Although the 2014-15 season was plagued by injuries and other “curveballs,” the Blue Jackets feel they learned a lot from it.
“A lot of positives came out of it,” said coach Todd Richards. “I think it’s something that we can use, but for me, it’s the whole season…with high expectations comes lots of responsibilities and there’s just disappointment."
But the Blue Jackets, who started 4-2-0 and fell into a tail spin that lasted until U.S. Thanksgiving, picked themselves up and didn't go quietly into the summer. They finished on a 15-1-1 run down the stretch, punctuated by a come-from-behind win over the New York Islanders to close out Nassau Coliseum -- a game the Islanders needed to win to secure home ice advantage in the playoffs.
“It's a credit to the players, because it would’ve been very easy to just finish out the year," Richards said. "What I've found now is it created a real excitement in the room because of the possibilities.
“(The end of the season) got our fans excited and, again, their feelings are the same as how I feel and how we feel down in the locker room. We can’t wait for the season to get started, and some of that has to do with how we finished the year last year.”
John Davidson, president of hockey operations, said that positive momentum spilled into the summer.
“It’s a very exciting time for our hockey club as we embark on a brand new season,” Davidson said. “We think we’ve had a productive summer as an organization. I know one thing going in: we’re healthy, so that’s a real strong improvement for us."
One of the overall improvements for the club -- from both a hockey and business perspective -- was bringing the Blue Jackets' AHL affiliate into the state of Ohio with the Lake Erie Monsters. The closer proximity will allow easier mobility for the players, coaches and staff, and help extend the scope of Blue Jackets hockey into a sports-crazy part of the state.
On the ice, the Blue Jackets saw the growth of young players like Alexander Wennberg, who grabbed a roster spot out of training camp, returned from a stint in the AHL and anchored one of the club's best lines down the stretch.
“Last year, the only good part about the injuries was that Marko Dano came up and was outstanding, as was Wennberg, who got better as the season went along and caught up to the game,” Davidson said. “We were forced to play some young players because of injuries and, when that happens, you’re able to find a way to try to improve your team, a step at a time, a brick at a time.”
As a result of that depth and growth, Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen was able to make arguably the league's biggest summer trade with the Chicago Blackhawks, acquiring Brandon Saad in a seven-player deal.
“If Wennberg and Dano had been in the minors the whole year, maybe that wouldn’t have happened,” Davidson added. “So, we find some good things did happen through that injury situation, and one of them was those two guys came up and were able to show us something.”
The offseason activity generated hype and excitement that has sparked the predictors and prognosticators around the league. The Blue Jackets have garnered a lot of attention for what they did in the summer, but Kekalainen would rather gain attention for the product on the ice.
“It’s great to have the respect around the league, but again, I think that our focus needs to be on improving every day," Kekalainen said. “We’re such a young club still, and it makes me excited about the potential from within. We’ve talked about this before, but if we can keep the focus on improving every day, from the first day of training camp on, I think we’ll be in great shape."
And Davidson’s take on it? View winning as an opportunity, not a burden.
“I want us to have the mindset of winning for sure,” Davidson said. “It should be a fantastic situation for the players that have been here. I would think our players feel they have a better chance of winning now than they ever have here. So embrace it, have fun with it, go for it.”