Sitting at a podium inside Nationwide Arena a few days prior to the start of training camp, Columbus Blue Jackets president John Davidson inadvertently summarized what would be the state of the team’s season.
“We got it wrong,” Davidson said. “That’s on us.”
Those seven words were uttered during the Blue Jackets’ press conference introducing Pascal Vincent as the team’s new head coach. Davidson was responding to a question about the franchise’s decision to hire Mike Babcock in July, only to part ways with the controversial coach a few days before the Vincent press conference when it was publicly revealed on a podcast that the organization’s young players were uncomfortable with Babcock's request to share cellphone photos of their families with him.
That a number of young Blue Jackets players felt more comfortable expressing their discomfort to a podcast host instead of Davidson and general manager Jarmo Kekalainen led many in-and-around the game to question the organization’s authority structure.
“It’s a complex relationship (between) the management and the player,” Kekalainen said at one point during the Vincent press conference. “It is not as simple for the players to be honest about how they’re feeling and what’s going on through their lives and show–I guess–vulnerability to us that are in this position to decide about their future in hockey.”
Four-and-a-half-months later, two things have been revealed about the current iteration of the Columbus Blue Jackets: One, they are destined to miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the fourth straight season and the 17th time in 23 seasons. Two, the organization’s players feel empowered to criticize coaching and management.
As of this writing, the Blue Jackets have a 15-24-10 record which is last in the Metropolitan Division, 15th-in-the-16-team Eastern Conference, and 28th overall.
Which is not great. And somehow it gets worse.
The Blue Jackets’ 2.98 goals scored per game average is tied for 24th in the NHL, while its 3.73 goals against per game average is second-worst in the league.
Generally, it is suboptimal for a team to allow more goals than it scores.
In Columbus’ case, though, the franchise has been unable to create a culture in which players feel the organization has their best interest in mind.
He was, to be charitable, not particularly on-board with Vincent’s choice.
"It's probably over my career the most embarrassing thing that's happened to me, so I'm obviously not happy about that," Laine told reporters. “They know that. It is what it is. It's done and now we're back, so just try to focus on playing. I mean, I'm not going to start analyzing it that much, because I don't know what I'm going to say. I'll just keep it at that. I'm not going to say anything dumb. It's up to them. I just play here, and I play whenever they tell me."
"If your confidence isn't there, I don't think you're going to find it eating popcorn watching the game. That's my opinion. … I'm not stupid but at the same time, if you want to get going, you have to be out there. I can't get confidence drinking BioSteel on the bench. I'm not crying about it because I'm not in a position where I can complain about anything with the way I've been playing, but that's how I see it."
One of the truisms about sports at any level is that players want to play. Laine wanted to play. And two months later, Elvis Merzlikins echoed the sniper when he went public with his grievances.
Following a 4-3 shootout win over the Vancouver Canucks on Jan. 15, in which he made 27 saves in his first game action since Dec. 29, Merzlikins confirmed to reporters he wants to leave the Ohio state capital for another NHL outpost.
“Everyone knows I requested (a) trade,” Merzlikins said.
Players expressing frustration at their role on a team is not new. Nor is it especially new for key components to privately share their discontent.
But for three players in four months to publicly criticize how they are managed by an organization is not synonymous with stability.
But that’s where the Blue Jackets find themselves after The Athletic published an interview with defenseman David Jiricek in which the 20-year-old took issue with management’s decision to send him to AHL Cleveland.
“I played good hockey in the NHL,” Jiricek said. “I’m an NHL player right now. That’s my opinion, that I should be in the NHL right now. I see guys from the same draft, like (New Jersey’s) Simon Nemec and (Chicago’s Kevin) Korchinski. …They get a chance on the power play. They play a ton of minutes in the NHL. Those are different teams, so different situations, but I can compare with them. I just want a chance to play like that.”
To summarize: The team is losing hockey games and its players feel compelled to negatively critique how they are used and viewed by the coaching staff and management.
Again, it’s not great.
Which prompts a question: Will Davidson and Kekalainen and Vincent will face consequences for the state of the franchise?
And while there is not a clear answer to the question, it does bear reflecting on the statement Blue Jackets ownership wrote in September following the announcement of Vincent’s hiring.
“We do not anticipate further changes to our hockey leadership at this time,” the statement read. “Additional disruptions would be detrimental to our players and coaches.”