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New leadership group passed first test for Blue Jackets

Jenner, Werenski, Bjorkstrand and Nyquist delivered, but all still hope to improve in their roles

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider /

Oliver Bjorkstrand set career highs with 28 goals and 57 points this season, but when he met with Blue Jackets head coach Brad Larsen at the end of the season, another number is what stood out.  

One of the more responsible two-way players on the Blue Jackets team finished minus-33, and Bjorkstrand's message to Larsen was that turning that number around means a lot more to him than his personal stats. 

It's that kind of selfless attitude from the team's new leadership core that impressed Larsen throughout the season. All five players who wore a letter this season -- captain Boone Jenner and alternates Bjorkstrand, Gus Nyquist and Zach Werenski as well as Vladislav Gavrikov, who wore an "A" when Werenski missed time -- were wearing that letter for the first time in their CBJ careers. 

It's a learning process for everyone involved after the trades of former captain Nick Foligno as well as alternates Seth Jones and Cam Atkinson, but year one seemed to go well. 

"I've learned a lot from it," Bjorkstrand said. "I think I can improve in some areas. I think I try to lead on the ice; that's what I want to do where I definitely think I have better and more to add there. I think where I can take a step is maybe be a little more vocal. It's something I got to build on and just get better at." 

One thing that needs to be kept in mind is that for a new leadership group, it was not the easiest of situations. Not only was everyone in a new position -- Jenner moved up from a longtime alternate captain to wearing the "C" for the first time -- but the Blue Jackets also came into the season with a new head coach and were expected to be one of the worst teams in the NHL. 

Now that Columbus won 37 games, exceeded most expectations and seems to be a team on the rise to both those within the organization and its fan base, it's easy to forget there were times during the campaign when the road was much rockier. The Blue Jackets went 6-15-1 from late November to late January, and the team gave up at least six goals in six of those losses. 

There was also the low point of a 9-2 loss in mid-January at Florida that sent the team back to basics, with Larsen emphasizing battle drills in practice and putting the team through a skating-heavy practice that was meant to serve as a wakeup call.  

It's moments like those from which Larsen draw confidence in his leadership group because the Blue Jackets responded the right way each time. 

"Our leaders, they helped push that room through a lot," Larsen said. "There were some real tipping points in there where it could have gone bad or the losing could have got out of control or where the practice habits could have gotten real lax and the competitiveness could have gone out the window. They didn't let it go, and for that, I'm so impressed. 

"But I'm also excited about now they have a year under their belt. Now they know kind of the grind a bit, what their role looks like in the room and where I think they can get to and grow with this group. It's exciting. It is." 

And there's two things that might go hand in hand that should leave Blue Jackets fans excited for the coming seasons. First, it's that just about every player talked at the end of the season about the good vibes that were in the Columbus locker room this year, with Werenski calling it "one of the best (rooms) we've had since I've been here," and that was something that seemed apparent as the team went through the season. 

Secondly, it's that the Jackets were one of the most resilient squads in the NHL -- and team history -- despite its youth. Columbus set a franchise record for comeback wins and tied a team mark for victories when trailing after two, showing a team that seemed to stick together.  

There's a lot that goes into it, but leadership would seem to be a big part of each of those things. 

"A lot of your on-ice stuff and sticking with each other comes from that, the camaraderie in the room and how much guys care about each other," Jenner said. "We definitely have that here. We're lucky to be with this group. We care about each other. Guys want to play for each other. Coming into this season you didn't know, there were a lot of new faces. But it didn't take long.  

"Everyone started to jell. Everyone bought in. We tried to build off that. It's a very exciting time for our group. Like Z said, we're lucky to have a group that cares about each other. We just want to put the work in and keep growing and doing what we have to do to push each other internally to be a better team." 

While there were some struggles down the stretch for the Blue Jackets after the trade deadline and as injuries added up, one leader took pride in the fact Columbus beat Edmonton and Tampa Bay -- two teams that have advanced to the final eight in the Stanley Cup Playoffs -- in the final week. 

"It's all learning experiences and its growth in our group," Werenski said. "I'm just happy with how everyone battled right till the end. It's easy to give when you're not playing for anything. Our group came every night, every day to practice. We were dialed in; we were working hard. It speaks a lot about our culture in our locker room." 

As Larsen said, the Blue Jackets leadership group should keep getting better in their roles, and it's a good sign that so many players have stepped up. Such names as Gavrikov, Jakub Voracek and Sean Kuraly also did their part, while Nyquist came into his own in that role in just his third season with the team. 

"I think as a group our leadership group starting with Boone, I think that was an obvious choice before the season to name him captain," Nyquist said. "I think he's done a tremendous job leading the way here -- what a season he had up until his injury. But it's been a new experience for all of us, and it's been a good one. I think we all lead in different ways in there, and it's not just us. There's other guys that are leaders in there, but it's been a great experience and something that we all enjoy." 

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