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.

Midweek Breather -- Jackets Off To Europe!!

It's Wednesday, the middle of the week, and only 9 days until Christmas.  Time to take a deep, cleansing breath and regain our perspective on hockey (and life):

  • Gut wrenching loss last night, but the quality of play was much better. (At least that's what I heard, since we could not watch the game -- thanks to Versus, DirecTV and Gary Bettman)
  • Minnesota brings out the bizzare -- last night a last second goal, last year the phantom Nash "stick higher than the crossbar" dispute, and so it goes.  You think the Coen Brothers are conspiring against the CBJ??   
  • Howson has been very quiet -- too quiet, IMHO.  Watch out . . . 
  • On a more positive note, the Jackets will join Boston, Minnesota, San Jose, Phoenix and Carolina in Europe to open the season next year, as confirmed by an NHL executive at the meeting in Pebble Beach.  No word yet on the specific venues.  Road Trip!!!!
  • The Jackets and Wild continued their tradition of playing tight, low scoring games, particularly in Minnesota.  In 17 games played between the clubs in Minnesota,  only 3 times have the teams combined for more than 5 goals. 
  • Jacket scouts were rumored to be at the Toronto/Washington game the other night.  See Howson item above . . . 
  • Bettman announced that salary cap not expected to change much for next year -- $1 million either way or so.  That means that the Blackhawks will only need to jettison about 8 players to meet the game, instead of 9 . . .
  • Eric Smith will be hosting his weekly Fire The Cannon chat tonight at 7:00 PM.  I will endeavor to join in and offer my two cents worth. Details here.
  • The boys have had a rough go of late, but it will turn around.  Keep in mind that despite this horrific streak, we are now just at .500.  How many years did we dream of reaching the .500 mark???  
Go Jackets!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

New Article On CBJ Issues

My latest piece, discussing the various issues plaguing the Jackets, is now posted at The Hockey Writers.  Entitled The Young and the Restless, it examines things from aspects of player issues, coaching issues and system issues. 

Give it a look and let me know your thoughts!

