Monday, February 1, 2010

Address Forwarding Notification

Greetings all!

My apologies for not doing this sooner, but senility may be an excuse.

I have moved and renamed my blog, so please re-direct your browsers to Ten Minute Misconduct 

The Wordpress feature set is more robust, and I was able to get a dedicated domain.  With the abortive affiliation with FTC, I figured that it was time to start fresh.

Look forward to seeing you all at the new site!


Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Final 41: What Needs To Happen

A 15-18-8 first half of the season was certainly not what coach Ken Hitchcock or GM Scott Howson envisioned coming into the 2009/2010 campaign.   The reasons underlying this poor showing – poor defensive play, too many turnovers, weaker than expected goaltending -- have been debated ad nauseum.  As the first half wound down, the defense and goaltending improved dramatically, but the offense – both even strength and power play – faded from relatively lofty levels. 
As the calendar year winds down, and the second half of the hockey year begins, there are several key steps the  Blue Jackets must take to avoid the same pitfalls they have experienced thus far this season.  Although Columbus remains within shouting distance of the final Western Conference playoff berth, the things they need to do are independent of playoff prospects for this season.  With a plethora of young talent, the long term prospects are bright, but only if some fundamental issues are addressed.
Make no mistake – this is a talented team. Nash, Modin, Pahlsson, Tyutin, Jurcina and Hejda have all earned slots on their respective Olympic teams, and a wealth of young talent populates the roster.  While youngsters and veterans alike have underperformed in the first half, a significant aspect of the team’s failures thus far can be attributed both to the way the existing talent has been utilized, and the environment under which they have been expected to operate.   
Here are my keys for the second half:
·         Return Stability – Patience is not one of Ken Hitchcock’s virtues, particularly with young players.  His tinkering began almost from day one, and it is the rare game where his lines remain intact.  Significant changes are put in place every other game or so, only to be abandoned shortly thereafter.  While troubling to a veteran squad, it is almost defeating to a young team, particularly one tasked with implementing an overall system as complex as Hitchcock’s.  Brassard is a talented guy whose confidence has been almost shattered as Hitch has cut his minutes and moved him to 4th line duty.  Brassard needs more skill around him to succeed.     Hitchcock needs to put his young talent out there in positions where they can succeed, allow them to make mistakes, and build the foundation for the future.
Put the following forward lines in place, and stick with them:
Nash, Vermette, Huselius
Umberger, Brassard, Voracek
Torres, Pahlsson, Clark
Modin, Murray, Picard

·         Avoid History --  If you track the history of Hitchcock teams, as their defensive prowess has improved, their offensive production has decreased.  Earlier this year, the Jackets were in the top 5 or 6 in the league, scoring over three goals per game on average.  Unfortunately, after the best start in franchise history, the defense collapsed, making the scoring prowess largely academic.  Over the last several games, the defense and goaltending have improved dramatically, but apparently at the expense of the offense.  Columbus has scored but one goal in each of the last 3 games, and is fortunate to have garnered three points over that span.  Coach and players need to find that middle ground to provide offensive freedom while still being responsible defensively.
·         Use Talent Properly– The Blue Jackets have speed, puck handling ability and some good shooters.  Acknowledge that some players may defend more with speed, position and stick, rather than knockout checking.  Insist on responsibility, but deploy your talent to maximum advantage, letting them do what they do best.  Raffi Torres, for example, has been a sparkplug for the Jackets, has a good shot and can deliver a good hit.  Yet, during the recent unpleasantness, his minutes and role have decreased. 
·         Be Accountable – The players need to be accountable for their play on the ice, not only to the coaches, but to each other.  If they miss an assignment, turn the puck over or fail to communicate, they are hurting their fellow players more than they are the coaches.  If the puck is coming in your direction, step toward it – don’t wait for it.  The devil is in the details –  if the system and coaches provide the freedom to show your talent, use it responsibly.
·         Consistency, From Everyone and For Everyone – While players cannot guarantee results, they can guarantee effort.  During each shift, skate hard, keep heads up and stick on the ice.  Provide support, and let your teammates know where you are on the ice.  Mistakes will happen, but effort and talent can overcome those.    From the coaching perspective, treat everyone equally, regardless of how old they are or how long they have been in the league.  One bad shift or bad game should not result in banishment to the press box or slashing of minutes.  By the same token, even Rick Nash should sit if he dogs it.  Consistency builds responsibility, and responsibility breeds trust.  Right now, the club needs large doses of both.
·         Reward Good Play, Regardless of Result – Sometimes great efforts will not be enough, particularly for goaltenders.  Play the goaltender who is hot, regardless of whether a “W” is chalked up.  Steve Mason surrendered one goal on 52 shots over two games, yet because his team could not score, he sits.   Competition is one thing, fairness is another.
·         Challenge Each Other – Be creative, be innovative, but be on the same page.  Don’t rely on coaches to regulate.  Peer pressure is the greatest equalizer.

