Making it to the playoffs offers no guarantee a franchise is definitely moving in the right direction.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are living proof of that, taking the Boston Bruins to seven games in last year's first round, only to be eliminated and then fail to qualify for the dance this season.
One step forward, two steps back.
The Columbus Blue Jackets
have only been to the playoffs twice in their 13-year history, yet despite being bounced
from the post-season Monday night by the Pittsburgh Penguins, there is every indication this franchise is indeed well on its way to becoming a contender in the Eastern Conference.
Again, no guarantees, but there is something about the Blue Jackets that suggests their emergence as a playoff team this season is an accurate indication of better days ahead.
There is plenty to like about the Blues Jackets, from a demanding but fair coach in Todd Richards to solid goaltending (Sergei Bobrovsky
didn't play his best against the Penguins, but he's one year removed from winning the Vezina Trophy) to plenty of scoring potential from the forwards and defence. Not to mention a solid work ethic that enabled them, time and time again, to come back in games they appeared to be out of.
The most thrilling aspect about this franchise, however, is its excellent youth. Start with 21-year-old Ryan Johansen
, who led the team in scoring with 30 goals and 63 points in 82 games in just his third NHL season. Add 20-year-old Boone Jenner
, who hit his stride late in the season and carried his mature play over into the playoffs, as well as 20-year-old defenceman Ryan Murray
, and you get the point. Murray, the second overall pick from the 2012 draft, served notice he will be a point-producing blue-liner for years to come.
The six-foot-three, 225-pound Johansen emerged as both a dependable scorer and a physical force, justifying the organization's decision to make him the fourth overall pick in the 2010 draft.
It is hard to imagine how Jenner, who is six-foot-two and 210 pounds, was still available when the Blue Jackets selected in the second round in 2011, but nevertheless he served notice he will be a two-way force for years to come. The Dorchester, Ont., native saved his best for last, scoring three goals and five points in six playoff games.Rich in prospectsCam Atkinson
is yet another weapon breaking through in his third season with 21 goals and 40 points in 79 games. What Atkinson lacks in size -- he is five-foot-eight and weighs 175 pounds -- he makes up for in heart and courage.
When you factor in solid veterans such as James Wisniewski
, Jack Johnson
and Fedor Tyutin
on defence, it is easy to see why the good folks of Columbus are so excited about their team.
Certainly, the club missed veteran forward Nathan Horton
in the playoffs. Horton shut it down
after undergoing abdominal surgery. Having him come back healthy next season should be a boost.
Indeed, there is plenty to love about the Blue Jackets moving forward. And we haven't even got to the real good news yet. Because as well as they played this season with young, emerging stars leading the way, the Blue Jackets have some of the best prospects in hockey. Over the next few years they will surely give the team another push.The Hockey News
ranks the 30 NHL teams' prospects annually and this year placed the Blue Jackets at No. 2, behind only the Anaheim Ducks. It is one thing for a team to have three selections in the first round of a draft, as the Blue Jackets did in 2013, but it is quite another to pick players who might all one day become impact players in the NHL.
The Blue Jackets have high hopes for centre Alexander Wennberg, chosen 14th last June, left-winger Kerby Rychel, picked 19th, and centre Marko Dano, selected 27th.
Wennberg seems the closest to being ready to play in the NHL, having scored 16 goals and 21 points playing for Frolunda HC in the top Swedish League. He also added three goals and seven points in seven games for Sweden at the world junior championship.
Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen describes Wennberg as a three-zone player. THN
added, "As one of the oldest players available in the 2013 draft, Wennberg plays a very mature game and his hockey sense with and without the puck is off the charts."
Rychel, whose dad, Warren, played 406 games in the NHL, split his year between Windsor and Guelph of the Ontario Hockey League, producing 34 goals and 90 points in 58 games.
All in all, the Blue Jackets took a huge step this season, but the best is yet to come.
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