Last night, the Los Angeles Kings defeated the New York Rangers in a thrilling double overtime matchup that ended on Alec Martinez's rebound goal into a wide open net and clinched LA's second Stanley Cup in three years. The game captured national media focus and exhibited just what you should show a fan to get into hockey. But here's what you should really be excited about: that caliber of hockey is coming to Columbus sooner than you think.
It's no secret that the Blue Jackets aren't exactly the most popular franchise in all of sports. In fact, they've been declared the least popular in the NHL. And it's no wonder that they are. They've been pretty much terrible since their inception, aside from once being buoyed into the playoffs by Ken Hitchcock and the legend Steve Mason. Stars like Rick Nash have asked to get out of town and most of those stars were overrated when they were in Columbus anyway. But the atrocious era of GM Doug MacLean is over, Scott Howson is helping bring Edmonton toward the goal of the first pick every year, and Scott Arniel has joined Rick Nash in New York. Ken Hitchcock may have seemed like the only positive thing that happened in Blue Jackets history, but trust me when I say this: GM Jarmo Kekalainen and President of Hockey Operations John Davidson are bringing this team to the level of talent and play you saw out of Los Angeles and New York.
Sergei Bobrovsky is one of the best goalies in the league and is also a police officer. You probably already knew that because he won the Vezina Trophy in the lockout-shortened season and nearly singlehandedly brought the Jackets to the playoffs. You know about him. Ryan Johansen is a first line center in the making, putting up a thirty goal season after there were whispers just a season ago that Howson and Arniel had ruined his development. You might know about him if you got into the team this year. You probably were familiar with Marian Gaborik and Jeff Carter, but as you probably also know, the team got rid of them for peanuts. There aren't really any other stars. There's Nathan Horton, but he's probably most famous for getting knocked into next week by Aaron Rome in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final while playing for Boston. Jack Johnson may be the most overrated player in the league (at least if you buy into #fancystats like Corsi and Fenwick, which you should). But the rest of the team, its management, and its future, are going to make the Jackets into Cup contenders quickly and bring Stanley Cup caliber hockey to Columbus after more than a decade of embarrassment.
Before Kekalainen, the Blue Jackets never even had a competent general manager or coach aside from Hitchock. Doug MacLean, who built the 1996 Florida Panthers into a Stanley Cup contender without a single star besides John Vanbiesbrouck, was given the reigns to the franchise and drove it into the ground from day one. If you're a Blue Jackets fan and want to be depressed, go read this list of his transactions while GM. Scott Howson was a laughingstock after throwing Rick Nash under the bus and (seemingly but not really) getting peanuts for him. There's the Brittanie Cecil incident. Anything mentioning Nikita Filatov and how "Filly don't do rebounds." Jeff Carter looking depressed after getting traded here. The phallic mascot. The #Lumbus hashtag created by the LA Kings Twitter account. The list goes on and on.
It's really no wonder the fans of Columbus haven't paid any attention to the team and Nationwide Arena had the lowest capacity filled percentage in the league in 2012-13.
But now, with the foundation Howson somehow laid, combined with Kekalainen's moves so far, the Blue Jackets may have the brightest future of any team in the Eastern Conference that doesn't have Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. The best goalie in the conference who isn't a King without rings is playing in Nationwide Arena. Ryan Johansen is a behemoth with skill to match. Nathan Horton is really the only onerous contract guaranteed to be on the books (former Ohio State hockey player R.J. Umberger may be looking at a compliance buyout) and when he's healthy, he's the perfect big winger and well worth the price.
Artem Anisimov and Brandon Dubinsky, the main return for Nash, are borderline second line players for a contender in the East. Jack Johnson, even if he can't stop the other team from getting shots on net, can put up some offense as he led the team in points in the first round defeat to Pittsburgh. James Wisniewski put up 51 points from the backend. Cam Atkinson is a solid second line player who's already putting up 40 points. Both he and Dubinsky should have much higher goal totals next year as they had abnormally low shooting percentages this year. Boone Jenner is basically going to be the Columbus Brad Marchand with a potentially higher ceiling.
And let's not forget that Mr. Kekalainen was a key member of the St. Louis Blues front office that drafted much of its current Cup contending roster including Alex Pietrangelo, Patrik Berglund and David Backes. He was behind drafting former U.S. Olympian Erik Johnson, who was traded for Kevin Shattenkirk, another key member of the current iteration of the Blues. With Ottawa before that, he helped draft Marian Hossa, Martin Havlat, and Ray Emery, all key members at different times for the early-mid-2000s contending Senators teams.
If Nathan Horton can stay healthy and return to form, the Blue Jackets will, in my opinion, be one top-2 defenseman and one first line winger from major contention. If only LA playoff heroes Jeff Carter and Marian Gaborik were still here. But just as the Blue Jackets gave up those players for pennies on the dollar, you can find those players if you're willing to take a little risk. As for the top pairing defenseman, that's up to Ryan Murray. If he develops into what he possibly could be, the Blue Jackets will be able to contend with anyone in the East in a couple of years once Boston starts fading.
That's when you'll get hockey with the caliber and stakes of last night's game. The team will be able to compete with anyone in the conference and could easily break through with the right moves from Kekalainen.
But will Columbus care? That's the question. Markets like New Jersey didn't have extremely high attendance even when winning three Stanley Cups in eight years. Markets like Dallas only seem to care if the team is excellent and fade away as soon as the team fades into mediocrity. Detroit, "Hockeytown", hasn't been tested lately, but hasn't exactly been known as the strongest market when the team isn't good.
So it comes down to building a fanbase that will last over time. The Jackets need to win first and foremost and not go to gimmicks like getting Ohio State players and shunning Michigan players. The farther and more consistently they go farther in the playoffs, the more fans will catch on casually. Younger kids will grow up with a successful team and stick through the bad times. Older fans will spend more on a winning team and be more likely to stick with them when they inevitably fade again. I saw it first hand in New Jersey. The team did not have big increases when they were winning Cups, but when the team had cultivated a more mature fan base that grew up with the team, ticket sales started going up. It's the people that grow up with the team that will make it successful. Nobody would have cared about the Devils if they didn't win, and while that winning didn't pay off immediately, it got people to grow up with them and buy tickets as soon as they could later. An 82 game season is admittedly a slog, but basketball fans show up for the same meaningless games. There is no reason they won't for the Blue Jackets too.
The same could easily happen with the Jackets. But they have to keep down this path and have even more success than they had this season or the people won't care enough to stay and grow with this team. A simple playoff appearance didn't seem to motivate the fans. But a playoff run with exciting, high caliber hockey that has the likes of even our own Luke Zimmermann tweeting about it could.
The puck's in your zone, Jarko.