Bright future, but a better start is needed
In the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, the Blue Jackets won five of their first 20 games and gave themselves quite the hill to climb in order to qualify for the playoffs.
They lost out on the final playoff berth in the Western Conference on a tiebreaker, and it made for a long summer for a group of players who put together an almost-magical 19-5-5 run just to give themselves a chance.
When this season started out with five wins in 15 games, the Blue Jackets were determined to make sure that history would not repeat itself. They played some of their best hockey after the Olympic break, rediscovered their hard-working, tenacious identity that gave them success a year ago and qualified for the playoffs in their 80th regular season game.
Those are all good things, Mark Letestu said, but there is no denying that everyone has to be at another level when the puck drops in five months.
"The start wasn’t where we wanted it to be," Letestu said. "It had an opportunity to cost us (a playoff spot) again, but credit to the guys in the last half especially after the (Olympic) break. We battled really hard every night to get points, got into the playoffs and gave ourselves a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup, which was part of the goal this year.
"You want a chance to compete for it, but it’s still disappointing falling short."
The positives are also plentiful, Letestu said, and there is a strong foundation on which to build in Columbus. Many of the young players in the organization experienced their first playoff series, some took significant steps forward in their development, and there's another wave of young talent on the way in the next couple of years.
"We’ve got a good group of core leadership guys," Letestu said. "We’ve got some young guys who are growing into key offensive roles for us - we’ve seen a lot of growth from a lot of guys who were in their first or second years. There’s a lot to be optimistic about in the future; hopefully this group stays together and I’m sure guys will take more steps."
In meetings this morning, Letestu said the emphasis was put on a strong offseason, one that builds throughout the summer and results in everyone being in peak condition for training camp. They have learned hard lessons the past two seasons about the importance of a good start, and want to be certain it doesn't happen again.
"That’s something that’s haunted us," Letestu said. "It’s a killer. It’s quite taxing down the stretch to have to play playoff hockey for two months…it can be tough. I don’t know if that’s the reason we came up short, but it certainly didn’t help.
"Whether that’s guys getting prepared in the offseason for a start or a mentality, but two years in a row, it’s cost us a little bit and it has to be better."