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Jackets' present, future well-positioned entering NHL Draft

by Rob Mixer / Columbus Blue Jackets

The Blue Jackets went into Saturday night’s NHL Draft lottery with a 94 percent chance of selecting eighth or ninth at the 2015 draft. So, it’s pretty safe to say they knew what was coming.

A lottery is what it is, and really, it’s no different than playing the actual lottery. In the professional sports edition of the lottery, it’s a lot of luck (actually it’s mostly luck) born from hardship, namely in the form of a long and trying season that features more tough days than joyous occasions.

Some will tell you there’s value in finishing 30th or somewhere near the bottom of the NHL standings. But if you listen to Buffalo Sabres GM Tim Murray – whose team finished 30th – you hear honest words that reflect the reality of the situation, which is that finishing last guarantees nothing other than a few extra percentage points tacked on to the already-miniscule probability.

The Sabres finished dead last and ended up with 20 percent odds to win the lottery – which is to say, there was an 80 percent chance they would pick second. Guess where they ended up? Second.

The Blue Jackets didn’t have much interest in throwing their season away, even when they sank down the standings midway through the year. Those were not easy days, especially when players looked around the room before practices and games with a lingering thought of ‘ok, who’s getting injured tonight?’

Jarmo Kekalainen wouldn’t even begin to entertain the notion of tanking or dismantling his team, one that won 43 games a year ago and made the Stanley Cup playoffs for the second time in franchise history. There was much to be gained, much to be learned for the organization’s young players and the Blue Jackets picked themselves up and did something special in the last quarter of the season. 

“There’s value in winning, and that’s how I look at it,” said Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards, now the franchise’s all-time winningest coach. “When you’re in this job, in this position, it doesn’t matter if you’re a coach, it doesn’t matter if you’re a player, doesn’t matter if you’re an organizational scout or manager, we’re not in it to lose and I think that’s in our blood and in our DNA as former athletes.

“We get paid to compete. You’re always judged on wins and losses and I don’t think anyone lines up (to lose) except - who’s the team that plays against the Globetrotters? Unless you’re the Washington Generals.”

The Blue Jackets, armed with one of the deepest groups of forwards in their division and a stable of excellent centers (Johansen, Dubinsky, Anisimov, Wennberg, Jenner, Karlsson), are well-positioned to compete now and in the years ahead. Then you have players like Sonny Milano, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Kerby Rychel and others who are going to push for spots in the near future.

Kekalainen has stated that one of his offseason goals is to bolster the defense – part of that is getting a healthy Ryan Murray back next season – and help the Jackets transition the puck better out of their own end.

They have several young defensemen (Murray, David Savard, Kevin Connauton, Dalton Prout, Cody Goloubef) who have shown they’re ready to grow into larger roles, and there’s the possibility of adding to that defense pipeline at the upcoming NHL draft.

In goal, they’re pretty set with one of the game’s best in Sergei Bobrovsky, who’s a Vezina Trophy winner at only 26 years old and under contract for at least the next four seasons.

That’s a long-winded way of saying this: in the wake of a disappointing season, one that began with high expectations and ended with a boisterous, exciting 15-1-1 run down the stretch, the Blue Jackets are in good shape. Not just next season or the year after, but for many years ahead. They’re starting to change the expectation around here, set their goals higher and establish a “Blue Jacket way" that’s indicative of success.

Here’s a start: Columbus is 109-84-19 (.559) in past three seasons compared to 342-441-119 (.445) in the franchise’s first 11 seasons.

And Saturday night, they added the eighth overall pick in a 2015 draft that’s widely regarded as richly talented with two generational players at the top of the order. Silver linings are a real thing, friends, and this happens to be one of them.

“To me, (the last few years) created that buzz again about hockey in Columbus and again, it was a disappointing year, but there’s lots of things to be positive about,” Richards said. “The final streak is one, and the young players and their development. I’m really impressed with some of our young guys – and you get excited about looking forward to next year.”

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