Blue Jackets bouncing back nicely

Nick Foligno re-upped with Columbus because he's confident about the team's future. AP Photo

It was a mid-November conversation, his team near the basement of the NHL standings, and the question was about whether his organization should start thinking ahead to the generational talent available at the top of the June draft.

"No, we're not even thinking about that," Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen told ESPN.com at the time. "We'll get back on our feet here, and we'll get going. We played some real good hockey at the end of last year. We have the same team, except we think we're a little bit better than last year.

"We've just got to get going here."

Kekalainen would be proved right, although not right away as his injury-riddled team ended November with six straight losses to sit at 6-15-2 as December beckoned. What happened next? Bodies started returning, and the Blue Jackets put up a 10-1-1 mark in the final month of 2014.

Give up? These guys? Forget about it. We should have all learned that last season, which is why Jackets leading scorer Nick Foligno chuckled when I relayed the exchange I had with his GM back in November, when Kekalainen essentially politely bit my head off when it was suggested the team take a knee given the talent available in the June draft.

"I think that's another big reason I wanted to stay and sign an extension, knowing the type of guy that Jarmo is, he wants to win just as badly as anybody," Foligno told ESPN.com Thursday from Glendale, Arizona. "Him and J.D. [president John Davidson] and [assistant GM] Bill Zito, they want to put a team together that's going to win now. He held the course earlier this season and it allowed us time to turn it around.

"We have enough character guys, obviously with all the injuries we had it was tough, but we found a way."

It was near lunacy the amount of players that dropped to injury in the opening two months of the season for Columbus. It could have crippled any team.

"It was ridiculous, unbelievable," Foligno said.

Not that they're 100 percent healthy now, either, still missing key forwards Boone Jenner and Artem Anisimov, among other players. But the return of Sergei Bobrovsky -- one of the game's top netminders -- and Brandon Dubinsky -- a solid two-way center -- plus the return of other regulars over the past month has at least given the Jackets some semblance of what they really should look like.

The head coach of a rival Eastern Conference team, whose club played the Jackets during that 10-1-1 run, had this to say about their turnaround: "Healthy goalie, who is really good," the coach said via text. "Depth up front; real good on back end in their top five; Wis [James Wisniewski] is a real good No. 5. They're deeper and bigger than a lot of teams."

The Jackets put together a 12-4-0 run from Jan. 1-Feb. 3 of last season that turned around their season and led to a playoff berth, which part of the reason there was a feeling in their dressing room in November that they could also rescue this season.

"I think so, you use your own past experiences because that's all you have," Foligno said. "What we accomplished last year, not much of the personnel has changed. We knew once we got healthy, we could be that team again. It's pretty impressive [to] have this run but, honestly, we knew all along we could be a good team."

But here's the sobering view as well. The Blue Jackets remain nine points out of a playoff spot, despite their incredible December. In fact, they made up only one point toward a playoff spot during the month, thanks in part to the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers turning it on.

That's why all the talk about the standings at Thanksgiving being the standings at the end of the season tend to be right. It's mighty hard to jump out of big holes in a league with so many three-point games. And then this: Nine of the Jackets' 13 games in January are on the road, including a four-game set that begins Saturday night against the Arizona Coyotes, followed by Sunday's game against the Colorado Avalanche.

"That's going to be huge. As good as our December was, we need to follow it up now," Foligno said. "We battled back to get to .500, but let's not look back. This is how the schedule goes, it's what you're dealing with, I think it's a great opportunity for us to band together on the road and find a way to find more wins. It's going to be crucial for us in order to try and make a playoff push. We've been playing playoff hockey since December, so our mindset isn't going to change."

Odds are the Jackets can't climb back out of this hole this time around. But how the team responded to that 6-15-2 start, whether it falls short of not, is in Foligno's mind more telling of where this franchise is headed in terms of the big picture.

Hence his signing of a six-year, $33 million extension a few days ago to forgo unrestricted free agency in July.

"I think that was my biggest motivation when I was thinking about this year and what it all meant and going to free agency or staying, my heart just wanted to stay," Foligno said. "That was a really good feeling for me. And I think part of it was just how we were playing. I want to see this through. When I got traded here three years ago, the team wasn't in a spot it wanted to be and I wanted to be a guy that would be part of trying to help this thing around. I feel like we're close, we've got a lot of pieces of the puzzle.

"I feel like we had unfinished business here, and I really want to see the city of Columbus and organization and all the guys here to have success and hopefully win a Stanley Cup. That made my decision easy."