The Blue Jackets have played their way into a box, but have the time and talent to play their way back into it.  Whether for this season, or for the many seasons to come that many of these players will be together, these steps will be needed to get where the team wants to go.  

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

All I Want For Christmas . . .Is James Neal's Two Front Teeth

OK, that may not be all I want for Christmas, but it would be a helluva start. 

Despite the fact that Neal is apparently (per this morning's Dispatch) a BFF of Jared Boll, he is a marked man in CBJ land for his "hit and run" style of cheap shot tactics, which has claimed Derick Brassard and Derek Dorsett as victims.

If a player delivers marginal hits, but then at least stands up to the ensuing fight, that is one thing.  Neal, however, has shown a propensity to deliver the cheap shot and flee, leaving others to clean up after him.  Tought to respect play like that. 

Here are some notes on tonight's contest:

  • Two fragile clubs coming into this one, with both experiencing substantial losing skids.  This will be a test of character.
  • Ditto for the goaltenders.  Hitchcock basically called out Mason by adopting the "win to play" approach -- only to have Garon surrender five tallies against Phoenix.  Turco's standing has also been questioned.  Let's see who responds.
  • Jackets are battling the flu bug (can anything else go wrong?).  Huselius is doubtful and Stralman is out.  That means more (gulp) Methot on the blue line.  Let's hope that our forwards loosen up and fire away.
  • Interesting to see how the Jackets react after the summit meeting held yesterday, which were reported as "stunning" to the players.  Hopefully the message, whatever it was, was carried to the youngsters, and will translate into action tonight.
  • Watch for the first period to get a sense of what is happening.  Speed and controlled aggression are what we want to see. 
Puck drops at 8:30 EST.  The Jackets can give themselves (and the fans) an early Christmas present with a win.  Go Jackets!!!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Summit Meeting For Blue Jackets

As reported by Aaron Portzline of the Dispatch, the Blue Jackets held two summit meetings this morning at their Dallas Hotel. My take on what has been reported so far is available here.

From the tone of Portzline's report, the involvement of Howson, and the apparent length of the meetings, one gets the sense that these are not your run-of-the-mill player/coach sessions. That the middle core of the team was included is significant as well. Boll, Brassard, Murray, Stralman, Russell, Roy, Voracek, Mason, Garon, Methot, Modin and Blunden not invited. Keep in mind that the oldest of the invited veterans is Sammy Pahlsson, who just turned 32 last week. The youngest of the invited group? Captain Rick Nash, at 25.

You can argue and debate techniques, systems, styles of play, etc. etc. -- you can't debate youth. In the world of NHL hockey youth of the likes the CBJ possesses is both a blessing and a curse. Hopefully, GM, Coaches and Players are all figuring out how to harness the energy, talent and exuberance of youth, while avoiding the emotional roller coaster that youngsters bring to the table.

Strap in tight folks. This is definitely an "E" Ticket ride.

Monday, December 21, 2009

New Article -- Howson Interview Responses

First, as promised in the prior post, hereis the link to my latest article on Inside Hockey.

Also, what follows is my entry in the challenge posted over at The Dark Blue Jacket to provide our own responses to the questions Portzline posed to GM Scott Howson in the interview run in today's Dispatch.

Before responding, I would mildly disagree with the characterization of this as a "great" interview. First of all, the interview consisted of many leading questions, designed to elicit specific responses. Secondly, as I noted previously, interviews with GMs under these circumstances are inevitably vanilla. Howson cannot say anything on the coaching situation other than express support for Hitchcock (and I am not implying that his support is not genuine). Club execs almost never express criticisms of coaches prior to the coach being replaced. Those issues, if they exist, are handled out of the public limelight, which is as it should be. Similarly, Howson is handcuffed in trading by the tightly scheduled Olympic year, the length of existing contracts, and the competetive situation in the league. To his credit, he won't make a bad deal, just to make a deal, and couldn't comment on any deals in the works, even if he could. Such is the nature of the position.

