Better luck this year: Blue Jackets poised to make some noise as expectations rise

Brad Keefe, Columbus Alive

On Wednesday, April 23, 2014, Nick Foligno fired a 6-ounce piece of vulcanized rubber 60 feet from the goal toward Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Marc-André Fleury. The puck slipped past Fleury and into Blue Jackets history.

Nationwide Arena erupted as the 18,970 in attendance emptied their lungs in a deafening roar that sustained so long one could barely hear the firings of the Jackets' signature goal cannon.

The night of that win - the first home playoff victory in team history - AleksShaulov was 3½ miles away behind the bar at Ace of Cups. "I dropped everything and started jumping around,"Shaulov recalls. "And everybody understood why, because I was covered in Jackets gear head-to-toe.

"[It's] something I will never forget. I have the picture of that goal in my head still."

The Jackets would enter the 2014-2015 season with newfound expectations. Their fans, an ever-hopeful lot, would enter with newfound levels of optimism.

Then, as it tends to do, the season happened, an injury-riddled affair that saw the Jackets fall out of contention early. There would be no playoff games in Columbus in 2015.

Shaulov mused on last season with the wistful, pained look of someone recalling an ex-lover.

"I will not be exaggerating when I say that it was soul-crushing," he said.


Even for a team in its 16th year with just two playoff appearances ever, last season was a bitter pill. Injuries afflicted the team early and often. When the dust settled on the season, the Jackets led the National Hockey League with 508 man-games missed, a team record by more than 100 games.

"You're able to learn things from it, but it was a hard year for everyone involved," said Jackets head coach Todd Richards. "Coming off the success of the previous year, there were higher expectations. Whenever you don't meet those expectations, it's a disappointment."

Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen is the man charged with putting a winning team on the ice. Last season, he rarely got to see the assembled team in one piece, but he took this in stoic stride. "Well, it's frustrating, but it's something that's out of our control," Kekalainen said of last season. "So you try to put it out of your mind and just concentrate on things that you can control."

The silver lining on the season was a late-season burst that saw the Jackets playing some of the best hockey in the league - albeit while out of playoff contention.

"I think when you have losing seasons it's easy to blow up a team or say, 'OK this isn't working, let's bring in other guys,' " said Jackets left winger and newly named team captain Foligno. "I think we felt we had a good core in here, and we wanted to show that. I was really proud of the way we finished."

Shaulov was also proud of the Jackets' finish. "They took the high road," he said, applauding that the team was playing for pride instead of a higher pick in the NHL draft.

But that great end-of-season play was bittersweet for a team that could have been playing their best hockey of the season going into the playoffs, but for the rash of injuries.

"Everything was right, everything was in place," said Shaulov. "And at the start of the pre-season they just started dropping like flies. Our injured list read like a novel.

"In a book of tough breaks, this is the toughest."


AleksShaulov is the quintessential Blue Jackets fan, brimming with both knowledge of the sport and boundless optimism.

He was born in Grozny, Chechnya, in the former Soviet Union, two years before the U.S. hockey team would break the nation's spirit in the Miracle on Ice at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. "Every international competition, only the gold was the goal," said Shaulov. "Everything else just didn't get acknowledged. It's just like, there's nothing to be proud of."

His family moved to Columbus in 1992. He was a fan of the Philadelphia Flyers before the Blue Jackets came into existence, even sheepishly admitting to wearing a Flyers jersey to Nationwide Arena the first time Philly came to visit. But something changed that night. His allegiance shifted.

"It wasn't because anyone was taunting me [for wearing a Flyers jersey]. It was because while I was watching the game, I was more concerned with the Jackets winning than the Flyers. Deep inside,"Shaulov recalled. "And I will admit to that one fault. But I did pretty much root for the Jackets that night."

There is no doubt who he roots for now.Shaulov turns into a gushing Russian when talking about this team, particularly when talking about the Jackets' All-Star goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. "I'm proud that such talent emerged from my homeland," he said.

While he waits for the Jackets' chance to hoist the Stanley Cup,Shaulov has his eyes set on a different one: the championship cup for the Washington Beach Hockey League, a fantasy league made up ofShaulov and several hockey-loving friends. The cup, which he "found at antique store for 40 bucks," has thus far eluded him in the league's five-year existence, in whichShaulov has drafted his share of Jackets to his fake team, the Grozny Red Scare.

"I've had [Fedor] Tyutin on my team; I've had Jack Johnson on my team; I've had Bobrovsky on my team; I've had [Rick] Nash on my team; I've had Calvert on my team,"Shaulov said with a laugh. At this year's fantasy draft earlier this week, he added Jackets Boone Jenner and David Savard to that list.

Why draft so many Blue Jackets? "You have to remember that more times than not, they always look good on paper before the season starts."

That also may be a symptom of the eternal optimism of a fan like Shaulov. "We can never, ever, ever deflate for the home team," he said. "You have to always hope for the best, which every fan of the Columbus Blue Jackets has gotten good at at this point."


