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!!