Sunday, January 11, 2009

Mid-Season Review and Report Card

We have reached the halfway mark of the NHL season (actually 1 game past, but I couldn't get this review together until today). Time to take some stock, deliver some interim grades and gaze into the crystal ball and see what the second half may have in store for us.

First, the hardcore numbers -- 20 Wins, 18 Losses and 4 OT/SO losses for 44 points. We have 111 goals scored and 114 goals against. This is the same point total we had at this point last year, and projects out to 86 points for the season, which would leave us 2 points out of the playoffs, if everyone continues at the current clip. This however does not tell the whole story. Let's dig a little deeper.
  • In our first 19 games this year, we surrendered 65 goals. In the last 23 games, we gave up only 49. Overall we rank 8th in the league and 4th in the conference in Goals Against.
  • Last year's squad had peaked, and was on the verge of a major collapse, leading to the Fedorov trade and Foote fiasco, and the final collapse in the last weeks of the season. This year, we are beginning to emerge from what we hope is our toughest stretch -- major injuries, the longest road stretch of the year, getting a roster to work together with 50% of the players being new, etc.
  • 22 of the final 40 games are at home, and the only remaining road trips of any length are two 3 game stints to Western Canada for the Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton swings, and 1 trip to Florida for a Tampa Bay/Florida combo.
  • We have been able to provide our younger players with some key experience under fire, without sacrificing our position in the standings. In fact, we are better off now than we were before some of these guys went down, in terms of record. This added depth will pay dividends down the stretch, provides insurance for other injuries, and gives Howson some flexibility on the trade front.
  • 88 or 89 points looks like the magic number for a Western Conference playoff spot at the moment, and 92 could get you as high as 5th.
  • Our scoring has been far more evenly distributed this year. While Nash leads the team in goals, as usual, he has 22 assists already. His career high for a season is 31, set last year. This shows he has other folks to score with.
  • We have reached this point with almost no power play to speak of. Not much room to get worse, and it has shown distinct improvement as Russell and Tyutin get more comfortable at the points, which enables Huselius, Nash and others to be more creative down low. Filatov also shows good sense on the PP. If the PP starts clicking, watch out.
  • 25 of our first 42 games were against teams that would make the playoffs today, projecting performance out at their current rate. Only 20 of our final 40 are against such teams.

First Half Highlights

Team -- Back to back to back shutouts of Philly, Anaheim, LA, with two of them on the road; 6 -1 road win over Buffalo; Canadian sweep vs. Vancouver, Calgary, Montreal, Edmonton; twin shutouts of Washington and Ovechkin. Ability to score in the third period to garner points. Having the NHL Rookie of the Month for all 3 months (Brassard, Mason, Mason).

Individual --Mason, Mason, Mason -- Calder, Calder, Calder; Commodore (18 pts, +10), Hejda (+14) Tyutin (18 pts) , Russell, Methot (+9) on defense. Brassard (25pts, +12) before his injury, Nash (especially his 22 assists and +9 rating). Huseliuis (25 points), Voracek (20 pts, +13), Umberger (21 pts). Filatov hat trick!!! Emergence of Peca and Malhotra with new line mates. Goats and Goats II.

Misc. -- Nationwide is starting to slowly fill up again, the Dispatch team is getting more positive, and we are starting to see some love from national media. Medical bills should soon be going down, and management appears poised to help the playoff run with some added talent.

First Half Lowlights

Injuries -- LeClaire (who has never recovered from initial injury, IMHO), Brassard, Chimera, Torres, Dorsett, Nash, Tollefson, Klesla, Novotny, Huselius. They came in a wave, and threatened to swamp the boat.

Getting Acquainted -- As Hitch warned, it takes time to get a group to play together, especially when you bring in half a roster's worth of folks. That led to some painful play at times that looked slow, inept and tentative. That is disappearing as time passes, even with the injuries.

Goaltending -- Whether injury related or otherwise, LeClaire's play has been awful, as was Norrena's before we let him decamp for Europe. Can La Costa provide necessary backup in case Mason goes down? We will need to see. Backup goaltending one of the big concerns going forward.

Toronto -- The local "black helicopter" club was in full session with conspiracy theories abounding after the Dallas fiasco involving Malhotra, and Nash's disallowed "high stick" goal in Minnesota.

Power Play -- Although improving, this has been just awful.


Goaltending -- A - Mason has been simply amazing, and gets A++. Norrena and LeClaire get D's.

Defense -- A - After some early problems with communication and playing style, they have emerged as a solid unit that is shutting down opponents while generating points at an unprecedented clip for a CBJ Blue Line. Commodore, Tyutin, Hejda, Methot have been tremendous, and Russell adds a dimension we have never had.

Offense -- B- Injuries have impacted this area more than any other, and early "getting acquainted" issues were also evident. However, Hitch has hit on some pairings that have proven to be Dynamite -- Goats (Brassard, Chimera, Voracek), Goats II (Peca, Filatov, Voracek), Nash, Malhotra, Huselius. Youngsters are getting comfortable, and we are starting to hit our chances. This was an A- early, a C- in the middle, and now is back to a B+ recently. More heathy bodies will help here, plus an acquisition.

Special Teams -- C- Last place power play, and penalty kill that was awful for awhile, but has been very good of late, which brings this up to a C- from an F.

Head Coach -- A- All things considered, Hitch has done a remarkable job of getting buy-in to his system at a level not seen in the past two years, adjusting to injuries, dealing with the care and feeding of a 20 year old rookie goalie, and coping with Columbus fan base. Not sure anyone in the league could have done any better.