So, the interview came out about like it had to. It is a shame, because Howson will likely take some heat from the "drastic action now at any cost" crowd for not being more forthright and definitive. Howson will stay on course, and the club will ultimately be better for it. In the interim, here are my responses to the same questions posed to Howson:

Q: Given the expectations surrounding this club heading into this season, how surprised are you to be closer to last place than a playoff spot in the Western Conference?

Really quite surprised, both in terms of the CBJ performance and the performance of some other clubs. The length and depth of the current losing streak is beyond anything that I would have foreseen. However, we fortunately had two solid winning streaks earlier in the season, and every team takes their turn in the barrel, so to speak, so six points out of the playoffs with more than half the season left is not disasterous.

Phoenix, Colorado and Nashville have been real surprises for me this year, and I still wonder what their staying power will be long term. Similar thought with Dallas. Los Angeles appears to have started coming together, so they may be more solid down the stretch than the others, provided their goaltending holds up.

Q: What player, what aspect of the club, has been most surprising?

On the negative side, Commodore and Hejda have been the most surprising. Granted, they both had injuries/illness, but they are both very tentative on the ice and are just not executing some basic things. Methot has been awful, but this is not surprising to me -- I have never liked his attitude and think he has been vastly overrated. Stralman has been a pleasant surprise, and Russell is starting to come into his own. Chimera has been somewhat surprising, showing some more skill than in years past.

Q: Why is coach Ken Hitchcock the right coach for this club right now?

Not sure that he is, but the jury is out on that. What Hitchcock does have is experience and the ability to coach the technical side of hockey. The fundamental questions involve whether his system can work in the "new" NHL and how he can manage the intangibles of morale at both the team and individual levels. He seems increasingly agitated and dismissive, more erratic in his decisions on personnel, rolling four lines, goaltenders etc. It is a cause for concern.

Q: You have one of the youngest clubs in the NHL. Does he work well with a group like that?

No. Hitch has a double standard of performance for veterans and youngsters, and it has shown up time and time again. The young guys are terrified of making a mistake, and they are playing like it. He is strangling the club with micromanagement and constant personnel moves, when he should be going the other direction -- simplicity and stability. The Filatov situation was just a symptom, but there is a rigidity in Hitchcock that does not serve the club well. Howson is building the team for the long term, not just for a Hitchcock style of play. Any system has to have the flexibility to accommodate talent like Filatov and others, and differing styles of play.

Q: Do you feel like you over-estimated Derick Brassard, expecting him to be a No. 1 center this season?

In terms of timing, yes. Again, the physical side is one thing, the confidence and the instinctive side is another. The latter take longer to develop. His progress has been hampered by Hitchcock's impatience, in my opinion. When you are trying to get your game back, it helps to have stable lines and expectations. Brassard is another one who has been afraid to make a mistake. He has recently shown a lot more speed and tenacity, despite Hitch moving him around a lot.

Q: How close did you come to making a deal over the last few days, before the NHL's holiday roster freeze went into effect on Saturday?

Likely not all that close, unless a youngster was in the mix, which Howson is not likely to do, with the exception of a Boll, Methot, Murray, etc. Too early for most clubs to part with a front line defenseman, and long term contracts serve as obstacles to portability. Howson will only do a deal if it is a good one for the CBJ, which is the right approach.

Q: Do you consider talking during the next week, even though you can't make a move until after Dec. 26?

Howson is on the horn all the time, and that won't change during the freeze.

Q: Any thought given to a minor league call-up? I would like to see Picard up and get a real chance to play, and wouldn't mind seeing Mayorov with some time. Picard had a great camp, and I thought that Hitch made a mistake by putting Boll on the roster instead of Picard. He brings lots of grit, but with a much better talent pool. Mayorov, with some exposure, could be surprising, and is worth more of a look. I see nothing on the defensive side right now that gets me excited, outside of John Moore.

Q: You made one change to your blue line last offseason, adding defenseman Anton Stralman. If you had it to do over again, would you have done more to upgrade the defense?

