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Blue Jackets look to keep establishing winning culture

GM Jarmo Kekalainen says he wants players who fit in locker room, community

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

When John Tortorella arrived in Columbus, he made no bones about one fact -- the Blue Jackets needed to earn the respect of the National Hockey League.  

The only way to do so was to win and do it consistently. 

If that process isn't complete, it's sure as heck a lot closer to being there. 

Not only have the Blue Jackets made the postseason for three consecutive seasons under Tortorella, it made an emphatic statement to the hockey world this playoffs when it swept Tampa Bay out of the first round of the playoffs to earn the first Stanley Cup Playoffs win in franchise history. 

From there, Columbus took Boston to six games in the second round, a frustrating finish for a team that thought it could win it all.  

But there's no doubt this playoff season felt different for the Blue Jackets. Not only did the emphatic first-round victory provide a showcase for what the organization has built on the ice, the rabid crowds in Nationwide Arena and the fever that hit Columbus showcased what many had suspected -- central Ohio has become a hockey-mad market that needed just a spark to become an inferno.  

"We're trying to put a stamp on what this place is, what this organization is, how we run our business here," Tortorella said. "I think our community put a stamp on it, not just for us but really for the hockey world. I've received so many different texts from a lot of different people, people in other organizations, about what our building looked like in this type of situation." 

So yes, it's clear the hockey world took notice. What was once seen as one of the outposts of the league has become one of its most consistent franchises when it comes to on-ice success, with the Blue Jackets turning a largely homegrown core into a team to be reckoned with. Columbus is just one of seven teams to make the playoffs each of the past three seasons, and the team's 142 regular-season wins in the past three seasons are fourth among all NHL teams. 

Much of that success has been built by a core of players who have been part of the organization for at least the past seven seasons. Both David Savard and Cam Atkinson arrived as rookies in 2011-12, and they were joined a year later by trade acquisitions Nick Foligno, Brandon Dubinsky and Sergei Bobrovsky. 

That 2012-13 season signaled a new era for the Blue Jackets with the offseason trade of Rick Nash to the New York Rangers for a package that included Dubinsky. After years of trying to build around the franchise icon, the Blue Jackets hit the reset button. 

Buoyed by the standout play of Bobrovsky, the team missed out on the playoffs via a tiebreaker that season, then made it a year later. After two years out of the playoffs, the team won a franchise-record 50 games in Tortorella's first full season and has made it to the postseason three years in a row. 

Atkinson said the difference from his arrival, the third straight losing season for the team, to now is stark. 

"I've gone through a lot of coaches, management, a lot of different linemates, players, and there's no doubt in my mind that especially within the last five, six or whatever years there's been a huge culture change for the better," he said. "Ultimately, like I said, we want guys that want to be a Blue Jacket." 

That's a message he echoed that came from the lips of general manager Jarmo Kekalainen after the conclusion of the series vs. Boston. The city has rarely been at the top of the list for big-ticket free agents, and the Blue Jackets have a number of their own unrestricted free agents who could head elsewhere this summer. 

The hope is the recent run of success can showcase what the Blue Jackets -- on the ice and off -- can bring to the table. 

"We want guys who are proud to be Blue Jackets, guys who want to live in Columbus, want to raise their families in Columbus, are proud to be Blue Jackets, are proud to be living in Columbus, Ohio," Kekalainen said Wednesday. 

"This team is the Columbus Blue Jackets. We are located in Columbus, Ohio. I happen to love it and I hope the guys that are in that room do too. And if they don't and they have a choice to go somewhere else, good luck, no hard feelings. Go play somewhere else then." 

One person who noticed the culture around the room immediately upon his arrival is Matt Duchene. The midseason trade acquisition from Ottawa has taken every opportunity to speak positively of Columbus since the trade. 

"It's an unbelievable group of guys," Duchene said. "The culture here is great. It's a winning culture top to bottom. There's not one aspect that you go, 'OK, this needs to change, this needs to be better.' I was blown away by it. I had heard from other guys I that I played with and knew around the league how great of a group they have here so that definitely didn't (surprise me).  

"As far as the city and the fans, just wow, I did not expect that. Amazing city. Great fan base. Simple as that." 

The key now is to keep the momentum going. Players like Foligno and Atkinson have seen a culture be built, but none will be satisfied until it ends with the ultimate prize. 

"I don't mean this disrespectfully, but there was a time this team was not looked at very highly," Foligno said. "I think it's a credit to management for putting a foundation down and then the players for following it and coming in here trying to build something here. That's what I'm most proud of to this point. It's year seven now, we've been in the playoffs three straight years.

"We're building something here and the job is not done." 

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