The Columbus Blue Jackets have only played two games this year, but it’s already enough to know where we’re headed.
If changes are not made, we are in for a long season.
How can a team be written off after playing only two games, you ask? In the NHL, two games are just about equal to a speck of dust in the Sahara desert; there are still eighty games to go. But for a fan who has been around almost as long as the team has (I got into hockey during the 2002-03 season and have followed them ever since), I know the red flags when I see them.
And they are already flying in full force.
For starters: The Jackets do not play with intensity or aggression. Both of their games so far this season (against the Nashville Predators and Minnesota Wild) have been nearly hitless affairs, despite the fact the Predators are supposedly hated rivals.
Since it was the team’s home opener, that would have been the perfect time to amp up the physical play; to show the hometown crowd that this year, they would be turning over a new leaf.
Instead, they backed down and let the Preds suck the life out of the once raucous crowd by falling down 3-1 in the second period, a deficit they would never recover from, ultimately losing 3-2.
Against the Wild (on the flip-side, a home opener for Minnesota), the lack of aggression was also evident, and no one play was more telling than when Columbus left winger Matt Calvert was intentionally sticked in the face by Pierre-Marc Bouchard, ripping a gash in his face and sending him to his knees.
A real team would have been quick to defend their comrade, by sending a message to Bouchard that this kind of incident would not be tolerated. The only Blue Jacket willing to do that (James Wisniewski) is currently serving an eight-game regular season suspension for coming to a teammate’s aide in a preseason game (also ironically against this Wild team).
Not only was justice not served immediately after the injury, but Bouchard was never targeted the rest of the game. This is the sign of a team that is complacent; that has no fight, no hunger, no will to win and perhaps most alarming of all, no sense of camaraderie.
Sadly, this is not the first time a Blue Jacket has gotten manhandled with no resistance from the club. In fact, scenes like this have actually become commonplace over the last couple years. The goaltender is run over with no retaliation; even captain Rick Nash has gotten into it with opposing players, only to be left to battle on his own.
On any other hockey club, both scenarios would be a formula for flying sticks and gloves and a full on-ice scrum. The fact that it’s anything less for the Jackets is truly disgraceful.
Now, a lack of physical play is certainly not the only recurring problem the team faces: the power play is atrocious, the penalty kill is largely inconsistent and the goaltending is still embarrassing.
For a team that struggles, both on the ice and to put fans in the seats, the lack of physical play means that on most nights, all fans are left with is a consistently poor goaltending effort and a loss. Who in their right minds would shell out money to see that?
I will not point the finger at any specific person for this problem. After all, while a coach can preach intensity and drive, he cannot instill that emotion in any player.
And as much as a player can listen to those same lectures, it does not mean he can recover a hunger and will to win that has long since died off. Maybe his life in the NHL is nothing more than a job to him now.
But there is no denying that this is a problem. To this Blue Jackets club and the clubs of yesteryear, losing seems to be taken as an accepted fact, rather than an avoidable uncertainty. Years of this thinking seem to have spread throughout the locker room like a virus, with the only antidote carried from within.
This is the start of a new season, a new year. It is a time when clubs can turn around old identities and create new ones. The slate is clean and every team is still within the grasp of the playoffs.
If a team cannot come together and act accordingly under these circumstances, sticking up for teammates and, perhaps most importantly, sticking up for themselves, then how in the world can fans expect them to play like a team?