Fear Factor . . . and Other Delights

Despite the 5 -3 loss at the hands of the dreaded Nashville Predators tonight, I stand by my prior post, in that it is not time to panic.  In fact, while this was an ugly one to watch in many respects, watching it clarified several things.  Some involve players, some involve coaching.  In no particular order, here they are:
  • Playing With Fear -- The Jackets are playing scared right now, and have been for awhile.  It is an ironic situation, as they are so afraid of making mistakes, they are hesitating and making more mistakes in the process.   We all know that Hitch is not patient when it comes to mistakes, particularly by young players. However, in attempting to insure no mistakes, particularly in our own zone, they are in fact making matters worse.  By holding the puck, or waiting for it to arrive, they increase the pressure on themselves, leading to poor decisions and/or turnovers. This is clearly impacting Methot, who made some awful, awful plays tonight.  Fear also causes paralysis, and is not limited to the youngsters. Watch Mike Commodore right now.  He is so concerned about making mistakes due to his conditioning, he stays rooted in one place.  The results are disasterous.
  • It Ain't Mason -- Mason has become the popular whipping boy this season. While he has not been the Calder Trophy caliber netminder of last year, he also has not been playing nearly as badly as his numbers indicated.  Tonight was a perfect example.  Goal 1 -- quick turnover in our zone, Mason moves quickly from left to right to cover, perfect shot to upper far corner behind him.  Goal 2 -- awful turnover down low by Methot, puck shoved out to point blank range.  Goal 3 -- defense leaves Sullivan all alone at the left post --tap in goal.  Goal 4 -- way too much gap for 4 vs. 4, Mason screened up high, never sees the shot leave the stick.   Goal 5 -- three bodies in front of Mason, and puck caroms off Jones' chest.  If Mason doesn't make five or six great saves in successoin in the first period, this is an 8 - 2 game.
  • Stop Tinkering With Bodies -- Part of the equation for turnovers and mistakes is uncertainty.  One of the things that promotes uncertainty is lack of familiarity.  The incessant tinkering with lines is wearing on the players and is proving counter-productive.  Tonight it was Chimera learning to play with Nash and Vermette, Huselius learning to play with Umberger and Voracek, Brassard, Modin and Torres learning to play together, etc.   It showed. After a time, the players get tired of trying to predict where the others will be, and try to take charge themselves.  Nash is prone to this as is Huselius.  We have the talent to succeed.  Put some lines together, and let them play for awhile.  They will get hot, and go cold, but they will become a single unit and learn to trust each other. Hitch is trying to force the issue right now, playing Nash some insane minutes.  He had over 23 minutes tonight -- leading all skaters.  That is nuts, and is going to lead to him getting hurt, burned out or both.  Stop!
  • Address The Real Issues -- Fairly -- Hitch was correct tonight in saying that the primary problem was "from the red line back."  While the forwards have been remiss in their defensive duties, by far the worst offenders have been our blue liners. Though Hitch made it sound like this has only been happening since Klesla went down, that is revisionist history.  Klesla was inconsistent this season before being hurt, and Tyutin has had a horrendous start (though is playing better of late).  Russell was scratched for several games for perceived transgressions, yet Commodore, Hejda, Tyutin and, to a lesser extent, Methot, have avoided the same penalty.  This double standard for veterans and youngsters has dogged Hitch for years, and he needs to show that you are either playing well enough to be in the lineup, or you aren't, regardless of stature.  If guys don't hustle back consistently, let them pay the price, but treat the entire team the same way. 
  • Change The Culture -- the atmosphere of fear has to disappear, and has to be replaced with one of trust.  The team has a lot of talent, and they need to be allowed to use it -- responsibly.  Use the system to channel the talent, not stifle it.  Admit reality -- Modin is going to be a good influence, but he is not the savior, nor is Dorsett, nor is Boll.  All have important roles to play, but only in the confines of an integrated whole.  If players are put on the ice, knowing they are trusted, and not fearing banishment for a mistake, the fear and hesitation will leave.  Will they make mistakes?  Absolutely.  However, for the first time in team history, we have the talent to overcome mistakes.  Let them learn from mistakes and develop instincts, so they can spend more time acting and less time thinking.
  • Maximum Effort -- The quid pro quo for trusting the players is for the players to show they deserve the trust -- not by being perfect -- rather by going all out for the entire shift, every shift.  We have a lot of guys doing it, but not everyone. They can't wait for the puck to get to them when in their own zone -- they need to skate to it.  As Hitch says -- they need to move as a unit, up and down the ice. Let the defensemen pinch -- but the forwards need to cover. 
We can be sure that Howson is closely monitoring the situation, and will act if necessary.  The time might be nearing, but players and coaches need to make a cohesive push to change the way things are working.  It can't be unilateral. 

The club is just a few wins away from being back in the thick of things, and that is well within their reach.  Coach and players need to open their hands to grasp the opportunity.

Monday, December 14, 2009

If This Were An Actual Emergency . . .

OK -- put down the axe and step away from the door . . .   Time for one of those periodic reminders that needs to be asserted when the going gets a bit tough. Judging by the comments flying around cyberspace, Hitch needs to be fired and his system scrapped, Nash needs to be traded,  and all of our problems can be solved by praying at Our Lady of The Eternal Hit, following the path of St. Jared Boll and St. Derek Dorsett.

Verities and Balderdash, I say (with apologies to the late Harry Chapin), all wrapped into one.  Yes, the team has gone through a bad streak, and the quality of play has not been stellar.  Does Derek Dorsett add a lot of energy to the lineup? Without question.  Does his absence from the lineup doom us to a cellar dwelling finish in the West?  Hardly.

