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.  


オテモヤン said...


Maroussia said...

It will be great to watch Columbus Blue Jackets, i have bought tickets from looking forward to it.