October presents a conundrum for Cleveland sports fans. The Indians failed to reach the postseason. The Cavaliers will not tip off their season until the 27th. The Browns are…let’s say “hard to love.” While college football can fill the gaps on Saturday, that still leaves numerous weekdays vacant. But perhaps they are not as empty as you would think. What if I told you that a professional sports team in this state with promises of fun, entertaining play awaits? Let’s talk hockey, eh?
Hockey combines baseball’s precision, football’s physicality, and basketball’s fluid passing to create an amalgam of skill and strength on ice. If the physical poetry and strategy don’t do it for you, sometimes play halts so two opponents can bludgeon each other senseless. The National Hockey League offers the highest octane hockey on the planet, and attending games is fun for the whole family. Parents can appreciate the quality skill while kids go crazy for the zamboni. I know what you’re thinking, “This sounds swell! Where can I get in on this sporting experience?” The answer waits two hours south on I-71.
The Columbus Blue Jackets drop the puck on their 15th NHL season against the New York Rangers on Friday. The Jackets qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2014, falling to the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games. The two wins represent the first playoff victories in team history and both came in sudden death overtime. The club regressed last season, missing the postseason by nine points. However, Columbus can take solace in the team’s blistering 15-1-1 finish. Expectations rest high for the 2015-16 Blue Jackets with several major media outlets predicting a playoff run. If the CBJ were a stock, now would be the time to buy.
The Blue Jackets made seismic waves during the offseason by acquiring winger Brandon Saad from the Chicago Blackhawks. The 22-year-old Pittsburgh native joined Chicago in 2011, where he went on to win two Stanley Cups. His trade to Columbus represents a coup for the Blue Jackets, who immediately signed the young star to a six-year extension. Last season, Saad recorded career highs in goals (23) and assists (29) while also scoring eight times in the playoffs. A quick forward with a slick handle, he has the ability to find the back of the net from almost any angle. When added to the top line alongside center Ryan Johansen and newly christened captain Nick Foligno, it makes sense why so many expect the Jackets to score plenty all season.
In the crease, the Blue Jackets employ the Top Cop on the Force — Sergei Bobrovsky. The 2013 Vezina Trophy winner,1 Bobrovsky lost significant time to injury last season. Still, he went 30-17-3 with a .918 save percentage when he did play. Ryan Murray and David Savard open the year as the starting defenders, the former looking to improve from an injury-riddled 2014-15. Defensive depth remains a question, but Bob can ably imitate a brick wall for long stretches. If hockey mask art delights you, then you will adore Bob’s armor.
Injuries plagued the Blue Jackets like locusts last season. The team led the league in man-games lost to maladies. Statistically, the club should regress toward the mean in that department, which means more healthy games and better luck in general. The keys to Columbus’ season may rest with upright bodies and a fast start. Over the past three seasons, head coach Todd Richards struggled to motivate the team out of the gate. Sluggish opening months doomed the Jackets in 2014-15 (6-15-2) and 2013 (5-12-3). To live up to expectations the club needs to start strong in October so they can play meaningful games in April.2
The best part about supporting the Blue Jackets is the direct connection the team now enjoys with Cleveland. Over the summer, the AHL’s Lake Erie Monsters announced a new partnership with the Blue Jackets that keeps Ohio’s hockey teams on the same pipeline. The Monsters will work as the Jackets’ top farm club (AHL : NHL :: AAA : MLB), and plenty of players will spend time in both cities. The deal makes sense for everyone and players will no doubt appreciate the proximity. Cleveland has always shown up to support the Monsters; Lake Erie averaged 8,331 fans per game last year, which ranked third in the league. With plenty of weekend games on the schedule, it just makes sense to take a few trips to the Capital City and see how the big boys play.
Columbus is not the sexiest NHL team. They lack the Original 6 cache of a Chicago or Toronto and don’t have the same history of success as Detroit or Pittsburgh. But I think that is part of their appeal. The club uniquely represents Ohio. The state flag is a prominent part of the team’s logo, and as the only NHL club in the state, they skate for Buckeyes everywhere. A new season awaits full of promise, and the opportunity to get behind a team that could be truly fun to watch. If nothing else watch a game or two on TV and see if it is for you. Take a trip down to Columbus if you can. I promise the cannon will make you jump at least once. For those about to rock, we salute you.