The Jackets are a wound up team right now -- they are grabbing the sticks too tightly, backing off too early, providing too much space to avoid getting beat.  They are thinking instead of reacting.  Part of this is youth and relatively little time playing together.  Part of it is the system -- the technical, fastidious, defensive oriented hockey that Hitch demands.  Great when it works, but in the live play of a game, there are hundreds of opportunities when players can interpret what they see on the ice differently.  That's when you get gaps, turnovers and odd man rushes.  When you have a veteran laden roster, they recognize these situations instinctively.  Our guys will get there, but in the meantime we need to simplify.  North-south hockey, lots of coummunication, and putting the puck on net.  Keep the lines intact for more than 1 game in a row -- allow everyone to get comfortable.

We have had four streaks this season -- 2 good, 2 bad -- and nothing in between. It is because our good streaks have been very good that we reman above the .500 mark. Time to steady the ship, and we have the talent to do it. 

Defense has been coming around the last 4 games, and Mason has looked good as well.  Need some breaks to go our way, and this thing will get turned around.  82 games is a long season, folks, and every team is going to have its turn in the barrel.  Howson has his eye on the needle, and will know when to pull the trigger on a deal if needed. 

Keep the faith!\ Go Jackets!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

One of Those Nights . . .

The last thing the Blue Jackets need right now is to run into hot goaltending and have the bounces go against them.  Unfortunately, both happened tonight at home, and the result was a 3 -1 loss to the Anaheim Ducks. 

Full marks go to Anaheim for this one.  Playing in the back end of a road back-to-back sequence, they came out strong, played a tight collapsing defense, and rode a superior performance from goalie Jonas Hiller to earn their first victory over Columbus this year.

Columbus came out a bit flat, but held their own throughout the first.  Anaheim and the Blue Jackets customarily have very physical confrontations, and this was no exception.  Sheldon Brookbank and Jared Boll dropped the gloves after a physical confrontation along the boards.  Shortly thereafter, Derek Dorsett and Mike Brown tangled in a confrontation that proved expensive for the Blue Jackets, as Dorsett sustained a broken hand, and will be lost for an undetermined amount of time.

The tight contest remained scoreless until late in the first, when Anaheim gambled at the blue line, and emerged with a 4-on-2 break when the Jackets' forwards were caught deep.  Mason stopped the first shot, but Dan Sexton found the puck in the ensuing scramble, and parked it home for a 1 - 0 lead. 

The Blue Jackets dominated the second and third periods, outshooting the Ducks 27 -14 over that spell.  However, the combination of the Duck's collapsing defense and Hiller's acrobatics frustrated the comeback.  Columbus exerted good pressure, and maintaned a presence in the crease, but could not solve the goaltender.  The second frame remained scoreless until the final minute.  Bobby Ryan took possession of the puck in the neutral zone and entered the offensive zone on the left wing with speed.  Kris Russell maintained contact, but appeared to lose his balance as Ryan cut toward the center.  That slip gave Ryan all the room he needed, as he skated unmolested into the crease, gave Mason a quick deke, and netted a backhand for a 2 -0 lead.  Just 19 seconds later, however, R.J. Umberger took a feed from Rick Nash below the goal line, and fired home a bank shot off Hiller's leg, returning the gap to a single goal with just 36 seconds left to play in the period.

The Blue Jackets continued the assault in the third, but could not convert.  Anaheim extended the lead to two with 6:13 left in the game, when Corey Perry cashed a perfect cross-ice feed from Ryan Whitney on the power play.  Fittingly, a late surge by Columbus included a couple of shots ringing off the post, and some other tantalizing opportunities jsut eluding the Blue Jackets' sticks.

There were many positives for Columbus in this one, despite the loss.  Their defensive coverage continues to improve, and the play of Commodore, Hejda and Tyutin is beginning to come around.  Mason had no chance on any of the three goals, and played solid in the crease and in playing the puck.  Unfortunately, the offense suffered a rare off night.  Coming into the game, Columbus was tied for sixth in the league in goals per game, and was second in power play effectiveness. 

