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COLUMBUS, Ohio – The Blue Jackets brass thought they had assembled a playoff-caliber team last season. They continued to believe it even after Columbus started 0-8 and finished in the Metropolitan Division basement.
Team President John Davidson was as shocked as anyone by the result, but he urged everyone to be patient. He and general manager Jarmo Kekalainen stuck to their blueprint for a contending team built through years of promising draft picks and strategic trades for up-and-comers and veteran grinders, staying well below the salary cap.
The patience has paid off: Picked by most analysts to finish near the bottom again, the Blue Jackets shattered franchise records for wins and points, and will be in the Stanley Cup playoffs that begin next week.
They lack a superstar goal-scorer like Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby or Chicago's Patrick Kane but have found the right combination of veterans, dynamic rookies, reliable role-players and an elite goaltender in Sergei Bobrovsky, who is a Vezina Trophy candidate again after overcoming a series of injuries.
"You know sometimes you take a step backward? That was like taking five steps backward, and it was very painful for the whole organization," said Davidson, a former player and broadcaster who had taken on a rebuilding project in St. Louis before coming to Columbus in 2012.
"So you have to not get caught up in making goofy deals that really are short-term," he said. "You really have to do things that are still within the parameters of your game plan and let everybody else voice (their) opinions."
There were apologies to the long-suffering fans last offseason, but no panic. No blockbuster trades, no headline-grabbing, free-agent signings. The core of the team that finished 34-40-8 was left intact, complemented with a group of hot rookies that led the team's AHL affiliate in Cleveland to a Calder Cup championship. John Tortorella, the irascible coach hired after last season's flailing start, was given another season to imprint his driven, no-nonsense culture.
"On paper, we all thought we were going to do something last year," said 27-year-old winger Matt Calvert, the team's longest-tenured player at seven seasons. "This year, within the first month and a half of the season, that's when we really started seeing what we could do. We started winning games, we started feeling good about ourselves. You've seen guys step into roles they've never been in before and excelling."
A franchise-record 16-game winning streak from Nov. 29 to Jan. 5 grabbed attention and energized fans in Columbus. Average attendance for all home dates this year is tracking back up after a steady decline beginning in the mid-2000s. The 15,800 average is the best since the 2006-07 season.
The core of the current Blue Jackets began to take shape around the time the organization's first superstar was traded away.
Rick Nash, the captain and face of the expansion team throughout the 2000s, helped win over college football-obsessed fans in central Ohio to big-time hockey. But he was tired of losing and wanted a change. He was traded to the New York Rangers in July 2012 in a five-player deal that brought stalwart center Brandon Dubinsky to Columbus. The Blue Jackets also acquired Bobrovsky from Philadelphia for draft choices, and Nick Foligno — now a top-line winger and the Blue Jackets captain — came over in a deal with Ottawa.
The experienced players, along with draft picks Cam Atkinson, Calvert and David Savard, took the Blue Jackets to the playoffs as a wildcard in 2014. They won the first playoff games in franchise history but lost the opening series to Pittsburgh, also their first-round opponent next week.
The summer of 2015 brought 22-year-old Brandon Saad, a key player in Chicago's Stanley Cup run the previous season, to Columbus in a surprising trade. Calvert called it a turning point.
"He had playoff experience," Calvert said. "He was a young guy who added some skill to our lineup. I think that was a big thing we needed."
Another key piece was added in January 2016 when the Blue Jackets shipped fan favorite Ryan Johansen to Nashville in exchange for defenseman Seth Jones.
The pairing of the 22-year-old Jones with 19-year-old rookie Zach Werenski, the eighth overall pick in the 2015 draft, has given Columbus one of the league's best defensive tandems. Top contributors Boone Jenner, Lukas Sedlak, Josh Anderson, Alexander Wennberg and Markus Nutivaara were draft picks developed in the minors.
One of the last puzzle pieces was Sam Gagner, who signed a one-year free agent contract last summer for a bargain-basement $650,000 and then had one of best seasons of his 10-year NHL career.
"It's not like other sports where you draft and players immediately play for you," Davidson said. "It's a terrible word in a lot of ways, but patience has to be the strength of the organization when you're building."
Follow Mitch Stacy at http://twitter.com/mitchstacy