The Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets should be ferocious rivals.
Hey, when two teams are in the same division and are based in cities fewer than 200 miles apart, they should get along like a couple of wolverines sharing a small cage. Rabid wolverines. Who have toothaches.
There’s just been one hitch: For much of their existence, the Blue Jackets have, to put it delicately, stunk. Like interstate roadkill on a steamy August afternoon.
Columbus has been in the NHL for 21 seasons (not counting 2004-05, which was wiped out by a labor dispute); it has qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs in all but, uh, 15 of those. That’s in a league where at least half of the clubs qualified every year.
Teams have to win four consecutive playoff series to earn a Cup; Columbus has won two in its history.
And not even in the same year.
To their inestimable credit, the Blue Jackets pulled off one of the most stunning upsets in playoff history in 2019, when they swept Tampa Bay — a popular choice to win the Cup that year — in the opening round.
The Blue Jackets got over that spasm of achievement quickly, however, and were eliminated by Boston in six games in the following round. That means there wasn’t enough time to organize a parade down Nationwide Boulevard, let alone to stage it.
Their other postseason success came in a best-of-five qualifying-round matchup with Toronto in 2020.
Since then, however, the franchise has reverted to form, sitting out the playoffs in each of the past two seasons.
The most scary thing about the Blue Jackets for most of their time in the NHL has been the cannon that’s fired in Nationwide Arena anytime the home team scores. Happily for most visitors, they’ve rarely felt as if they were being subjected to a fusillade.
But GM Jarmo Kekalainen, nearly a decade into his run in that position, has slowly, methodically been stabilizing and upgrading the organization, partly via drafts that netted the likes of Zach Werenski and Pierre-Luc Dubois.
(Of course, Dubois wanted out of Columbus, and eventually was traded to Winnipeg in a deal that sent Patrik Laine to the Blue Jackets.)
But after building patiently for so many years, Kekalainen turbo-charged the process a few days ago, when he convinced former Calgary left winger Johnny Gaudreau — the top prize in the 2022 free agent class — to join the Blue Jackets.
It was a recruiting victory as stunning as anything Ohio State’s vaunted football program ever pulled off, since speculation before the signing period began had focused on Gaudreau getting a contract from a club closer to his roots in New Jersey.
Columbus never was mentioned, at least publicly, until a few hours before Gaudreau accepted its offer, which was for $88,250,000 over seven years. That works out to a salary-cap hit of $9.75 million.
Gaudreau put an exclamation mark — maybe a couple of them — on the Blue Jackets’ offseason additions, which include former Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Erik Gudbranson, and his presence figures to make Columbus a more attractive destination for other players of his caliber in the future.
Suddenly, there is talk in Columbus — and, more importantly, around the league — about Columbus as a viable playoff contender next season, perhaps competing with the Pittsburgh Penguins for a spot in the postseason field.
If that happens — and if it becomes an annual occurrence — the Penguins’ relationship with the Blue Jackets will become exactly what it should be: A rivalry.
With all of the raw emotion and hostility that entails.