COLUMBUS, Ohio – The Columbus Blue Jackets’ logo is an Ohio flag wrapped around a silver star.
More apropos might be a black cloud. Or, after 12 years of bad moves and bad breaks, a broken mirror.
Yes, the NHL franchise has made numerous hare-brained personnel decisions, awful trades, puzzling signings and public relations gaffes.
But there’s no avoiding it: If the Jackets had any luck at all, it would be bad.
“It’s that history of bad luck,” said Matt Wagner, a Blue Jackets fan who blogs for the booster site JacketsCannon.com. “Even when we think we’re getting something that looks like a good break for this team, if anything can go wrong, it’s going to.”
Indeed, while other teams celebrate this exciting playoff season—one filled with overtime drama, controversial calls and some new faces in this league’s version of the Elite Eight—the Jackets and their fans must watch on TV.
So, who could blame the supporters for thinking this is a star-crossed franchise?
The NHL’s draft lottery is designed to lift the worst teams in the league. The team with the least success during the regular season is supposed to have the best shot at getting the highest pick in the summer’s draft. In theory, anyway.
But theory doesn’t apply to the Blue Jackets.
Despite a 342-441-33-86 record in their 11 seasons—which includes 10 losing records and one, four-games-and-out appearance in the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs—the lottery has become Columbus’ annual albatross.
This past year, for example, the club went a dismal 29-46-7, its 65 points far and away the fewest of the league’s 30 teams. In spite of having better odds than anyone else of getting the No. 1 overall pick (48 per cent to the 19 per cent of the second-worst team, Edmonton), Columbus lost out and the Oilers will get the best player available for the third year in a row.
Absolutely no one in Columbus is surprised by this turn of events. If the Blue Jackets are the Joe Bfstplk (if you don’t know, Google it) of American major-league sports franchises, then their fans are so many Eeyores. They’ve come to expect the very worst of the team they love. And they get it. Again and again.
In the 12 lotteries in which the Blue Jackets have participated, they have had the opportunity to move up in every one. But that has never happened. In fact, they’ve dropped at least one spot from where they deserved to be seven times, staying in the same position five times.
A mathematics professor from nearby Capital University, Dr. Jon Stadler, parsed the numbers and determined that there is a 57 per cent probability that Columbus would move up in the draft lottery over that span. Yet, when it comes to the Blue Jackets, such numbers lie.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was in Columbus last week to unveil the logo for the 2013 All-Star Game—hey, it’s not all bad, at least the city will host the league’s annual midseason showcase next year. And fans are excited. Around 1,500 people, in fact, showed up at the plaza outside the Blue Jackets’ state-of-the-art arena just to see the logo unfurled.
Bettman marveled at the turnout and assured everyone that the franchise would turn things around. He later discounted the club’s bad luck in the draft.
“I think too much could be made of luck or not,” he said. “Ultimately, it comes down to who you select and how you develop your players.”
Owner John P. McConnell spoke briefly during the unveiling. The son of the late John H. McConnell, a steel magnate who paid $80 million to bring the expansion franchise to Columbus, prefers to stay in the background.
“This starts a new era. We’ll be here for a very long time,” he vowed to the cheering fans. “Hopefully, we’ll be bringing many playoff games here as well as (the) Stanley Cup Finals.”
Maybe so. But bad luck has been with the Blue Jackets since their inception. They came into the league in 2000 with the Minnesota Wild. A coin flip was held to determine who would get the higher pick of the expansion teams.
Of course, the Blue Jackets lost.
The Wild selected Marian Gaborik with the No. 3 pick, with Columbus settling for defenceman Rostislav Klesla. Klesla had a solid yet unremarkable NHL career with the Blue Jackets before being traded to Phoenix last year. But Gaborik has been a star. He has 324 goals and 647 points in 722 career games.
