The Columbus Blue Jackets and Edmonton Oilers may sit together at the bottom of the NHL standings, neck and neck in the Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel sweepstakes, but make no mistake, both teams remain headed in very different directions. The Blue Jackets snapped a six-game losing streak with a 2-1 win over the Florida Panthers Monday night. The Oilers meanwhile continued their path to another first overall pick with their tenth straight loss, losing 5-2 to the Coyotes at home Monday. Both teams have 16 points with the Blue Jackets having played one less game. But while there is indeed frustration and disappointment throughout the Blue Jackets organization and amongst their fan base, make no mistake, there is still plenty of hope and optimism. The problem in Edmonton is that there doesn’t seem to be enough of either.
“We’ve talked everything to death, honestly,” Oilers captain Andrew Ference told the media after he and his team dropped their tenth straight game. “Especially guys that come from different organizations — they know the difference between what works and what doesn’t and what’s positive and what’s not. You feel for coaches that are trying to have the same message. It’s a winning message. I’ve had a lot of success on a lot of teams. The message is the right message and the X’s and O’s are the right X’s and O’s.
“It’s there, it has to be done (on the ice). To come in here and try to convince guys that they should be excited to play in the NHL and have some pride and not mope around — it’s a joke. It shouldn’t happen at this level. Until guys can figure that part out, it’s going to be a constant cycle.”
Earlier in the day though, and just hours after he found out he’d be without forward Artem Anisimov for 2-3 months, Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen was still expressing hope and far from calling his players out for their dismal start.
“We just gotta keep our chins up here and stay positive and keep going,” Kekalainen said Monday on Top Shelf before his team snapped the six-game skid. “The one thing I’ve said here all along is that in these tough times we can find out a lot about the character of the team and the character of the individuals on the team. That’s what we’ll keep doing here and just try and make the best of it every day.
“We have lots of hockey left and we’ve had some great runs in the past where we’ve shown that you can get up and come from behind and get back into playoff contention. We went 19-5-5 in the end of the lockout season, in the last 29 games. So everything is possible in hockey so we just gotta stay positive, that’s all.”
Don’t forget that even before the news on Anisimov broke, the Blue Jackets had already lost 150 man games. Kekalainen didn’t deny the injuries have played a major role in his team’s struggles but he wasn’t about to use them as an excuse either.
“We try not to talk about it too much but everything is documented and 150 man-games lost would be a decent season and we’re only one quarter of the way here,” he said. “It is what it is. Those are facts. But we try not to use them as an excuse and we won’t allow anybody to use them as an excuse. Whatever gets said outside the organization we really don’t have any control over it.”
What Kekalainen and his hockey operations staff can control is how they react to those injuries and this poor start with player personnel decisions. Ironically prior to Anisimov’s injury, there were reports that he was about to be dealt to the Oilers for winger David Perron. But while those reports may have been true, Kekalainen made it clear that he will not be trading any of his young core — which includes the likes of Ryan Johansen, Boone Jenner, Cam Atkinson, Kerby Rychel, Sonny Milano and Ryan Murray — to get his team back into the playoff race this season.
“We’re not going to get into any short term fixes,” the Columbus GM said. “Not if we have a losing streak for another reason or if we have a losing streak for any other reason. As much as we want to do well right now and have success in the near future, we’re a young team and we’re building for the future. We want to get better this year and get better towards the future. Our core is every young so we’re not gonna try and get a short term fix here and sell some of our future in the process.”
When asked if he thought maybe there was an attitude issue amongst his players or that maybe his players had read too many preseason clippings that had them making the playoffs again this season, Kekalainen was quick to say that wasn’t an issue.
“I don’t think that anybody was looking too much ahead or assuming anything or the attitude wasn’t good or any of that stuff,” he answered. “I don’t think so. Everybody is as frustrated as I am or the fans are or anybody around this organization. We just have to keep faith in the future and knowing that we have a very young core here and a young group of guys here, they’re only going to get better. We gotta focus every day here on getting better as a group. That’s gotta be our focus every day to get back on track.”
In Edmonton though that seems to be a major issue with a team that was also a fashionable pick as a playoff team this season. But despite a roster that on paper has loads of skill up front, the Oilers continue to forget the game is played on ice. In the 5-2 loss Monday, the Oilers allowed two shorthanded goals on the same power play to begin the second period and Ference wasn’t shy when asked for an explanation.
“We’re not a team that’s in a position to let our guard down and just go out there and expect it to be easy or expect another team to lie down because they have a penalty or are down by a goal,” Ference pointed out. “That’s the way we went out and played; like we’re in some position of excellence. We can’t just go out there and float around. It’s the same mistakes and these mistakes cost us games.”
It may well be too late for both the Blue Jackets and the Oilers to make the postseason. However, while the young core in Columbus is just beginning and their GM is promising patience, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that time has run out for the young core of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall, Nail Yakupov and Jordan Eberle in Edmonton and a culture change needs to happen immediately.