Although discouraging, the club has to focus on the positives and put the emphasis on playing a full sixty minutes of hockey.  They appear somewhat trapped between the worlds of defensive responsibility and offensive aggressiveness.  They will need to find that middle ground to reverse the current slump.  However, they remain in the hunt, and a few game winning streak will go a long way to righting the ship.  Not much consolation tonight, but the elements are there. 

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Jackets Stop The Bleeding With A Solid Effort

With grumblings of fan discontent echoing loudly in their ears, the CBJ responded in resounding fashion with a 3 - 0 shutout of the Florida Panthers, a team equally desperate to end their current slide.

Tonight's game featured a resurgent defensive effort -- sorely needed after surrendering more goals than virtually any other team in the league through 29 games. Mike Commodore and Fedor Tyutin played their best games of the season, and Marc Methot was also a solid contributor.  Kris Russell continued his excellent play -- being responsible in his own zone, and leading transition with sharp passing and elusive skating. 

However, the most notable contributor of the evening was Steve Mason.  Dubbed the #1 Star for his effort, Mason invoked images from last season with some stellar play.   He stood tall, aggressively took the top of the crease as his own, and was more active with his stick than at any time this year.  While Florida did not exert extended period of high pressure, there were several flurries of activity, and Mason responded with aplomb.  He appeared energized by the revitalized defense around him, and may also have been motivated by some rather harsh public appraisals of his attitude by goalie coach Dave Rook.  Rook implied that Mason might have allowed last year's Calder Trophy success get to his head a bit.  While Mason has not been the primarily culpable party for the recent failings, he has also not been the exceptional netminder of last year.   With a shutout under his belt, he could be poised for a run. 

The Jackets came out of the chute strong, dominating possessoin in the first period, but proving unable to convert on their opportunities.  Chimera made a nifty forehand/backhand move on Vokoun, to no avail, then somehow managed to miss the net entirely from an unmolested position about 6 feet dead on to the goal.   Nash, Huselius and Vermette put on a clinic of puck possession and scoring opportunity at the 13 minute mark, but failed to convert.  Given Vokoun's history of success against the Jackets, more that a few were wondering if these squandered chances would come back to haunt the squad.  Chimera, however, vindicated the effort as the first period wound down, following his own backand shot and stuffing home the rebound, with just under two minutes left in the first.

The second period brought a dreadful sense of deja vu, as the CBJ allowed Florida to dictate the early tempo.  The familiar littany of failed clearing attempts, turnovers and defensive gaps emerged once again.  On this night, however, Mason was there to stem the tide, and the Jackets righted the ship by the midway point of the period.  They displayed a frustrating knack for firing pucks into the bodies of defenders, as Florida blocked an amazing 20 shots over the course of the contest, but surrendered nothing at their own end. 

Given recent history, entering the third period with a one goal lead was not exactly a cause for jubilation.  However, the club came out with a strong forecheck, particularly by Nash, Voracek and Umberger, and appeared destined to take control of the period.  Unfortunately, the referees had other ideas.  Kristian Huselius was called for a very questionable delay penalty, and Andrew Murray was nailed for hooking shortly thereafter, giving Florida 23 seconds of 5-on-3 advantage.  The penalty killers knocked off the two man deficit, and the subsequent 5-on-4 with aggressive play and solid puck management.  Immediately afterward, Derick Brassard coralled the puck along the left wing, and roofed a beautiful short sided shot over Vokoun to extend the lead to 2 - 0. 

To provide some indication as to how desperately Florida was seeking the win, Vokoun was pulled with over two minutes to play.  Pahlsson deposited the empty netter directly off the center ice faceoff, and the final margin -- plus chili for all -- was secured. 

The victory serves as a benchmark for several reasons.  First, it should at least temporarily quell the rising tide of negativism that had begun to dominate the debate, ranging from calls for Hitchcock's firing to calls for massive trades and restructuring.  Secondly, Steve Mason was truly superb  -- quite possibly signaling a turning point in his season.  Brassard may be catching fire, and Chimera scored in his third consecutive game.  Overall, they appeared like a much looser, more confident group on the ice.

