In this weirdest of NHL seasons, the Blue Jackets are in the weirdest of situations regarding the franchise's on-ice growth going into their Stanley Cup qualifying series against Toronto.
It's the fourth straight season Columbus has qualified for the postseason, putting it in rarefied air as one of just six teams in the league that can make that boast.
The Blue Jackets have progressed upward in each of the previous three postseasons, finally winning a Stanley Cup Playoffs round for the first time last year with their historic sweep of Tampa Bay.
It's a team building the right way, using shrewd drafting and homegrown talent with an eye on the eventual goal of a championship.
Yet last summer's free-agent defections left the team in a bit of a rebuild mode this year. As veterans left, such youngsters as 20-year-olds Alexandre Texier and Emil Bemstrom filled in as consistent pieces of the lineup, and they are set to be joined this postseason by rookie Liam Foudy, one reason the Jackets' playoff roster remains the fourth youngest in the NHL.
The sweep of Tampa and ensuing six-game series with Boston showed the Blue Jackets had a good enough team to compete for the Cup a year ago. The youth of the roster, with 10 players expected to play Sunday in Game 1 who are age 25 or younger, shows the future looks very bright.
But it's a 2020 season in which no one knew really what to expect from the Blue Jackets, who surprised experts and overcame injuries to battle their way back into the postseason. As that postseason begins in the shadow of a global pandemic and without meaningful games having been played for four months, the Blue Jackets hope to continue down their road of building a championship team right now.
"I think last year, just getting a taste of winning, I think guys want more now and we expect more out of ourselves than just one series win," defenseman Zach Werenski said. "Although we won our first series, it felt like a disappointment with the team we had and the group we had. We felt like we could have gone further.
"In terms of this year's playoffs, I really don't know what it's going to be like. It's gonna be different. Obliviously a lot different without our fans or anyone in the building, but it's playoff hockey. Guys are really excited. Come Sunday when we play Toronto guys are going to be hungry out there and it's going to be a lot of fun."
A standard set
When John Tortorella walked into the dressing room at Nationwide Arena for the first time, the Blue Jackets felt a long way from winning anything.
It was October 2015, and Columbus was off to an 0-7 start that cost head coach Todd Richards his job. The year before was an injury-plagued season that left Columbus on the outside looking in when it came to the playoff race the entire season, and Tortorella inherited a team that seemed to be going the wrong direction from 2014's playoff appearance that ignited the capital city.
That first season was a wash from the second Tortorella walked through the doors, with Columbus posting a 34-40-8 record. Since then, the franchise has taken a step forward every season.
In 2016-17, Columbus won a franchise-record 50 games but lost a 4-1 first-round series to a Pittsburgh team that would go on to win the Stanley Cup. A year later, the Blue Jackets took a 2-0 lead on Washington in the first round, only to watch the Caps and storm back to win the series in six games on the way to their own Cup.
Then came last season, a historic moment in franchise history. Facing a Lightning team that tied the NHL record with 62 wins in the regular season, Columbus swept its way to victory in an upset that shocked the entire NHL and spread playoff fever in the city. A six-game, toe-to-toe series with Boston followed, with the Bruins earning a late win in Game 5 before finishing things off in Nationwide Arena.
If anyone doubts a standard has been set in that time, just listen to the younger Blue Jackets players the team has built around.
"Any year, you say playoffs, I say Stanley Cup," third-year center Pierre-Luc Dubois said. "If you're not really striving to win the Cup then you're kind of wasting a year, I find. You're not going to win it every year because there can only be one, but at the end of the day I don't think anybody is doing this job just to develop or just make the playoffs or just make it to the second round. At this point, if your eyes aren't set on the Stanley Cup, you're already behind."
That's a strong belief considering many of the team's emerging players -- from Dubois and Werenski to defenseman Seth Jones and forward Oliver Bjorkstrand -- are still 25 years old or younger.
And with another influx of youth this season in such players as Texier, Bemstrom and Foudy, those players are entering an environment where being in the race isn't just exciting, it's expected.
"I think with the core group we have in here, we feel we should be a playoff team every single year," Werenski said. "We got out of the first round last year, but it's a totally different team we have this year. We lost a lot of guys and we're still in the position we are right now. I know with 12 games left we were fighting for a playoff spot, and with all the injuries we had and guys coming up and guys making their debuts and whatnot, I think our core group was there through it all.
"I think that's where we should be and where we feel we should be is a playoff team every single season. That's the right attitude to have, but at the end of the day we've only got out of the first round once and technically we're in the play-in round this summer so we have some more work to do against Toronto in our eyes to make the playoffs."
The path to learning how to win can be a long one. Consider this -- Michael Jordan now is considered perhaps the greatest winner in American sport, yet the Bulls didn't capture a championship until his seventh trip to the playoffs.
Especially when a team is built largely from within, it's a road that usually requires experience to handle the ups and downs of the journey.
"I think they understand how they have to play to be competitive in a series in the playoffs," Tortorella said. "Although it's our first series (win), I look at both series (last year), I thought we played very well in both series last year. Look at the first series -- there were a lot of momentum swings in that series. Although we win four straight games, I think they went through a learning experience in how we have to play and when we're not playing the way we should, how you get back to it.
"I thought that was very important in that first series. An organization that hasn't won in the playoffs a whole bunch, it's always good to win a series and see how it feels. They should feel good about that, but as I said last year when we won that series, we still have three series to go. There's a number of things we're going to have to live through to really understand playoff hockey."
That seems to be the consensus in talking to Blue Jackets players and coaches over the past few weeks. Built up through wins and losses in the postseason over the past few years, the team culture has come to expect excellence. Having come a long way in the past four seasons, there's also a long way to go -- just one playoff series win is not where the team wants to stop.
Columbus enters this year's series with Toronto with a quiet confidence that it's a team that can make noise, but to many around the league, the Blue Jackets will be an underdog. While many computer models have the series vs. the Maple Leafs as a toss-up or Toronto as slight favorites, Columbus is a marked underdog according to the oddsmakers. And whether it's because of the glitz of the NHL's most notable market or the headlining players on the other side, the spotlight won't be on Columbus entering the series.
In this weirdest of playoff years, that might just be the way the Blue Jackets want it.
"You know what? I don't mind that, either," Foligno said when asked if he feels the team will be seen as the underdog against Toronto. "I think you have to win in order to be seen (as the favorite). With all due respect to Toronto, they're probably a team that feels the same way. They get talked about more because they're in a bigger market, but we haven't really accomplished anything. We've won one series in our organization. So for me, you win a Stanley Cup, then you can start getting talked about and the respect factor.
"I think our team is moving in that direction from when I got here to now, but I'll be way more satisfied when we have a Stanley Cup."