Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Although nothing has ever gone smoothly for the Columbus Blue Jackets, it did seem like the franchise finally caught a break thanks to the NHL's realignment plan.
Simply by moving from the Western Conference's Central Division to the newly- formed Metropolitan Division in the East at the start of this season, the Blue Jackets should have a better chance to make the playoffs in 2013-14. After all, twelve of the West's 14 teams have 22 or more points this season, while only seven of the East's 16 members are at that threshold.
However, with only 19 points through 22 games Columbus is hardly proving itself worthy of a playoff spot -- no matter which conference we're talking about.
Making the NHL playoffs isn't supposed to be this difficult, but it's been close to impossible for the Blue Jackets since the expansion club entered the league in 2000-01. Columbus qualified for the postseason once back in the spring of 2009, but was promptly swept in four games by the Detroit Red Wings, a franchise that enters this season with 22 straight playoff appearances.
Even at this early stage, Columbus general manager Jarmo Kekalainen is sensing this could be another lost season for the Blue Jackets and he's talking about doing something about it. So far, his plan does not involve firing head coach Todd Richards but if the 8-11-3 club fails to improve soon he could be on the chopping block before the season's finished.
In an interview with the Columbus Dispatch from earlier this week, Kekalainen gave Richards and his staff a vote of confidence for the time being, but also admitted the team may have to add a veteran presence via trade.
"Yeah, leadership is being questioned right now," Kekalainen told the Dispatch. "It's certainly something that we're looking at. Leadership is a full-time job. It's not a part-time job. It has to be there every day, in every practice and every game. You can never have too much of that kind of player."
It's worth noting that the GM made those remarks the morning after he watched his club get drilled 7-0 in Edmonton on Tuesday, losing battle after battle against an Oilers team that is sitting dead last in the Western Conference. The type of leader Kekalainen is looking for would be the kind of guy who'd warn against taking a supposedly inferior opponent for granted.
Kekalainen, the first European GM in NHL history, was hand-picked by team president John Davidson to lead the Blue Jackets one day after he fired Scott Howson last February. Davidson and Kekalainen previously worked together in St. Louis and helped build the powerful Blues team that is currently one of the top teams in the NHL.
The operation in St. Louis was hardly an overnight success and it could take some time for positive changes to take hold in Columbus. Still, the Blue Jackets only came up a tiebreaker short of making the playoffs last season and they should have enough talent to keep them in the mix in 2013-14.
"I still believe in this team; it's the same team that went 19-5-5 last year (to end the season), but with the addition of a couple of good, young players. I don't see any reason why we shouldn't be able to do the same things as last year," Kekalainen said.
Maybe all the club is missing is a leader. Judging by the fact the Blue Jackets have played without a captain since Rick Nash was traded to the New York Rangers, Kekalainen doesn't think that guy is currently in the organization.
It's certainly not veteran winger Marian Gaborik, a guy acquired from the New York Rangers at last year's trade deadline to add offense. Even if the Slovakian sniper wasn't currently sidelined indefinitely with a sprained knee, Gaborik has never shown clear signs of leadership. In fact, if Gaborik's injury concerns don't linger too long, he could wind up being dealt for another veteran presence later this season.
Perhaps, offseason signee Nathan Horton can bring the leadership qualities so desperately desired in Columbus. Horton helped Boston win a Stanley Cup title in 2011 and was a key part of the club's run to the Cup Finals last spring, but has yet to play this season due to offseason shoulder surgery. The 28- year-old winger has recently returned to practice and he could play a key role for the Blue Jackets down the stretch.
Obviously, it would be ideal if Horton, who could return to game action by mid-December, could fill the leadership void himself rather than Columbus having to go the trade route to add another veteran.
Having not yet served a full calendar year at his post, Kekalainen is still likely taking stock of what Columbus has and what it still needs. If you trust his opinion, the fact that the GM is looking to add intangibles like "leadership" rather than thinking about making wholesale changes to shake up the team's core is a good sign.
After all, the Blue Jackets entire history has been one long building project, so it's about time things started taking shape. Whether Kekalainen is the guy with the proper vision to realize that dream is another story altogether.
Who knows? Maybe he can make believers of us all with a single trade.