It used to be that any story that started with the line "The Columbus Blue Jackets could win the Stanley Cup this year" was automatically rendered a work of fiction. Not humanly possible. The Blue Jackets were punching bags on the ice and punch lines off.
In the team's first 12 seasons, after joining the NHL as an expansion franchise in 2000, the Blue Jackets won zero playoff games. The only time they made it in those 12 seasons (2008-09), they were swept in the first round by the Detroit Red Wings. The Blue Jackets are one of only two current NHL franchises that have never won a playoff series, along with the Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets.
This year, their 16th NHL season (not including the lost one in 2004-05), Columbus' chances of making the playoffs, according to USA Today, were somewhere between slim and none. The Blue Jackets were coming off another sub-.500, non-playoff year, one in which they changed coaches, with Todd Richards yielding to John Tortorella. Tortorella replaced Richards early last season, one in which the Blue Jackets set a modern NHL record for most consecutive losses to start a campaign (eight).
This is still the John Tortorella, the guy with so much extra baggage he could put Samsonite out of business. Tortorella came into the season from a fresh round of ridicule after a disastrous United States performance in the World Cup of Hockey in September. The Americans' performance in Toronto would mirror the Blue Jackets' performance in Columbus under Tortorella, the experts said. The Tortorella who, it went, cared more about the art of blocked shots than scoring goals.
So how, as the calendar nears the middle of January, are the Blue Jackets first overall in points in the NHL despite some near competitors having played four more games than them? How is it that this longtime, sad-sack franchise came within one victory of tying the 1992-93 Pittsburgh Penguins' NHL record for most consecutive wins (17) before losing to the Washington Capitals? To hear team president John Davidson explain it, the story is a mixture of about one-part serendipity and three parts elbow grease and due diligence.
"We had some good pieces in place, but we couldn't put them all together the right way. So in that sense, this has not been a total rebuild situation here. I was in St. Louis, where that was a total rebuild. This was a build situation," Davidson said. "We had some really good pieces, but we needed someone to come in and build a real foundation with them, to look at things maybe in a different way."
Despite all Tortorella's recent baggage, from the World Cup flame-out to a one-and-done season tenure in Vancouver, Davidson and his front-office colleagues believed him to be the man for the job and have kept their faith in him.
"Everybody has baggage, and there's no question he's earned his," Davidson says with a laugh. "But a lot of the perceptions about him are wrong. When we were looking for a new coach, [GM Jarmo Kekalainen, assistant GM Bill Zito and I] canvassed a lot of really good players who'd played for him, and one right after the other said he was the best coach they ever played for, that a lot of players would run through a wall for him."
He led them to a respectable 34-33-8 record after taking over last season, but he made it loud and clear to his players as summer commenced: Next season, mere respectability wouldn't do. Many players came to camp in leaner physique, including goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who, according to the Columbus Dispatch's Tom Reed, dropped 17 pounds, down to 182.
"He pushed them to a level they've never been pushed," Davidson said. "And we had a culture change. It's happened; it's real. The locker room, since I've been here, has never been better. The leadership from within, the relationship with coaches—the whole thing. Everybody is on the same page."
Under Tortorella, the Blue Jackets not only own the NHL's best record (28-7-4), but the best goal differential (132-85) and the best power-play percentage (26.7). Their crisp, fast puck movement on the power play makes one reminiscent of a veritable Harlem Globetrotters on ice. Maybe "Sweet Georgia Brown" should play whenever the Jackets go on one.
Another key to the Blue Jackets' success was the offseason luring of assistant coach Brad Shaw away from the St. Louis Blues. As the boss of a mostly babyfaced Columbus defense, Shaw has gotten ovation-worthy performances from kids such as Zach Werenski, Seth Jones, Ryan Murray and Markus Nutivaara—all 23 or younger. With 25 points in his first 39 games as a 19-year-old, Werenski appears to be a fixture in Columbus. For graybeards such as David Savard (26) and Jack Johnson (29), their play has improved considerably.
"There was a real bidding war last summer for the services of Brad Shaw," NHL television analyst and former GM Pierre McGuire said. "And the results speak for themselves. The most improved defenseman in the NHL is David Savard, and Jack Johnson is playing like he was a few years ago and even better. There's a lot of good pieces in place in Columbus, a lot."
But are there enough to solve the grinding, torturous puzzle of a Stanley Cup run this spring, when any one misfortune can send them flying off the table in disarray?
If there remains a potential flaw, McGuire and other experts say, it is up the middle. While the Blue Jackets have a very promising center in 22-year-old Swede Alexander Wennberg (34 points in his first 39 games), veteran Brandon Dubinsky (three goals his first 37 games) is probably more of a third-line guy than his current No. 2 center role.
The Blue Jackets traded young center Ryan Johansen last season to Nashville for Jones, and while the current record would make it seem as if Columbus hardly misses him, McGuire and the NHL Network's Dave Reid seem to think more is needed up the middle to be a true Cup contender. As it stands, sixth-year right winger Cam Atkinson is the Blue Jackets' leading scorer with 39 points in 39 games, followed by left wing and captain Nick Foligno's 35 in 37.
"I think they're 'for real,' but they may need another game-breaker for the playoffs," Reid said. "It's tough to win it all without a superstar. Youngsters on the back end are not always a recipe for playoff success, so maybe acquiring another proven veteran defenseman might be [necessary]."
Said McGuire: "Going against [Pittsburgh's] Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, that's not easy, or against [Philadelphia's] Brayden Schenn and Claude Giroux. They could use one more center probably or one more top-six forward."
There is at least one high-end center [the Colorado Avalanche's Matt Duchene] currently available on the trade block, according to Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman. While the March 1 NHL trade deadline remains a fair bit in the distance, it's not too soon to ask Davidson the question: If the Blue Jackets are still leading the league by then, will it be overly tempting to perhaps give up a young prospect or two or three for immediate help toward a possible Cup run this spring?
"Well, we'll be having our pro [scouting] meetings a bit down the road here, and we'll take a look at everything then," Davidson said. "The key is to find out how healthy you are at that time, what price you're going to pay and where you think you need help, if you do need help. I don't think we're going to be a team that does anything silly, for sure. But there are going to be opportunities, without question. I'm not saying we're an upper-echelon team yet. We have a lot of hard divisional games still to go, a lot more still to prove before we get to that kind of thing."
So, while Columbus may not be a prohibitive Stanley Cup favorite, one thing by now seems for sure: The Blue Jackets are no longer the NHL's laughingstock.
Adrian Dater covers the NHL for Bleacher Report.