Experts, team officials take a look at the (improving) state of the CBJ.

Experts, team officials take a look at the (improving) state of the CBJ.

The first half of this year's NHL season has included some heady times for fans of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Highlighted by a 16-game winning streak, the second-longest in NHL history, the team finds itself near the top of the standings, this following a 27th-place (out of 30 teams) finish in 2015-2016.

It's all been so unexpected. Or has it?

“Coming into 2015-16, I think all of the pundits predicted good things for the [Blue Jackets],” USA Today hockey writer Kevin Allen said in a phone interview. “They looked very much like a team on the rise and I think a lot of folks, myself included, predicted they were going to be a playoff team. And then there was a total collapse. Everyone thought, ‘OK, we were wrong about that team.' I remember talking to [Blue Jackets General Manager] Jarmo Kekalainen prior to this season and he said, specifically, ‘I see the standings where we were last year and I just don't believe them.' So he didn't think they were as bad as where they finished. The media didn't buy that. We were fooled once and we weren't going to get fooled again. It ended up we were fooled again, because it turns out we were right the first time.”

“Sometimes in sports things don't go exactly as you planned,” Kekalainen said. “When we bottomed out, we analyzed all kinds of different things. We made some changes but overall I think the philosophy's been the same right from the start from when we came on board. We want to draft well we want to develop well, and have our players grow up being Blue Jackets, with an attitude of, ‘What can I do to get better today?' And it takes time. I know patience is kind of a swear word in professional sports. We don't use it very much, but there are no shortcuts.”

“Last year for me was an assessment, [to] find out where they are, find out about them mentally, find out how best to use them to be successful as players and as a team,” Head Coach John Tortorella said after a recent practice at Nationwide Arena. “This year the process really started with our training camp. We sent them a very pointed letter in the summer as far as what was expected — that's when I really started the process, not so much the physical part but the mental part of it. I think we've taken the right steps, gone through a nice process here. I think there are some really good things there but I also know it's such an unforgiving league that we still have a lot to do.”

Both Tortorella and Kekalainen believe the team's improved results (32 wins and 68 points are franchise bests for this point in a season) are a reflection of progress and process, one that is not finished.

“The goal is to make the playoffs, and we're on track. That's one thing. But the other thing we've talked about since the start of the season is that, we're a young group, a young team. Let's make sure we concentrate on every day, focus on [getting better]. If we do that, we're going to get better and we're going to get points, because we have the talent in our group, we have enough character in our group, but we have to stay focused on today,” Kekalainen said.

“You can't say what your team is … until you're consistently that team for years. I don't think it happens overnight. We're certainly not there; we're too young. We're still in the middle of a pretty long process,” Tortorella said.

Both also said the process isn't maybe as clean as fans would like.

“We had that streak, which is great, but we didn't have many games in there where we felt like we had gotten lucky. Maybe a couple games where a goalie saved our hide. Now we go into these games [since the streak], and you can see behind the result to where … we outplayed them but we lost. It happens,” Kekalainen said.

“I never coached a team on results. I coach a team each day on how they acted the last day, how they played the last day, how they practiced the last day,” Tortorella said. “It's a game of results, but in our game … you can lose so many ways. You may have played really well and lost 5-2 and played really bad and won 5-2. I [have to] be really careful in how I coach them. The process [comes] first and results come after.”

Captain Nick Foligno shared his coach's assessment.

“We're still understanding how good we can be, but we're pretty solid, a well-built team. It's a young group that's going to get better and better as the year goes on,” Foligno said.

Kekalainen offered fans some long-term positivity, suggesting that not only is the team headed in the right direction, but that it has some staying power.

“We like our group, but what we're most excited about is that there's so much room for improvement,” he said. “I like the potential we have for the future. And once we get to the level we're aiming at, we're going to stay there for a while.”