trade deadline was pretty impressive. Most outlets, including PDL, considered Columbus the big winners of this year's deadline after they surprisingly brought in Marian Gaborik from New York. The move signaled the team's intent to win immediately - a welcome sight for weary fans.
Looking ahead, Columbus has plenty of challenges waiting for them. The team's days in the Western Conference are over. Thanks to the NHL's new alignment plan, Columbus and Detroit will head over to the West, leaving the West behind. The road to the playoffs won't be getting any easier as teams in the East have a statistically more difficult path to the playoffs due to the fact more teams call the East home (16) than call the West home (14). The club also has to decide how to handle some expiring contracts, including ones owned by Bobrovsky, goaltender Michael Leighton, defenseman Adrian Aucoin and forwards Vinny Prospal, Artem Anisimov, Blake Comeau, Colton Gillies and Nicholas Drazenovic.
While Columbus didn't secure a playoff spot this year, the team took a major step forward by securing the trust and faith of their fans. The team should be able to build off of their successes in 2013 and use them under heightened expectations next season.