To say that the Columbus Blue Jackets have experienced a hardscrabble season of adversity, particularly with injuries is to be kind. They are the runaway winner of the not-so-dubious distinction of ‘Man Games Lost to Injury’, a statistic that the National Hockey League (NHL) maintains to demonstrate how ravaged, using cumulative measures, a team may or may not be due to injuries.
To frame it in the proper context, the Blue Jackets have incurred 463 man games lost to injury. The team with the second most man-games lost to injury is the Colorado Avalanche with 414 man-games lost. Then, a precipitous drop occurs for the third-ranked team in this category with the Anaheim Ducks with 336 man-games lost. As to the team who ranks in the very middle of this statistic, the Vancouver Canucks have 198 man games lost to injury, far less than half of the Blue Jackets totals.
As most of us who have played sports at a high level will attest, you will never hear this phenomena used as an excuse to a team’s struggles or woes from players, coaches or executives. Such gnashing and woefulness is usually reserved for most in the media who have never gone through something like this. In short, you play the best that you can with who you have available.
However, in cases such as this, when this type of adversity occurs, opportunities are created for those who rise up and take them. And while Blue Jackets President of Hockey Operations John Davidson and General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen have had to abandon their previous ‘Brick by Brick’ mantra/philosophy with their cadre of solid young prospects, through the adversity, several young prospects have gained invaluable NHL experience and have formed a foundation for future NHL success.
Sure, this is not the model the Blue Jackets brass hoped to employ. Rather, they had hoped to employ the model that the Detroit Red Wings, under the tutelage of Ken Holland and previously with Jim Nill, have made an art form, allowing prospects to develop in their American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate the Grand Rapids Griffins until they are ready to plug in and play at an elite level, also known as ‘Red Wings Hockey’.
The NHL’s youngest team has brought along the following players to form their nucleus: forwards Alexander Wennberg who has evolved past the early-season struggles to become a dependable, two-way pivot (center) and Marko Dano, who has shown a gritty presence with a knack for scoring goals and a poise well beyond his years, defensemen Cody Goloubef who has been a steady, defensively-responsible, puck-moving defenseman in his limited opportunities, David Savard who has arguably become the Blue Jackets most versatile defensive player and Kevin Connauton, a waiver claim by the Blue Jackets from the Dallas Stars who been a solid addition to the Blue Jackets young defensive corps.
Two key cornerstones for the Blue Jackets future were saddled with injuries for the majority of the season: former 2nd overall pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, Ryan Murray was plagued with injuries to both of his knees, then, when he was deemed fit to play, took a puck to his ankle and was sidelined, again. With two of his three seasons being shortened due to shoulder, knee and ankle injuries, the hope is that the injury-prone Murray can avoid the injuries and fulfill the promise that his multiple skills and limitless upside can provide to the organization. Center Boone Jenner, who was a catalyst to last season’s playoff run, has also been limited to injury, primarily with a stress fracture in his back and an early-season hand injury. A potential future Blue Jackets team captain, Jenner’s health is vital for the future of the organization, particularly from a leadership standpoint.
So much was expected for this season: the Blue Jackets qualified for their Stanley Cup playoffs for only the second time in their history. However, the endless rash of injuries eventually took their toll but, to their credit and their professionalism, the Blue Jackets have inched their way, for the second time this season, to the .500 mark. And, with the experienced obtained by their young core, along with a slew of highly-regarded prospects such as Oliver Bjorkstrand, Kerby Rychel and YouTube sensation Sonny Milano, there is great optimism to an otherwise disappointing season.