The trick will be for Hitch to capture this energy, allow the mometum to carry into Nashville on Thursday and beyond.  Hitch needs to keep the reins a little looser than he has in the past, as these colts need to run a bit.  He can keep them on the ranch, but can't squelch the spirit.   This is a young, talented group of players, and they showed what they can do when they are loose. 

Nashville preview and other goodies later today.  Go Jackets!!!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Close, But Not There Yet . . .

Coming into tonight, Columbus fans were primarily focused, perhaps obsessively so, on the return of Adam Foote -- former wearer of the "C" in Columbus, who professed loyalty but then extorted a trade back to Colorado.  Foote had been conveniently injured or otherwise unavailable during prior Columbus visits, so this represented the first opportunity for vocal vengence by the assembled crowd. 

The Blue Jackets themselves, however, were more focused on exorcising the defensive demons that have possessed them for the past few weeks.  Repeated turnovers in the defensive zone, lack of communication on the ice, and simple lack of focus had combined to produce some ugly losses, including a forgettable 6 - 3 home loss to Toronto on Thursday night.  While the goaltending has not been up to last season's standards, the spotty defense has hung the netminders out to dry with repeated point blank opportunites, making Steve Mason and Mathieu Garon appear worse than warranted.  

With Foote being predictably and lustily booed every time he set skate on ice, the first period was largely a feeling out exercise, with each side displaying tight checking and caution in the offensive zone.  Fans were treated to nine total shots in the period -- with the Avalanche holding the 5-4 edge.  Not exactly scintillating stuff, but an improvement over recent starts.

The demons emerged once again in the second stanza. Colorado began possessing the puck for longer periods, and started occupying that danger zone below the goal line behind the net that has bedeviled the Jackets thus far this season.  6:46 in, Jan Hejda dove below the line to chase the puck, leaving Woski all alone at the right post.  Stastny found him, Commodore was late getting over, and it was a simple 2 foot tap in for a 1 - 0 lead.  Nine minutes later, the scene was duplicated. Umberger lost contact with Milan Hejduk at the left post.  Duchene put the feed on the tape, and another tap in made in 2- 0.  Though the Jackets' energy improved in the second half of the period, and they outshot Colorado 12 - 10, they still faced a 2 goal deficit heading into the final frame.

The energy created in the latter stages of the second period carried over to the third.  Jason Chimera, who forced the play all night long, netted Columbus' first marker when he crashed the net and directed the puck of the skate of  --- Adam Foote.  A review in Toronto amazingly confirmed the goal, and the Jackets were within one.  Just 39 seconds later, however, Chris Stewart entered the offensive zone on a partial break.  He fired the the puck from above the left dot, and it deflected off Methot's stick and into the back of the net.  You could almost hear the air being sucked out of the Arena at that point. 

To the Jackets' credit, they kept their foot to the floor (ultimately outshooting the Avs 15 - 4 in the third), and created numerous opportunities.  It is a cruel fact of the latest slump that poor play has been exacerbated by the lack of good fortune as well.  So it was tonight -- Peter Budaj robbed the CBJ on numerous solid chances, and others were narrow misses.  Jakub Voracek, another star performer all night long, converted a wraparound with 4:28 left in the game, narrowing the gap to a single goal.  They kept the pressure on, pulling Mason with 1:16 left.  With 13.6 seconds left, it appeared that the Jackets had tied the contest, with Chimera parking one from in close.  However, the net came off the moorings as the goal was being scored, and a Toronto review of the call of goal on the ice ensued.  Replay showed that the shot actually came in under the side of the net -- no goal.  Another effort coming up short. 