Both have been big contributors in the playoffs. The Blue Jackets’ long-suffering fans are annually taunted by players who didn’t perform well in Columbus but who seem to flourish in the pressure cooker of the post-season. Every time a Columbus fan turns on the TV, it seems, they see players with the Blue Jackets within the last year such as Antoine Vermette, Klesla, Anton Stralman, Jakub Voracek, Kris Russell and Jeff Carter doing something great in the playoffs.
Wagner calls having to watch so many former Blue Jackets doing well in the post-season “that little twist of the knife.”
The franchise could have been set up for years with a simple break in the draft or lottery.
The NHL came out of its lockout year in 2005 and the Blue Jackets had an equal shot with three other clubs to win a weighted lottery. The prize? Once-in-a-generation centre Sidney Crosby, who would become the face of the league. Pittsburgh, of course, won. The Blue Jackets sagged all the way to the No. 6 pick and ended up with Gilbert Brule, a centre who never panned out in Columbus but—surprise, surprise—is playing well for the Coyotes in the playoffs.
There’s also what happened late in the 2003-2004 season. The Blue Jackets held the No. 3 draft pick. Involuntarily doing their best to try to maintain that spot or even move up, they lost eight consecutive games heading into a contest at Vancouver. Columbus had won a grand total of five road games all season.
True to form, they trailed by two goals. Then rookie Nikolai Zherdev, taken with the fourth pick in the draft the year before, changed everything. Zherdev had been spirited out of his native Russia under cover of darkness, like a pawn in some bad spy novel, to join the team early in the season. He had shown promise, but much of that would be unfulfilled when he did not get along with teammates and didn’t exactly take to coaching.
But on this night, Zherdev scored two third-period goals including the game-winner with 1:55 left. Incredibly, the Blue Jackets won 5-4.
It was only later, after another playoff-less season, that the impact of Zherdev’s big period hit Blue Jackets fans.
Washington, which ended up with the No. 3 pick, won the draft lottery—and took superstar Alex Ovechkin at No. 1. Columbus, defying the odds by losing another draft lottery, fell all the way to eighth where it took Alexandre Picard.
Picard never scored in 67 games with the Blue Jackets.
And fans can tell you that. In fact, they can recite numerous other examples of bad luck or breaks.
There was the game-winning overtime goal awarded to Minnesota’s Wes Walz, the puck going up his pants leg as he crossed the goal line. There was Manny Malhotra’s goal in Dallas—disallowed, even though he was standing on one skate at the time (try kicking anything while standing like a stork). Then there was the phantom few seconds mysteriously added at the end of a regulation win in Los Angeles this past season—a game that the Blue Jackets, of course, lost in overtime.
The bad fortune still doesn’t cloud the fact that the Blue Jackets have been their own worst enemy. Over the years, they passed on drafting players (sometimes more than once) who could have transformed the sorry franchise: Henrik Lundqvist, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith, Shea Weber, Dustin Brown, Zach Parise, Ryan Getzlaf, Brent Burns, Mike Richards, Ryan Kesler (he even played at nearby Ohio State), Cory Schneider, David Krejci, Pekka Rinne, Anze Kopitar, Marc Staal, Kris Letang, Jonathan Quick, Claude Giroux, Milan Lucic, Erik Karlsson and Jeff Skinner, among many others.
That’s a lot to overcome. But Bettman is sure that the snakebit Jackets will do it.
“I know that the Blue Jackets are committed to building a team in the right way,” he said, “for the long term and having success.”
A few years ago, with fans tiring of team mascot “Stinger” (billed as “the bug with an attitude”), some enterprising design people with the Blue Jackets came up with something new. Harkening back to the Civil War roots which led to the team’s nickname (Columbus made many of the blue uniforms for the Union Army), the new mascot would be an 1860s cannon on wheels. They added a big, bushy moustache to make him somewhat more whimsical.
They called him “Boomer”, and he was unveiled publicly to not-so-rave reviews. They quickly retired “Boomer” and changed back to “Stinger.”
If only they could change their luck so easily.
Follow Rusty Miller on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/rustymillerap .