If every Blue Jackets fan were like Shaulov, J.D. Kershaw would not have a job.

As the team's vice president of marketing, Kershaw knows well the challenges of maintaining interest in a team when it is struggling and the ease of doing so when it is not.

"It's different in sports, because as a marketer of a sports team, you have zero control over the product that you're marketing. So it's very challenging at times," Kershaw says. "I find, after 20 years in the league, that when times are good, you're a marketing genius, and when times are tough, they're tough."

Even through the difficulties of last year, the Jackets maintained an average attendance of 15,511. "When times are good, a lot of things take care of themselves," said Kershaw. "What I'm most proud about is having maintained respectable levels of attendance through some tough years."

Kershaw and the Jackets can also take pride in continuing to foster a "hockey town" environment in Columbus, a union of team and city reinforced in this year's team slogan, "March with Us." "I really think the city is on the rise, and I really think the team is on the rise," said Kershaw. "And I really think that the team's success can help the city's campaign and effort to be where it wants to be."

Kershaw also knows that taking Columbus to levels of hockey obsession seen in some cities will require a winning team. "To really get to where we want to be as an organization, I think it's going to take some sustained success, not flash-in-the-pan type stuff," he said. He cited lean times for hockey teams that currently rank as powerhouses.

"It was less than 15 years ago that the two worst teams in the NHL by far, from a business perspective and attendance and all that, were Chicago and Pittsburgh," Kershaw said. "Everybody goes through it … unfortunately, it's taken us a while to have our upswing. But it's coming."


Kershaw is far from alone in his optimism. The hockey world at large has taken notice of the improving Blue Jackets, so much so that coach Todd Richards feels the need to keep those expectations in check, particularly when it comes to "power rankings," league predictions made by hockey writers at various outlets.

"We went from, what, we finished 23rd last year? And over the summer power rankings, we went to 9th without even playing a game," said Richards. "And that's all it is. It's on paper, and it's talk."

Kekalainen echoed the coach's sentiment. "It's nice. I think it's a compliment," he said. "You feel like you're getting respect around the league, but again, we have to show it on the ice."

While one player can't bear the weight of all of those improved predictions, one of the newest Blue Jackets is a key reason for the boost: Brandon Saad, the 22-year-old winger acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks in a doozy of an off-season trade.

"He's an established player in this league. He's a young guy who's already won two Stanley Cups and was a big part of that team that won it," said Kekalainen. "Those players don't become available very often."

And while the team emphasizes the "one game at a time" approach, Saad knows that his experience in the Stanley Cup playoffs is going to thrust him into a leadership role come April. "It's a role I want to take. I'm looking forward to embrace that challenge of getting a bigger opportunity and filling in that spot," said Saad. "It's definitely something where I'm looking to lead by example."

Richards has already seen Saad pay dividends playing alongside Foligno and All-Star center Ryan Johansen in the pre-season. His words about an early meeting with Saad and his father should be music to Jackets fans' ears. "I left that conversation thinking, this is a great, great addition for our team," Richards said. "He's gonna be a Columbus Blue Jacket for a long, long time."


The team's other major off-season development is an important and symbolic one. For the first time since the departure of Rick Nash, the Columbus Blue Jackets have a captain. And the choice of Nick Foligno in that role is a popular one.

"You just want to make sure you get that decision right," said Richards. "To me, Nicky kind of stepped [to the] forefront in showing us that he was ready for the opportunity."

The Jackets' new captain is affable and hard-working, traits that fit both the team and the city well. "I said it wouldn't mean much if I didn't have the support of my teammates behind me," said Foligno of the weight of the new "C" on his chest. "To be able to wear the sweater and have that on it and know that I'm representing not only my teammates and the team but also the city is a huge honor and something I take very seriously."

From the fan perspective,Shaulov approves. "Everybody knew it was gonna be Nick. I just wanted to hear it," he said. "It gave me a little pep in my step. It was just the beginning of a killer summer for this team."


Even as expectations are at new heights, one can't help but look back at last year - or any other of a seemingly endless series of tough breaks in the history of the franchise - and wonder about the team's luck. Most in the organization give pause, then chuckle at the notion.

"I don't believe in any curses or karma or whatever you want to call it. I'm more of a 'I believe what I can see' type of guy," Kekalainen said. "Hard work pays off. That's the stuff that I believe in."

"I think you make your own luck, good or bad," said Richards, echoing a classic sports cliché but with genuineness. "You're gonna face adversity. And the question is, how are you going to respond to adversity?"

Shaulovnotes one unlikely believer that the Blue Jackets had bad luck last season in famed hockey commentator Barry Melrose. "When Barry Melrose says that this is just like tough luck, you know?"Shaulov said. "And Barry is a harsh critic of everything."

Many things are unknown in what looks to be very exciting season for the Blue Jackets. One thing is certain. No matter what happens, they have Aleks Shaulov.

"It's tough, but, it's your home team, man. You gotta hope, you know?" said Shaulov. "It looks great right now. It looks like great things are afoot."