Hartnell adds to Blue Jackets’ revamped image

June 23, 2014, 3:39 PM

Three years. That’s all.

Today is the anniversary of the 2011 blockbuster that brought Jeff Carter from Philadelphia to Columbus, a move that saw the Blue Jackets spend about eight months trying to convince the disgruntled centre that he belonged in the Ohio capital. Eventually they were forced to cut their losses and ship him out of town.

It is a particularly relevant piece of history when you consider the circumstances surrounding Monday’s acquisition of Scott Hartnell from the Flyers for R.J. Umberger and a fourth-round draft pick.

You see, Hartnell had to waive a no-movement clause to complete the transaction, something he was all-too-happy to do after a discussion with Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen. That is a fairly noteworthy development given that Hartnell had spent seven seasons in Philadelphia and still has five years and $23.5-million remaining on his contract (Matt Oates, Hartnell’s agent, told Sportsnet that the Flyers initiated the trade).

"He asked if we were committed to winning," Kekelainen said. "That was his only concern wherever he was going to go; he said ‘I’m 32 years old, I have a lot of money, but I want to win.’

“And that’s basically the question I wanted to hear and the answer I wanted to give.”

My how times change.

Columbus is a hockey city now and the Jackets are an organization being viewed in a completely different light around the NHL. The enthusiasm was undeniable during their recent playoff run, when fans turned Nationwide Arena into the loudest building this side of the Bell Centre for a first-round series with Pittsburgh.

Remember that this is a team with just two playoff wins to show for its first 14 years in the league — both of them coming in April. To label the Jackets’ existence a test of patience would be an understatement.

However, they’ve also shown themselves to be survivors. They overcame the Carter fiasco and the subsequent departure of captain Rick Nash and were transformed into a team on the rise in relatively short order.

With Kekalainen now running the show along with president John Davidson, there is promise throughout a lineup that was once more of a punch line. In goal you have Sergei Bobrovsky, a Vezina Trophy winner not yet in his prime. There is centre Ryan Johansen, a 33-goal man at age 21, and future stalwart defenceman Ryan Murray and a roster full of underrated contributors.

One of the first hints that times were changing came last summer when free-agent forward Nathan Horton elected not to sign a new contract with Boston and instead landed in Columbus on a seven-year deal. There may have been some snickers at the time, but you’re not hearing them anymore.

The Jackets went on to grab a wild-card spot in their first season in the realigned Eastern Conference and gave the Penguins a pretty good run for their money. It was a series that ignited a serious spark under a slumbering fan base.

"We gave them just a taste this year, and you saw how they responded," Umberger told Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch on Monday. "It was incredible."

The task now is to try and build on the baby steps taken last season. That helps explain the decision to go out and get Hartnell, who was acquired for an asset (Umberger) that was likely going to be given a compliance buyout before June 30 if a trade couldn’t be consummated.

There are still important questions to be asked about the move. At 32, it’s fair to wonder how much Hartnell has left in the tank, especially after seeing his goal production dip over the last two seasons. Speed has never been an asset in his toolbox and he’s only bound to slow down as time moves on. Once that happens, can he still be a contributor?

Yes, there is an element of risk at play here.

However, fans in Columbus should celebrate the fact that their team was even in position to roll the dice. It is a sign that they are not only in the game, but also a long way away from where they once were.

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