After the game, Hitchcock bemoaned the lack of hunger throughout the locker room.  He characterized his team as "inconsistent", and called out the team to find that level of desperation necessary to do "whatever is necessary to win".  That may be the case in some circles, but the failures cannot be laid exclusively on attitude.  For the first time in recent memory, Hejda and Commodore, the #1 pairing from last year, received the lowest amount of ice time on the blue line.   They continue to make blatant errors, and don't appear to be improving.  Hejda has been better, but Commodore has been challenged to play at a level anywhere near to his effort of last year.  Fortunately, Fedor Tyutin is showing signs of coming out of his funk, and Kris Russell has been extremely solid since returning to the lineup.  He brings energy, mobility and puck movement to the blue line, and has the capacity to take the puck deep in the offensive end.

Columbus was improved tonight, but still not good enough.  The players are clearly tight -- gripping the stick too hard, afraid of making a mistake.  Others (Nash, Huselius) often try to do too much on their own -- which has the opposite effect.   Even solid puck handlers like Anton Stralman are making errors, due largely to tightness.  The team needs to relax, play the brand of hockey that they have demonstrated they can play, and do it for 60 minutes.  They need to be accountable, but they can't live in fear that the next mistake will send them to Syracuse.  That is where the coaching staff can provide assistance.

GM Scott Howson has said that the answers lie within the existing roster, but numerous reports indicated that he is sniffing around for a defenseman, with Toronto identified as one of the more likely trading partners. 

Not time for panic, as the Jackets are still in the hunt, and have some good streaks ahead of them.  Still, the team as a whole has to find that comfort zone that will enable them to play technically sound hockey, without consciously fretting over every detail.  Such are the challenges of having the youngest team in the league, and Hitch will be challenged to display the kind of patience he is not know for displaying with young players.

Slumps are no fun, but they are finite.  Howson, Hitchcock and the players need to take a collective deep breath and look forward. 

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Arena Update!!

The Columbus Dispatch reported today that John Rosenberger has been tabbed to lead the effort to coordinate efforts to provide a long term solution for Nationwide Arena and the Columbus Blue Jackets.  Rosenberger was involved in many of the discussions that led to the development of Nationwide Arena, and was a key player in the development of City Center.  While that venture did not enjoy long term success, it was the crown jewel of downtown until suburban development eroded its base. 

The appointment of Rosenberger is significant in two important respects.  First, coming on the heels of the Chamber of Commerce report on some options that can be explored, it represents a logical next step in the process, and provides solid public confirmation that work is underway in earnest.  That this occurred so quickly after the report has to send positive signals to Priest and McConnell.    I am also sure that Gary Bettman's visit to Columbus earlier this week was, as he claimed, pure coincidence. . . .;-)  Secondly, Rosenberger is a veteran of crafting partnerships between

However, having spent much time and effort researching and writing about various aspects of the Arena issue since it first came to light, today's announcement has a much more significant indicator attached to it.  The announcement was made by City of Columbus Mayor Coleman's office, and the Mayor himself issued a statement relating to the appointment.  Why does this matter?   This represents the first public acknolwedgement of involvement in the Arena issue on the part of the City.  For the major part of the past year, Coleman and the city fathers have been devoted to the City's own tax initiative, and have been notably silent on this question, leaving the Franklin County Commissioners and the Chamber of Commerce to bear the brunt of attention.

As I have noted in prior articles, the City has a very big dog in this fight, as it reaps a tremendous percentage of the annual tax boon that comes from Arena District revenue.  The added tourism, and more extended benefits, while harder to quantify, are just as real.  While the tax increase creates revenue, that added inflow will pale to the losses that will come if the Arena and Blue Jackets situation is not solved.  Coleman understands this, and with the economy turning around, now is the time to get engaged.  It sends a strong signal that the process is working, and everyone should be encouraged by that.

Another positive coming out of today's announcement was the tone Rosenberger sounded in characterizing the mission he was embracing:

"While it may generally be believed that this is all about the Blue Jackets, this actually is more about the competitiveness of Columbus as a regional and national destination and as a generator of jobs and economic activity,"

Bingo!!!  The Jackets, the Arena and the Arena District are all intertwined into the fabric of the local culture and economy.  Edmonton and Kansas City are studing both the arena and the Arena District as a model for their efforts (both of which, by the way, have a substantial public funding component).  There is too much to lose in this effort, and Coleman is not going to let this ship sink on his watch.  It is important to keep the focus where it belongs -- as a regional economic issue, not a Blue Jackets bailout.