Assistant Coaches -- B On the negative side, it has taken way too long to get something done on the PP, right handed shot notwithstanding. On the positive, they got the PK turned around, have adjusted to the injuries, and have handled the goalkeeping crisis (LeClaire, Norrena and Malarchuck) as well as can be expected. Giving the benefit of the doubt given injuries, new players and need for front office help.

Front Office -- A- Tyutin, Commodore have been absolute studs. Huselius has been solid, and sometimes spectacular. Umberger has been a consistent contributor, and sometimes tremendous. Torres was perhaps an unwarranted injury gamble, but let's wait and see on that one. Backman just looks like a fish out of water in Hitch's system. But, the deal was not about him anyway, and let's see if he settles in. Kudos for being patient on a deal to bring PP and C help. With the young kids chipping in to get us through the injury crisis, Howson's hand has been strengthened. We are only a few Toronto/Ottawa losses away from a deal.

Fans\Press -- B Fulll marks for surviving the Doug MacLean era, which was really more about bad coaching and young player handling than about the trading front. Now get over it, and understand that this is a professional team, with an 82 game schedule, in a sport where being intimately familiar with teammates's skils and tendencies is paramount. This takes time. Every win is not an achievement worthy of sainthood, and every loss does not demand immediate termination of the head coach or player in question. What is the direction? Are we better today that we were yesterday? I chuckle at the folks who will brag about our young talent in one breathe, then condemn the team for inconsistency in the next. Uhh, young . . .inconsistent, they kind of go together, as Hitch has warned. There is starting to be some appreciation of progress, understanding of the injury bug, and enthusiasm is returning. Let's get this town back to being a tough place for opponents to play.

In Conclusion . . .

So there you have it. Given the adversities and challenges, not a bad first half at all, and we are right in the thick of things in January, with our best hockey yet to come. Our youngsters have gained experience, we have players getting healthy, and the best damn goaltender in the land, to borrow a phrase.

Assuming no dramatic worsening of our heath situation, I am predicting the CBJ reach the playoffs as the 6 seed in the West, and will face Calgary in Round 1.

Give me your best shots . . . Go Jackets!


BZArcher said...

From your lips to God's ears. AMEN!

Rick said...

Excellent review!!! As the injuries subside and we start to get players back on the ice, watch out!!! The level of play and enthusiasm these kids have shown is very infectious. The vets, I'm sure, are itching to get back to playing.

The level of play shown (plus winning!) really takes some pressure off of Howson and puts him in the drivers seat in regards to trades. Trading from a position of strength is always better in the long run.

Mark my words, the league and players out there are starting to take notice. The perception that C-Bus is some "backwater" of the league is changing. This will result in more quality players giving us a serious look during free agency than we have had in the past. Do you think Huselius, Commodore and the rest are regretting their decision to come to Cowtown?

Not on your life!!!

Carry The Flag!!!

roadman said...

A great report, thanks. I always enjoy reading your stuff.

I wonder where the "Hang Hitch & Howsen" crowd is these days. I'm sure they're still there and just waiting for another bump in the road, and there will be bumps. But we have to feel really fortunate to have the people in charge that we do. I think they give the program stability. We can now begin to see the pieces that they have out in place starting to come together. As you said it takes time. Any team sport when you turn over half your components it will take time and a steady hand guiding the process to get results. Not only were there a lot of new piece3s but so many of them were very young pieces and still are. And now we begin to reap the benefits of a process done right.

IMHO the turning point might just be Brassard's jump in fight and injury. Then there were the two very bad loses to PHX and LAK, I wonder if that didn't slap the guys "upside the head" as they say and force them into the realization that if we are going to do this the time is now. Since then, even in the losses, the effort has been there, the leaders have lead and the kids have followed along. The team has “dug in” and away we have gone.

Can’t help but feel that the best is yet to come. More than x’s & o’s, more than strategies & game plans, I think it’s an attitude. It starts from the top. The team has it and now the fans are starting to feel it. There are some pieces missing, but my bet is they will be found and without sacrificing the future of the franchise.

Long post sorry! Thanks for your time.


gonz said...

What BZArcher said, from your keyboard to the scoreboard.

Can it be that the team I've followed since the days of Slodelein and Shampoo could become achievers?

Let's go Jackets!

JAL said...

BZ,Rick,Roadman,Gonz - first, thanks for the comments -- starting to get some velocity here, which is nice to see.

You all make some great points, and I love seeing the optimism. The boys have given us good reason to believe.

Umberger talked about the phenomenon we are seeing just a few weeks ago. He said that they faced the same situation in Philly last year, with lots of new bodies on the club, and that it took them until January to come together, but that when it did, it wasn't gradual, it was BOOM!

I think there is some of that going on, plus the enthusiasm of the rookies, which has elevated the game of some of the vets, most notably Peca and Malhotra. At that point it feeds off itself.

Yep, there will be more bumps, but this team has shown incredible spirit.

Don't know if you guys caught it, but Dispatch is saying we could be in the market for Curtish Joseph from Vancouver, who should come for no more than a 5th round pick. Just insurance due to LeClaire's injury, or does this bode a bigger deal? Don't know, but it will be interesting to watch.

Rick said...

CuJo? Not the greatest latlely, but he does have experience.

BZArcher said...

Not CuJo, Sanford, which wouldn't be a terrible idea. He's been a servicable backup in Vancouver and in St. Louis before that.

Don't knock Shampoo, though! It's not his fault he had hands made of glass...