This is 20/20 hindsight for the most part, as it would have been darn near impossible to predict that Commodore and Hejda would have gone in the tank. If any mistakes have been made, it has been over-reliance on Klesla and an inflated concept of Methot's value. Look for those mistakes to be rectified this year, although Klesla's injury history will likely reduce his market value.

Q: Could this club use another strong veteran presence in the dressing room?

Sure, but only if the leadership accompanies on-ice talent. Peca is not that guy right now. Great guy, good leader, but we can't toss a roster spot to a figurehead. Modin is an iffy proposition as it is, so any move for a veteran should be for a veteran, top line defenseman.

Howson is taking a lot of grief in retrospect, but which of the veterans should he have kept? Peca isn't playing professional hockey, so nobody else was jumping at his skill set or leadership either. Malhotra tried to hold us up for $2+ million, and is now playing for $700K in San Jose. What should we do, bring back Christian Backman??? It wasn't unreasonable to think that Commodore, Hejda,Tyutin, Chimera and Nash could provide the leadership. Again, however, it may well be that the team leadership is being overwhelmed by Hitchcock.

Q: You talk about "going through the process" and "working through it", but isn't that what last season was about? Didn't you feel like you'd already gone through all of this?

Hockey is more dependent upon familiarity, timing and comfort than any other sport. Despite the fact that there were fewer roster moves than the year before, the moves that transpired impacted chemistry, and the convergence of injury and tinkering have hurt the ability to get that chemistry back.

Q: Do you need an enforcer?


Q: [Why or] Why not?

Several reasons. The true enforcer is a dying breed in the NHL. We have enough guys who run around hitting people and spending more time in the box than on the ice. We don't use our speed enough, and that is the biggest single thing that hurts us. When we carry speed through the neutral zone and into the offensive zone, people have a hard time playing with us. It is when we are tentative, spend too much time thinking, that we make ourselves seem vulnerable. Speed is a great equalizer.

CBJ fans tend to think that hitting is the answer to everything. Not anymore. Sure, a well-timed hit is a beautiful thing, but the hitting has to be with a purpose. Part of the art is knowing when to use the body, and when to just get position, use the stick and make a play. We take ourselves out of a lot of plays by focusing on the hits. Physical, but smart needs to be the motto.

Q: Sitting here, five days before Christmas, do you still feel as if that's a playoff-caliber club?

The talent is there -- what is needed is the confidence and the freedom to use it. While the players need to perform, the coach and the system are responsible for the environment. A couple of moves by Howson, and a few wins in a row could really spark the team for a sustained run. They can't do it playing scared, however. What has been done to date hasn't worked. Time to loosen the reins a bit and see what can be done.

Just my $.02 worth -- reasonable minds can differ!!

New Article & Miscellaneous Factoids

Check out the latest in the ongoing saga of the media reaction to the Jackets' current troubles. My latest article is up at The Hockey Writers -- check it out here.

Another piece will be posted shortly at . I'll update with a link when that becomes available.

Tonight's lineup includes Jakub Voracek moving to the top line, and Kristian Huselius making his debut as a member of the checking line with Samuel Pahlsson and Freddy Modin. That should be worth watching . . .

Entering play tonight, the Blue Jackets have the #1 power play in the NHL at 23.6%, after converting on two opportunities against Colorado. From worst to first in a matter of months. Maybe if we extended some of that simplicity, aggresssion and stability to the even strength game, progress could be made. Not judging, just saying . . .

Very vanilla interview with Scott Howson in this morning's Dispatch. Of course, Howson is in an awful position when it comes to interviews like this. He has to support the coach, can't disclose details of deals that may be in the offing, and otherwise has to stay largely non-committal. Really a no-win situation for him, as he will now be criticized for not being assertive enough.

Anybody else notice that Hitchcock has been markedly more rattled in post-game interviews. Watching his comments after Colorado made it hit home that he is really struggling trying to figure out what to do to end this slide. Sometimes less is more -- let's try some lines, and leave them alone for awhile -- let them play simple, all-out hockey, make some mistakes, score some goals, and see what happens. What could it hurt?

More on tonight's game later this afternoon.

Go Jackets!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Christmas Video

Saw this over at Puck Daddy, and thought it was worth republishing. Besides a fairly catchy tune, see how many NHL personalities you can identify, then wait until the credits roll at the end to see how many you got right. Proceeds from the video go to the Hockey Fights Cancer effort.