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EXIT DAY: Jackets' disappointment mixed with renewed motivation

Columbus players look back at what might've been, ahead at what could become.

by Brian Hedger @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

This one left a mark.

Less than 24 hours after their season ended Monday in a 6-3 loss to the Washington Capitals in Game 6 of an Eastern Conference First Round series, the Blue Jackets returned to Nationwide Arena on Tuesday to gather their gear and officially begin the offseason.

They had a night to sleep on it, but most showed up with the same feelings they had after the game. There was disappointment, mostly, knowing they led that series 2-0 after a pair of road victories in overtime at Capital One Arena.

"On a team level, it's more frustrating," said center Brandon Dubinsky, who didn't get much ice time in the series and vowed to work on revitalizing his game in the offseason. "We put ourselves in a good position with our start on the road, winning the first two games. Then, obviously, we lost four straight. So, it's more bitter in that sense, that we had them where we wanted them and couldn't get the job done here at home."

EXIT DAY, PART II: MANAGEMENT, COACHES WANT JACKETS TO THINK 'BIGGER'

There was pain that lingered, too, knowing not all of them will return to the Blue Jackets' locker room next season and you only get so many opportunities to achieve something special

"This would have been a real good point to get going and really become the team we envisioned being," captain Nick Foligno said. "It's a driving point for a lot of guys, myself included. I want to see us reach our potential. I've talked about that, but I want to see it now. I want our guys to realize now is the time. You don't get too many opportunities. Finally, I feel like I've come into being the older guy [and] you realize how quickly the years go by and you start to look at how many years have really been for naught."

There was also hope and talk of motivation, all rolled into one.

"When I got here, that's all we cared about, 'Let's make the playoffs,'" Foligno said. "Now it's like, '[enough of] that, let's win a Stanley Cup.' That's where I think we've grown and that's why it hurt so much. When you feel like you have an opportunity to move and reach that goal with a 2-0 lead in the series, and you don't attain it, you reflect on yourself. Could I have done something better? could I have helped this team better? Then you hope everyone's doing that because that's how it's going to make us better."

That's generally how the afternoon went, with 10 players strolling through the media room to assess the season and even take a peek at what's ahead. Four of the Jackets' eight pending unrestricted free agents (counting third goalie Jeff Zatkoff) spoke, including forward Matt Calvert, the longest tenured Blue Jackets player on the roster.

After eight seasons, there's a chance Calvert might head elsewhere in free agency. He'll put that off until later but acknowledged his feelings on the ice after the game Monday were bittersweet.

"When we did the stick raise to the fans, I definitely took a look," he said. "You just never know. Even last year, I did it, and you have the expansion draft. You could be traded at any moment in this league. You're somewhere for eight years, you know? It becomes a bit of a home to you and I know we've enjoyed our time here. So, I definitely took a look around, knowing it could be a possibility that I might never play here again."

WATCH MORE: INTERVIEWS FROM EXIT DAY

NOTES

** Defenseman Zach Werenski declined to get into specifics about the upper-body injury he played with most of the season but did say that it wasn't something that carried over from last season. He said it occurred 12 games into this season, during the Jackets' 4-3 shootout win Oct. 30 against the Boston Bruins at Nationwide Arena.

** Thomas Vanek, another pending unrestricted free agent, said he'd think about returning to play in Columbus if the opportunity is presented. Despite a decline in the playoffs, Vanek meshed into the Blue Jackets' forward lines after he was acquired Feb. 26 before the NHL Trade Deadline.

"I'm a free agent again, and I'm going to keep my options open," he said. "This is certainly a team, an organization, a city and fans I have been impressed with. They are outstanding here. That surprised me a little bit, how good and how loud they are. This city really loves the Blue Jackets. This team, really, is not far away. They are young, but they are good. If a spot would open here, I would definitely think hard about it."

Vanek, 34, had 56 points (24 goals, 32 assists) in 80 games, split between the Vancouver Canucks and Blue Jackets (seven goals, eight assists). He helped form an effective line with Alexander Wennberg and Boone Jenner, which was disrupted in Game 1 of the playoffs.

Wennberg sustained an upper-body injury early in the third period on an illegal hit delivered by Washington's Tom Wilson, which knocked him out of that game plus the next three.

"That hurt us a lot," Vanek said. "After I got here, I was put with 'Wenny' and we sort of took off. It was a great line, I had a good time with those guys. All three of us understood each other pretty well. Losing him, Game 1, definitely hurt my game for sure."

** Mark Letestu is yet another pending unrestricted free agent come the start of free agency on July 1. He'd planned to move his family to the Columbus area prior to being traded back to the Blue Jackets in a deadline deal but would like to remain with the team if there's a spot for him.

If not, it will be similar to when he left the organization in July 2015 as a free agent, signing with the Edmonton Oilers.

"My love for the city and the organization is clear," said Letestu, who centered the fourth line and had four points (one goal, three assists) in 20 games. "We're coming to live here regardless, but that doesn't always match up with team's needs and wants. Hopefully it does this time around, but I've been through this situation in front of you guys three years ago. Same story."

** Ian Cole was the fourth pending UFA to meet with reporters Monday. The veteran defenseman, who arrived in a deadline deal Feb. 26, quickly assimilated into the Blue Jackets' locker room and lineup.

He formed a solid defensive pairing with the similarly-bearded David Savard and was credited with being a calming influence on the Jackets' defensive corps - coming off back-to-back Stanley Cup seasons with the rival Pittsburgh Penguins.

Cole only got two months to experience Columbus and mix into the Blue Jackets culture, but he said it was long enough to form some opinions.

"I can't say enough how great these guys were, how accepting they were, how accommodating they were," Cole said. "I have nothing but positive things to say about my experience here in Columbus, from the town to the staff to the players it was certainly an A-plus organization in my mind. It was awesome."

Cole said the biggest priority he'll be looking for in a team is the ability to continue chasing the Stanley Cup.

"The biggest thing is you want to be on a team that has the ability to succeed, in both the regular season and the playoffs," Cole said. "I can't imagine a professional hockey player [who'd] purposely want to go to a bad team just so they don't have any pressure. In my mind, my favorite time of year is the playoffs and those super competitive, super important games, are the most fun to play in. So, in my mind, being on another great team with a chance to win a Stanley Cup is really what [I] or any player would look for."

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