Mediocre would be improvement

Shortly after the Columbus Blue Jackets closed out 2003 with their sixth straight one-goal loss at home, and 12th overall, Marc Denis tried to focus on the future.

"Let's just hope this is the end of something that's getting really old and the start of something new," the goalie told reporters, the boos from the dissatisfied New Year's Eve sellout crowd still ringing in the players' ears.

"Let's hope we're able to turn the page on a very mediocre year; 2003 hasn't been kind," Denis said.

His words proved prophetic when Doug MacLean resigned New Year's Day and promoted assistant Gerard Gallant to his first NHL head coaching job. MacLean will continue as general manager and team president.

"We have a lot of guys that haven't played to their potential. I hope I was the reason for that," MacLean said. "Now they won't have that for an excuse."

MacLean hinted a week ago to Gallant, a veteran of more than 600 NHL games, most with Detroit, and an assistant with the Blue Jackets from the team's inception, that he might step down. Nonetheless, Gallant was shocked Thursday morning when told he'd be taking over.

"I was very nervous this morning meeting with the media," Gallant, 40, told ESPN.com while waiting for the Blue Jackets' flight to Tampa Bay, where he'll begin his NHL head-coaching career Friday. "But I'm excited. I think I know I can do the job."

"We're right there, we're close," Gallant said. "It's not like we're getting blown out 7-1 every night."

MacLean, 47, took over as interim coach Jan. 7, 2003, when he fired the team's first coach, Dave King. MacLean met several times in recent days with majority owner John H. McConnell before making the decision after the 1-0 loss New Year's Eve to San Jose.

"Sometimes it's tough when you're the GM and the coach, you've got to do it all," Gallant said. "There's not going to be a lot of coaching difference between Doug and myself."

Sadly for the Blue Jackets, mediocrity would be a huge step up for a franchise that has one of the strongest fan bases of any new NHL franchise, yet has failed to deliver on promises of improvement.

Buoyed by Columbus' impressive 71-point effort in its inaugural season, fans rallied around the Blue Jackets with sellout after sellout in spite of two straight 15th place finishes in the Western Conference.

But a series of off-season moves has failed to move the team into the playoff hunt this season, and the Blue Jackets are firmly entrenched in the Western Conference basement. Even more embarrassing, the Blue Jackets (9-21-4-3) have managed to sink below the AHL-caliber Pittsburgh Penguins into the NHL's subbasement.

The surprisingly knowledgeable fans are speaking their minds, and it has not been pretty.

The team's first season ticket holder and part of one of the team's ad campaigns took to wearing a paper bag to games.

Half of the letters to the sports editor of the Columbus Dispatch on Saturday were dedicated to the Blue Jackets' woes.

"There was a rumor going around a few years back that Columbus was going to get an NHL team. I am curious as to when, or if, that team, will ever show up?" wrote one reader.

"The problem has an ego bigger than day and stands behind the bench. Do us a favor, MacLean, and fire yourself. From all three jobs," was another offering.

And finally, "The only interest left this year is the timing of MacLean's firing by the ownership and seeing which players survive the upcoming dumping of high-priced 'talent'."

The week before, it was worse, said one team observer.

Veteran defenseman Darryl Sydor, a two-time All-Star and one of a handful of players brought in this season to push the Blue Jackets over the proverbial playoff hump, shrugged his shoulders in resignation.

"They have a right to be pissed off and upset," said Sydor, who won a Stanley Cup as one of the anchors of the Dallas Stars' defense in 1999. "We've got to take the blame as the players that they've got."

"They pay their hard-earned money, and they come and support us every game," added veteran defenseman Scott Lachance. "They want to see some results."

Sydor ranks himself among the biggest disappointments.

"I feel the first half as a failure," Sydor said. "I haven't done anything I can do. I'm not happy with my game. Offensively I haven't done anything."

Sydor, who has two goals and 12 points and is a minus-13, has plenty of company in the underachievers' wing of the dressing room.

Todd Marchant, who had a career-best 20 goals and 60 points in Edmonton last season, was supposed to bring offense and leadership after signing as a free agent. He has four goals and 18 points and is minus-8.

Geoff Sanderson set a team record with 34 goals last season but has managed just six thus far, one more than Andrew Cassels. Both were re-signed by the team in the off-season.

"The last two years management hasn't just sat back and looked at the attendance numbers, they're putting [the money] back into the team," Lachance said. "It's frustrating. It's tough to look at."

"It's a battle and it's just not going to change overnight," Sydor said.

"Right now we don't have an identity. We need an identity."

Actually, the Blue Jackets do have an evolving identity of sorts.

Through the first 3½ seasons, the Blue Jackets were a team that played tough at home but came unglued on the road.

Now they manage to stay close both at home and on the road before coming unglued regardless of where they're playing.

The Blue Jackets went almost three months this season before winning their first road game Dec. 26 in Chicago.

At home, the Blue Jackets have lost six in a row (0-5-0-1) and are winless in eight straight at Nationwide Arena, a stretch that has seen attendance remain strong with an average of 17,243 but with only one sellout.

The Blue Jackets are a dismal 5-12 in one-goal games, a fact MacLean described as "ridiculous" after the San Jose loss. Only Chicago has more one-goal losses, 13.

Still, the team is actually ahead of last year's point production in one-goal games.

Injuries have been a key factor in the Blue Jackets' sputtering season, particularly a rash of injuries to the defense, including captain Luke Richardson, who returned for the team's first road win after missing 17 games to a fractured finger.

Columbus has dressed a full lineup only four times, and almost 80 percent of the team's man-games lost to injury have been along the blue line.

Even with the return of Richardson and earlier this week of Rostislav Klesla, Duvie Westcott and Jaroslav Spacek remain on injured reserve.

The absence of Spacek and Richardson has been especially crucial given they often play against opposing teams' top players.

The injuries "just seemed to throw us out of sync," said Richardson.

A direct offshoot of the injury woes has been the team's failure to produce on special teams.

A year ago the Blue Jackets had the 12th-ranked power play (seventh at home) and the eighth-ranked penalty killing unit (fourth at home).

This year, the power play is 23rd while penalty killing has slumped to 21st overall.

"If you don't win the special teams battles, you're not going to win many games," offered Lachance, signed as a free agent in the summer of 2002 after two seasons in Vancouver.

MacLean has become increasingly frustrated with his team's efforts.

After the San Jose loss he said he was tired of saying his team played well enough to win.

Earlier MacLean was critical of his team's goaltending and threatened changes were afoot.

"We're still a young team," said Rick Nash, who leads all scorers with 23 goals in just his second NHL season and is the team's one legitimate star.

"Obviously we'd like to be doing better and we should," the 19-year-old said.

There is much hockey to be played and Gallant said he thinks the return of injured players will be the catalyst to an improved work ethic and an improved second half.

"I think they had trouble with their confidence," Gallant said. "We can't let down for one shift."

But as 2004 unfolds, the Blue Jackets find themselves 15 points out of the final playoff position in the Western Conference (granted with two games in hand on eighth-place Dallas) but facing the sobering reality that they have 26 road games ahead of them.

If Columbus is to make the kind of move that Vancouver made two seasons ago and Anaheim did last year, it'll have to do by taking baby steps, looking after the small details.

"We try and get ahead of ourselves and get back to where we think we should be," said Richardson. "You have to do it slowly, chip away. That's what gets you back on track."

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.