With just one day until the Blue Jackets open the season Friday at Nationwide Arena vs. Toronto, BlueJackets.com is counting down to the days until start of the campaign. Today we look at the one core Columbus has built its team around.
Seth Jones. Cam Atkinson. Nick Foligno. Zach Werenski. Pierre-Luc Dubois.
Great players, all of them.
And yet head coach John Tortorella wants more out of each of them this upcoming season.
"I think every player, starting with our captain, needs to ask themselves what I need to bring more for us to keep on growing as a hockey club," Tortorella said.
For all the Blue Jackets have accomplished over the past three seasons -- the fourth most wins in the NHL in that span, just one of three teams with at least 45 wins each season, and the first-ever series win in franchise playoff history last spring -- the team will need to keep getting better to reach its ultimate goal of bringing a Stanley Cup to Columbus.
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And the players who will attempt to take the Blue Jackets to that highest height will be the ones the team has chosen to build around.
It's names like the ones above, not to mention such players as Boone Jenner, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Josh Anderson.
But it goes even deeper than that. Of the 25 players either on the season-opening roster or on injured reserve, 17 are signed through next season, and the other eight will be restricted free agents after this year. Ten of them are currently inked at least three seasons out, meaning that in a post-Panarin, post-Bobrovsky era, the bulk of the team will be here for the foreseeable future. The average age of the 23 on the opening roster? 25.3 years old.
These are the Blue Jackets and will be for the foreseeable future. And Tortorella thinks the group should have a bit of a burr under its saddle as it gets ready to kick off the 2019-20 season.
"We've got a chip on our shoulder," Tortorella said. "We do. As far as seeing some guys saying, 'The hell with you guys, we don't want to be here,' that's an insult to some of the guys (who remain). So it's there. It's there, and I hope it builds to a level that it is always with us. I think that's going to be very important for us."
For a player like Cam Atkinson, who enters his ninth season with the Blue Jackets and is signed for the next six seasons, the pride in what has been built -- and what is to come -- is meaningful.
"I'm hopefully here for another six years. I've been here the longest," Atkinson said. "Especially being a leader, you want guys that want to be excited to come to the rink every day and push other and wear that Blue Jackets sweater and represent Columbus as a whole and just be proud.
"Next year is going to be my ninth year. My first six were tough times when people didn't want to put on that sweater and represent Columbus. Being an older guy and going through the roller coaster and now being part of something special and the culture we've built the last four years, it's an honor to wear that sweater."
It's an approach that general manager Jarmo Kekalainen has pursued since taking over the team. Knowing Columbus wouldn't necessarily become a premier free agent destination overnight, he's talked of building a team through the draft and building from within.
The result is a 23-man opening roster in which 16 of the players on the squad were drafted by Columbus; only four were added via free agency.
"The core is in place, and we keep building around it," he said. "Those are some of the best young players in the league that we have in Zach and Seth and Pierre-Luc and Josh Anderson and so forth. And then we have the experienced players to add leadership, so we are confident in our core group."
That's why when someone like Foligno or Atkinson, who have almost two decades of NHL experience between them, hears that the head coach wants them to do more this season, there's no complaints.
They've been with the club from the beginning of this building process and witnessed just how far things have come on the ice. The core is in place. The next step, then, is to keep building on it.
"What's neat is you're starting to see guys grow within the organization," Foligno said. "There are guys that have been here for a while. You look at Cam and what he's done for the organization, now you're going to have other guys that are going to have that opportunity in guys like Jonesy and Z.
"I think that's what I love about this team, is we're becoming a team. It's not a bunch of misfits anymore. There's a role that every guy plays now. When you look at great teams, that's usually how it works.
"I think that's what has made me appreciate the way we've gone about our roster here is we're really growing something from the foundation up. And the foundation is strong."