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Blue Jackets Need Nick Foligno At His Best

(Photograph by Richard Whittaker/Icon Sportswire)

The 2015-16 season wasn’t supposed to go this way for the Columbus Blue Jackets. After missing the playoffs in five of the last six seasons, the team entered this campaign riding a wave of expectations and excitement. They answered those expectations by skating to the worst start in franchise history before eventually staking claim to the worst start in the NHL in 72 years.

John Tortorella has done his best to turn the Blue Jackets around, but hasn’t had much success during his time in Ohio, nor has he been able to reasonably rely on the team’s top players. They are now 13-22-3, have the worst goal differential in the NHL by seven goals and head into action on Tuesday night on a three-game losing streak.

The last few contests have been particularly ugly for the Blue Jackets, leading Tortorella to call out the team’s veterans following a 3-2 loss to the Florida Panthers on Sunday. Per Shawn Mitchell of The Columbus Dispatch:

“Let’s call a spade a spade. It’s embarrassing, and that’s what we are. I’m not going to tiptoe around here. That’s how we play right now, and I think I’m going to need to depend on the kids to get us out of this because I’m not getting squat from the top players as far as that stuff.”

Columbus’ older players — particularly Scott Hartnell, who is one of the most penalized players in the league — have failed to step up since Tortorella took over at the end of October. Nick Foligno seemed to struggle under the new bench boss at first, but he was playing some strong hockey before going down with an injury on December 19.

He’s been absent over the Blue Jackets’ last three games, and we’ve learned a lot about how important he is as the team’s captain. When the leadership roles fell to players like Hartnell and Ryan Johansen over the last 10 days, the response wasn’t great. As he reenters the lineup against the Dallas Stars, Foligno will need to continue to play at the level he was before the injury.

Rumors are swirling that Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen is desperately trying to make a trade, but he hasn’t been able to find a dance partner yet. There’s no imminent help coming for Columbus and it’s up to the veterans to start setting a higher standard of play. That starts with the team captain in Foligno.

When the Blue Jackets handed the then 27-year-old the “C” this summer, the choice seemed to make a lot of sense. The organization had been without a captain since trading Rick Nash in 2012, and Foligno was the perfect heart and soul player to lead the team into a new era. When the team announced the move in May, Kekalainen had high praise for Foligno:

“We had a list of qualifications, if you want to call it that, and Nick’s the one that kept checking off the list both on and off the ice. He produces points and sticks up for his teammates; plays hockey the right way. Competes. Plays with a big heart but he also leads us off the ice in the community with saying the right things and knowing when not to say anything.”

We added the bolding to emphasize what the captain must do as he returns to action tonight. The Blue Jackets need someone to take the reins out on the ice. Tortorella is doing his best to punch his players’ buttons, but someone has to set the example when it comes to actually playing the game.

Foligno was starting to do just that before he got hurt. He had notched points in four consecutive games and had nine points across 10 contests in December. This after scoring just a single goal in October and November combined. The former first-round draft pick can’t afford to come back and play the way he did when the season started.

That stretch could be viewed as a captain and team searching for an identity and struggling to find one. Even under Tortorella, the Blue Jackets haven’t been able to figure out what kind of hockey team they are. On paper this looks like a difficult team to play against — a squad that should be able to hit and crash the net with the best of them.

That hasn’t been the case though. According to Tortorella, the Blue Jackets have been way too soft and aren’t putting in enough 60-minute efforts to hang at the NHL level. In the leadership department, the team has had “nothing” according to the coach.

If there’s anyone who can step in and help shift that trend, it’s Foligno.

He emerged as an All-Star caliber talent last season, and he was given the captaincy for a reason. It’s time for him to really establish his influence in the locker room. Players like Hartnell and Johansen haven’t been able to set a positive tone for the team’s younger players out on the ice. It’s on Foligno to provide an example of how the team should be playing on a consistent basis. He faces a tough challenge in the Stars tonight, but it’s yet another chance to the Blue Jackets to start showing signs of life in 2015-16.

All statistics appear courtesy of NHL.com and are accurate through games played on December 28.

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