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SvoNotes: Saying goodbye to the ups, downs of 2021

Big things could be on the horizon, but sometimes you have to look back to go forward

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider /

It's been a long, strange year for all of us. 

Then again, my sense is that around this time for the past five or six years, I've seen people bemoaning what a disappointing, frustrating or difficult spin around the sun we've collectively gone through. 

In fact, as we approach 2022, the sense of excitement that used to come ahead of a new year has been replaced -- as far as I've seen -- by a general malaise. Opinions seem to vary between "Well, at least 2022 can't be worse than the past few years," and, "Oh no, what if 2022 is worse than the past few years?" 

I, however, am choosing to look at the positives for the year ahead -- and in many ways the one we are finishing as well. There are, of course, still so many challenges we all face, particularly as the pandemic continues on, but I'm feeling like there's a light at the end of the tunnel.  

And when it comes to the Blue Jackets, a year of massive change inside the organization has led to a new outlook going forward as well. President of hockey operations John Davidson has returned and along with general manager Jarmo Kekalainen has helped almost completely retool the team over past 365 days, and there's a sense it's a good time to be a Blue Jackets fan. 

So as we approach Jan. 1, I wanted to spend a little time here both looking back at 2021 and thinking about what 2022 might bring as well.  

Looking Back 

So here's a fact that seems a bit wild to me. 

One year ago at this time, the Blue Jackets roster included Nick Foligno, Cam Atkinson, Seth Jones, Pierre-Luc Dubois and David Savard. 

It also included Riley Nash, Mikko Koivu, Michael Del Zotto and Mikhail Grigorenko. 

Oh, and John Tortorella was the head coach. 

That's a heck of a lot of turnover in a year's time, especially when you consider that includes the Nos. 2 (Atkinson), 3 (Foligno), 4 (Savard) and 15 (Jones) players in franchise history in terms of games played, not to mention a first-round pick many thought would be a cornerstone for years to come. 

Oh, and again, the winningest head coach in franchise history as well.  

The deals in many cases had to be made. Foligno and Savard were at the end of their contracts and returned first-round draft picks when dealt, plus they were given the chance to chase their Stanley Cup dreams (one that came true for Savard). Jones made it clear he was going to test the free-agent market, and his trade to Chicago restocked the CBJ cupboard for years to come. And Atkinson's deal was a pure hockey trade that has helped the Jackets with the addition of Jakub Voracek, who is tied for the NHL lead in primary assists. 

But it also took away some old standbys, players who had become leaders in the locker room and fan favorites on the ice. Odds are if you're a big CBJ fan, you owned a Jones jersey, or you loved Savard's bushy beard, or you met Atkinson at a community event, or you have a Foligno story from over the years. 

On the ice, that's meant there's been an almost total reconstruction of the Blue Jackets roster on the fly. Those players helped bring legitimacy to the Blue Jackets, helped establish a culture that included a franchise-best four straight playoff appearances and brought a lot of fun nights to Nationwide Arena. 

It was unfortunate that last year's shortened season ended with such a tough record, as the group probably deserved to go out better. But that's the thing about life, sometimes you don't get to choose the ending you want.  

With those players leaving in such short order, it was a bit of a shock. And it's worth looking back and remembering, one more time as we finish off the year, the impact some of players and people had on the Blue Jackets. 

And then there's Matiss 

That list of players who are no longer on the team after the past year could also include goaltender Matiss Kivlenieks, the talented youngster who tragically passed away in July. 

It's one of those things that is still difficult to think about, to have someone who was so close to making a huge step in his career and have the chance to realize so many dreams taken away so quickly and stunningly. 

It's even harder to think about when you remember what Matiss stood for -- his kindness to everyone he met, the humble nature with which he approached every challenge, the work ethic that allowed him to rise against almost impossible odds to make it to the NHL, and the beaming smile that you couldn't help but notice every time you saw him. 

Kivlenieks' life was celebrated this summer by his friends, family and teammates, then again on Opening Night when a sold-out crowd at Nationwide Arena was able to pay tribute to No. 80.

Simply put, his memory will never be forgotten.  

My Cancer Fight 

If there's one thing that hits just as personally, though, it's how the Blue Jackets family rallied around me after I wrote about my battle with colon cancer in February during the annual Hockey Fights Cancer Night. 

It's never easy to talk about that kind of thing, but it just felt right to be honest about what I was going through on that specific day last season. The outpouring of support that followed was tremendous and overwhelming, and it certainly meant a lot to me. The number of CBJ fans who have asked me over the past year about how I'm doing always has struck a chord, and it helped show what a family we've built here. 

Another thing that will always stick in my mind happened during an interview session two days after the Blue Jackets beat Dallas in that Hockey Fights Cancer game. I logged onto Zoom for an interview session to ask Foligno a question about the next game, but before I could begin, Nick cut me off and said, "Hey bud, that one was for you the other day, just so you know. We're thinking of you, man."  

I'm still not sure how I got through the following question as the emotions began to flow, but it was one of those moments where you realized things were about more than just the game. And credit to Foligno for saying that, but as many know, Nick was just that kind of guy.  

I haven't really posted about this anytime recently, but the good news is I got through chemotherapy last year and have tested fine since then. My cancer fight appears to be left in 2021, and I'm forever grateful for that. And I couldn't have done it, I feel confident in saying, without the help and support of so many of you out there. 

What's Next 

One thing that stands out to me as we sit here on the cusp of 2022 is where the Blue Jackets are going. 

The team knew going into the 2021 draft that it had a chance to hit a home run, and it appears that Kekalainen and crew did just that. Cole Sillinger already is in the NHL at age 18 and impressing as well, while fellow first-round picks Kent Johnson and Corson Ceulemans have plenty of potential and could be contributors sooner rather than later.   

Then there's the young talent already on the team -- Sillinger is joined by such names as Yegor Chinakhov, Adam Boqvist, Jake Bean and Alexandre Texier, to name just a few, all 23 or younger -- and Russian prospects Kirill Marchenko, Dmitri Voronkov and Daniil Tarasov, who are on the way. Add in two first-round picks in the holster for next season, and it's not hard to imagine a very fun young team taking shape over the next couple of seasons. 

A lot of people have told me over the years that saying a player or team has potential is just a fancy way of saying they haven't done anything yet, and that's fair. But as you look at the future of this group, it's hard not to be excited. 

There's already some pretty impressive talent on the squad, much of it with the chance to keep getting better as well. When you figure another pretty strong infusion of youth and skill is on the way, it's hard not to think about what the future can hold.  

The 12-6-0 start to this season was the kind of thing that shows what's already in the locker room, while the 2-7-1 streak that has followed shows that it's still a process to get where the Blue Jackets want to be. 

But the good news is you can see the road of how they can get there, too. I can't wait to see it all unfold as we go forward. 

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