Blue Jackets: Playoff believer

Johnson brought leadership, new attitude to Jackets

By The Columbus Dispatch  • 
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Kyle Robertson | Dispatch
Defenseman Jack Johnson, center, has been credited with bringing a change in attitude to the Blue Jackets.

Nationwide Arena will be packed and throbbing tonight, just as it was in the early days of the Blue Jackets, when inaugural coach Dave King needed sign language to communicate with his assistant coaches from just a couple of feet away.

It was like that again for two home playoff games in April 2009, the only Stanley Cup playoffs appearance in franchise history.

What makes this moment so special for so many — Blue Jackets management, coaches, players and fans — is that it’s come so soon after the franchise’s outlook appeared so bleak.

The Blue Jackets play the Nashville Predators tonight with a chance to reach the playoffs for only the second time in 12 NHL seasons.

Where did this turnaround begin? Who first applied the brakes on this hell-bent locomotive and saved the day?

The truth is there are many answers. The trade of former captain Rick Nash brought renewal in the dressing room, the hiring of John Davidson as president of hockey operations brought much-needed leadership, and the performance of goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky has helped patch an array of shortcomings.

But the first step in the right direction may have occurred even further back, on Feb. 23, 2012, just as the franchise was hitting rock bottom. The Blue Jackets acquired defenseman Jack Johnson from the Los Angeles Kings along with a first-round draft pick for malcontent forward Jeff Carter.

Johnson treated his trade to the 30th-place Blue Jackets with such glee and excitement that many wondered what he was thinking. Asked this week to relive the night he was traded, Johnson smiled and nodded.

“If I didn’t have somebody drive me to the airport that night, I probably would have gotten a speeding ticket getting out of LA,” Johnson said. “I was thrilled to come here.

“For whatever reason in sports, sometimes you just don’t have the right fit, and that’s what happened in Los Angeles. So there was no acting involved. It was genuine. I’m not that good of an actor anyway. People here in the Midwest would have seen right through it.”

Johnson became the de facto captain late last season as Rick Nash, who had requested a trade, settled into lame-duck status. The mood in the dressing room lifted, and coach Todd Richards — then an interim coach —credited Johnson for leading the way.

“We’re getting a lot from him on the ice,” Richards said last season. “It may be hard to believe but we’re getting even more from him in the room. It’s a real good place to be right now.”

This summer, Johnson made several drives from Michigan to Columbus so the Blue Jackets leadership group — R.J. Umberger, James Wisniewski, and others — could meet.

For Johnson, it’s been a fresh start.

With the Kings, Drew Doughty had become the star of the blue line, a minute-muncher with Norris Trophy ability. There was also a public spat when general manager Dean Lombardi criticized Johnson’s coach at Michigan for not preparing his players for the NHL.

“There was nothing wrong with LA,” Johnson said. “It just wasn’t right for me anymore.”

Since the Blue Jackets acquired Johnson, they are 33-27-5 with him in the lineup. He has eight goals, 24 assists and a minus-1 rating in those 65 games.

“I haven’t known anything different in Columbus than having a winning team,” Johnson said. “I knew it was going to happen a lot sooner than people thought. Not overnight, but people were thinking years, and I was thinking maybe a season or two.

“We’ve tried to change the approach here. The goal is to win the Stanley Cup. It’s not just make the playoffs, but to win the Stanley Cup. If that’s not the goal, then why are you doing this? That’s why you play the sport of hockey.”

Johnson said he’s not surprised by where the Blue Jackets find themselves today, playing arguably the biggest game in franchise history. He has prepared to be blown away by the atmosphere tonight.

“This is how it’s supposed to be,” Johnson said. “We want to get this up to the point where we’re in it every year.We’ve earned this. The fans have earned it, too. This is how you turn Columbus into a hockey town.”

aportzline@dispatch.com

@Aportzline

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