Do today's developments mean that a solution is imminent?  Probably not -- these things are complicated and take time.  However, this is an important step.  A visible individual with the right skills and connections has been brought into the picture, and that is a good thing.  Again, while Commissioner Bettman's presence in town this week is not likely of great significance, it is also likely not the mere fortuitous event that he would have us believe. Just another indicia of progress.

Sometimes the things that are not said are as important as the things that are expressed.  Discussions like this almost always are more productive when they can be held outside the glare of publicity.  When those discussions do not happen fast enough, or go poorly, the dissatisfied parties almost always find a way to get their displeasure expressed, either directly or through minions.  The severity and urgency of threats tend to increase, and oblique references to hard dates start creeping into the discussion.  We have not seen any of that as yet, and that is also a very good sign. 

Likely much to be done, but cautious optimism is certainly not unreasonable.  Let's allow the process to work.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

On The Mend . . .Game Day Trivia

Now being on the mend from my recent unpleasantness, I can once again become a contributing member to society . . . assuming that one considers blogging and writing about hockey contributing to society . . .

With the revered Toronto Maple Leafs Coming into town, and an expected credible showing of Leafs fans at Nationwide, here are a few ways you can enhance the game experience for yourself and our friends from up North:

  1. During pre-game warmups, grab the nearest Toronto fan, point to #61 on the ice, and gleefully say "He's Ours!!!!"
  2. Helpfully direct them to the Tim Horton's coffee at the concession stands -- then tell them that they only have De-Caf.
  3. At any time during the evening, grab the nearest Toronto fan, mention Doug MacLean, and gleefully say "He's Yours!!!!"
(The author assumes no responsibility or liability for any personal injuries that may be sustained or inflicted as the result of the foregoing three items)

In all seriousness, Toronto has been playing much better hockey over the past few games.  They struggle to score consistently, ranking only 21st in the league with a 2.692 goals per game average.  In contrast, the CBJ rank 9th with a 3.111 scoring average. 

It is in the defensive end that things get ugly.  Toronto and Columbus rank 28th and 29th, respectively in goals surrendered, each giving up a skosh more that 3.5 goals per game.  Over the past four games, however, the Blue Jackets are defending at a 2.50 GAA, which is a big improvement. 

In net, Gustavsson is coming off of a 3 -0 shutout against Montreal on Tuesday, and Mason (assuming he is the starter tonight) is in the midst of a string of 4 games where he could easily be 4 - 0.  He was a hard luck loser of a 2 -1 outing in Ottawa, was betrayed by the blue liners in the shootout loss to Calgary, shut down St. Louis and was brilliant against Chicago. 

As I have been preaching to anyone who would listen, a couple of key moves have contributed to the Jacket's improved play.  First, moving Kris Russell back into the lineup has paid immediate dividends.  His 4 points in 2 games is obvious, but more importantly, he is confidently moving the puck out of the zone, making crisp passes, and opening space for the transition game.  In his own zone, he has been good at cutting off pucks, denying passes, and has been stronger on the puck than he has been in the past.  Still a misplay every now and then, but he adds energy and awareness.

Secondly, putting Hejda and Commodore back together has already paid dividends.  Even though they are each just rounding into shape, they know each other's games and simply blend well as a pair.  Splitting them up, while perhaps well intentioned, was a bad move, particularly when they were out of shape.  While Rusty's injury is awful, at least something good has emerged in its aftermath.

The trickle down effect to Mason has been obvious.  With a few adjustments to his technique, he has been better than any time since the beginning of the season.  He has not gotten many breaks, so he is due.  Prediction here is 6 - 3 Jackets.

Home ice, confident goalie, resurgent defense -- prediction here