The Columbus Blue Jackets have been through plenty of change in the past calendar year. The difference between the 2007-08 Jackets and the team currently sitting sixth in the Western Conference playoff race can be easily summed up – hope versus belief.
At this time last year, Columbus had played 65 games and had racked up 67 points. The post-season was a possibility but given the state of the roster, one ravaged by injuries and impacted by deadline deals, springtime hockey was a stretch. One year later, the Jackets are winning consistently and for the first time in the franchise's history, control their own destiny.
"We realize that we have the ability to do something pretty special here." - Center Michael Peca
Belief is strong.
"There's definitely an air of confidence in the locker room that wasn't here last year," says Michael Peca, a veteran who's never afraid to speak the truth.
It's tough to pinpoint exactly when the Jackets turned things around. The hiring of Ken Hitchcock back in 2006 was obviously instrumental, as was Scott Howson taking over as GM. But one of the most critical moments for Columbus came almost a year ago to the day when Howson made the bold move to break up the team and ship two veteran leaders, Sergei Fedorov and Adam Foote, out of town.
It was a big blow at the time. But in retrospect, it wiped the slate clean and allowed a new – and improved – group to emerge this season.
"I think we just know we have a chance," says captain Rick Nash. "Last year, we had tons of injuries, there were rumors of trades, guys coming in, guys going out. This year, it just feels like we have a strong team, a strong bond.
"It's a good mix."
Nash was named the fifth captain in team history on Mar. 12 last year. Never the most vocal guy in the Jackets' dressing room, he has always led by example with his relentless play on the ice. But Nash's evolution mirrors the growth of the Jackets. And his coach is seeing a distinct difference with the star winger between last season and now.
"I notice a big change in that he's really speaking up between periods if we need more," says Hitchcock. "He's the first voice you here as you walk through to go into the coach's office, which to me is a dramatic change. He's feeling comfortable and demanding more from people. That, to me, is the best sign on all.
"I think that's why we've been able to maintain a competitive level."
Hitchcock believes the experience is doing Nash good. According to the coach, he's learning what it's like to be the target every game. "He's had people's attention before but our team hasn't had people's attention," says Hitchcock. "Now he's getting extra attention."
Nash is also getting some help on the leadership front.
Peca, now in his second year with Columbus, and Fredrik Modin have been to the Stanley Cup Finals. So has Mike Commodore, one of the Jackets' most influential off-season acquisitions. The three of them have been strong influences on the young, talented core of players. With four solid lines, three good D pairings and an emerging star in Steve Mason manning the net, the pieces seem to be in place for the Jackets. It's a matter of getting the job done every night, which the 08-09 Jackets have been doing much more consistently down the stretch than previous editions.
"One of the biggest things is that everybody knows what's expected of them and everybody's executing," says Manny Malhotra, another key veteran leader. "It's not a matter of guesswork anymore. Everybody knows the system and we've seen that when we execute it, it's extremely effective. And guys have bought into that."
That commitment has translated into big wins of late, some over the NHL's elite, like Washington, San Jose and two straight versus Detroit. Grabbing 13 of a possible 14 points in a recent seven-game stretch was also a sign that the franchise is ready for the next step, as was an impressive 1-0 road win in Edmonton Thursday to snap a two-game losing streak.
Are the Blue Jackets developing that killer instinct so necessary for success late in the season and into the playoffs?
"Definitely," says Malhotra. "We do have that confidence in the room to play with a lead or know that we can come from behind. "We know we have the ability to get the job done."
It's quite a transformation from this time last year. Columbus has more depth, more stability and most importantly, more belief then ever. And they have 20 games left to prove they belong in the group of Western contenders.
"The attitude and mindset we have, the preparation for games is a lot different," says Peca. "We realize that we have the ability to do something pretty special here."