Tuesday, March 31, 2015

You do this to me, I'll do that to you

Jack with the overtime winner off the backhand
Playing the New Jersey Devils is like going through childbirth.  It hurts, it's sweaty, and you have to live with whatever comes out at the other end.  In this case, the Columbus Blue Jackets kept giving Mike Cammalleri space, and he kept burning them with it, to the tune of two goals, one in the first, and one in the waning moments of the third to tie the game.  In between, Nick Foligno, and Brandon Dubinsky (on a penalty shot) scored for the CBJ, to set up the overtime heroics.

In this case it was Jack Johnson doing the damage, cruising the slot and unleashing a backhand that beat Cory Schneider after the Devils goal tender had turned in another solid game.

The Jackets played tonight like they had winning on their mind, and the Devils were clearly not impressed with the Jackets late season run, so it was a tightly fought and checked affair.  Every time you thought the Jackets had a break going, the Devils would snuff it out, and every time the Devils got it going, the CBJ fought them off.  A late penalty on the Devils caused the CBJ to get lackadaisical on their power play (if you don't move your feet, no one is fooled or impressed by your extra man), and gave up a late shorthanded goal to tie the game.  So there it is, important lessons learned about closing a game out.  Hopefully those will carry over to next year.  As Jeff Little always says, hope is not a strategy.  Oh well.

The season of Unfulfilled Promise and Lots of Injuries winds down, with an entertaining tilt at Nationwide Arena.  I want the playoffs more than I ever have before, but I cannot have them.  I long to hear the thunderous bay of the Nationwide Arena crowd, but it will not happen this year.  That is a deferred reward for good play next year.  The players don't need some lame blogger to tell them the difference.  They know.  And they want it.  It is coming, and next year will be fun.  But for now, we must be patient.  So it goes, with a year of injuries.


Monday, March 30, 2015

Hey Mike Priest, I'm Talking to You

Not long ago the lads over at the Columbus Dispatch printed the rumor that it was possible for the Blue Jackets to acquire the Lake Erie Monsters, who play in Cleveland, as their AHL affiliate.  Is it possible for me to describe how desirable this is?  I have so many friends in Cleveland that are just not connected to hockey, that I could drag to Monsters games and get them totally hooked.  Please, please, please make this happen.  Are you not convinced that I'm begging?  I have to confess that while I am pleased that Springfield made the playoffs last year for the first time in a long time, and that they are battling for that again this year, it would mean so much more to me for it to be in Cleveland.  A road trip to see Springfield is some crazy 15 hour drive, and then what?  Cleveland is awfully close to a 'there and back again' trip, except for the antics that I am likely to get involved with in terms of my many friends up there.

Mike, buddy, listen while I give you an anecdote.  I am a life long Cincinnati Reds fan.  I mean, I grew up with the Big Red Machine.  My formative years were spent with the notion that the Reds played the first game of the year, and the last game of the year.  All that said, I have never actually rooted against the Indians, unless they were playing the Reds, and my idea of Nirvana is the Reds playing the Indians in the world series.  But there is little that could actually make me an Indians fan unless someone decided to bring the Indians farm team to Columbus.  The decision to acquire the Clippers as the Tribe farm team has come close to tilting a life long allegiance for me, because I care a lot about Columbus.  So let's put some pressure on all those Penguin fans in Cleveland, and bring our farm team to Cleveland.

So Mike, please make this happen.  And I promise I will celebrate by shouting:



Sunday, March 29, 2015

No Pressure

Boone Jenner scored last night
I noticed in the post game interviews that a couple of different players were careful to mention that they were under no pressure after the Blue Jackets beat the host St. Louis Blues 4-2 for their franchise record eighth straight road win.  That is an important aspect of this late season winning that should be remembered.  None of these guys are squeezing the stick, so to speak.  When you have to have that goal to make the playoffs, its harder to make those plays that you need to ensure that playoff spot.  We have seen some pretty miserable Blue Jackets teams over the year play well down the stretch, so a tempering of optimism is appropriate.

They keep beating playoff teams, and good ones, which is undoubtedly a good indicator.  But those are easy games to get your head into.  We'll see how they play Tuesday with McEichel rivals the New Jersey Devils.  That should be a rivalry game normally, but now, meh.  On the other hand, the team is nearly as healthy as it has ever been this year, and maybe we are getting glimpses of what it could have, should have been.  But there were times last night that the Blues simply didn't want anything to do with Dubinsky and Jenner, and there has never been any indication that either of those guys plays differently when 'under pressure' than with no pressure.  I took a listen to Hitch's post game comments, and he felt that the Blues didn't sustain pressure in the offensive zone the first two periods, made offensive plays that were 'hopeful', which fed into the CBJ transition game, and in pure Hitchcockian fashion said they didn't win the battles.  Which the last was true.  The Blues started winning those battles in the third period, and as Hitch said, 'if we'd played the first two periods the way we played the third we might have won'.  So the reality is that this was a good effort by our guys.  And not having any pressure probably won't factor into whether you win those one on one battles.  

The pressure will really ramp up next year, in terms of making this team, especially as a forward.  Consider the following possible lines.


Missing from that groups are:
Anisimov (editor's note, an alert reader pointed out I forgot Arty)
Josh Anderson
Sonny Milano

There is going to be real competition at forward on this team next year.  If they can play some winning hockey in the autumn and early winter of this year, it could be a scary group.  Just where does Conner McDavid fit into all of that?


Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Difference Between Picking 6th or 9th

Recently a reader chastised me for my constant harping on our draft position, and suggested that I embrace the Blue Jackets current run of good play.  I think the reader's attitude misrepresents my track record, as I think I have waffled back and forth from agitating for tank mode to insisting that a 'winning culture' is more important on an almost game by game basis.  In other words, the reader implies a certain constancy that I don't think I have shown.  So why waffle?

Before I go further, I am relying (i.e. poaching) from on Mike MacLean (@mejmaclean) over on the Cannon, particularly his mock draft post back on March 13th.  Part of my waffling has to do with the potential to sink into the top five picks, which we flirted with earlier in late February and early March.  That puts you in position to draft a pretty darn good player, probably choosing between Dylan Strome, Noah Hannifan, or Mitch Marner, depending upon who was available.  But once you drop out of that top 5, the urgency over a particular draft position drops.  In the top 5 you either will, or have a great possibility of getting a player that is NHL ready.  Once you get out of the top 5, the chances that you will have a player who is ready NEXT YEAR starts to diminish.  That doesn't mean you won't get a really good player, they just may need a bit more development time to get into the NHL.

In the 6 through 9 slots you are likely looking at some of the following players, in order of Mike's anticipated draft order -Defenseman Zach Werenski, Forward Kyle Conner, Defenseman Ivan Provorov, Forward Mikko Rantanen, and Forward Lawson Crouse.  The common thread here is that these players will probably go into the developmental systems, but these are still a bunch of good players.  So the reality is that there is probably not huge difference in the 6-9 draft positions in terms of there immediate impact. At some level you increase your odds to strike gold with McDavid, but those odds aren't great either way, so you wouldn't want to base your strategy on that.

If you look at the Columbus Blue Jackets right now, the urgency for getting a player who comes into the lineup next year is rather low.  We have several young players who are slightly older who are ready to break into NHL roles, and once we start getting people healthy, its going to be a real challenge to crack the Blue Jacket lineup as a youngster.  In addition, Oliver Bjorkstrand finished his major junior hockey career with a bang, winning the scoring title in the WHL, and scoring more goals (63!) than anyone.  It is going to be interesting to see what happens when Wennberg is playing with Hartnell and Dano on his wings, and Karlsson is playing with Rychal and Bjorkstrand on his wings.  (wipes mouth because of uncontrollable drooling).

So I have come around to where I can pretty much accept anything that happens down the stretch here, so I want to watch entertaining hockey and I want the team to win.  I don't think at this point that it would make a dramatic difference on the teams long term prospects, so why not win?


Hattie for Atty

Hat Trick for Cam Atkinson Tonight!
Tonight the Columbus Blue Jackets defeated the Chicago Blackhawks 5-2.  This was a really good game, representing continued progression by this group of players.  In the lockout shortened season, and to a certain extent last year, the CBJ did not deal well with teams that brought speed into a transition game.  In spite of all of the injuries, it seems clear that team speed continues in the right direction.  Teams like the Blackhawks or the Oilers gave us trouble with their speed, but this year we have seemed to be able to deal with this the situation much better.

Last year we had trouble with the elite teams.  This year we have played them much better overall.  This season went off the rails early, but when they are healthy, they are a pretty good team.  I liked Craig Hartsburg's comment during the broadcast: 'When we skate, we're a pretty good team'.  The CBJ were really skating tonight.

As evidence of the team's continued progression this year, there were two franchise records set tonight.  For the first time there were back to back hat tricks, with Scott Hartnell getting one in the last game, and Cam Atkinson getting the hattie tonight.  The other franchise record, of more importance, is a franchise best 7 consecutive road wins.  The ability to win on the road will take a team far.  Nothing more clearly illustrates the frustration of this year than the dismal record at home, and there is probably nothing easier in hockey to correct.

Tonight the Blackhawks scored first, but Ryan Johansen counterpunched, stealing a puck up by the blue line and walking in alone on a breakaway for the tying goal.  Cam got his first goal next off a deflection of a Cody Goloubef shot to put the Jackets in the lead.  Chicago scored to tie the game, then Kevin Connauton banged a poor clearing attempt into the net, and Cam followed with a shortie and an empty net goal for the hat trick.

A fun but late game, after a trying week.  Time for bed.  The take away message is that in spite of the injury chaos, this team continues to progress.


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Hattie for Hartnell

Last night the Columbus Blue Jackets beat the Anaheim Ducks 5-3 in Nationwide Arena.  Scott Hartnell had a hat trick, scoring 3 goals.  Just think, if we still had RJ Umberger we could have Conner McDavid all locked up.  Don't get me wrong, I always liked Umberger but Hartnell has 25 goals!  Crazy stuff.

I'm cranking this out from a remote location, so need to be brief today (10 fingers are faster than 2 thumbs), but this team keeps making strides.  Hartnell has been integrated into the team's core, and if they can show some urgency in October and November next year they seem poised to have a good run at it next year.  Rimmer mentioned last night that 'Wild Bill' Karlsson was the 18th guy to make his Blue Jackets debut this year.  I didn't think much of that until I reflected that there is only a 23 man roster.  Yeesh.

But development proceeds apace for this team.  I love Marko Dano, and he has played well, but he was finding the going a bit rich at times last night.  Which is okay, that's part of the growth process.  It's too bad that Kerby Rychal has been down with a concussion in Springfield.  It would be nice to see him getting some NHL minutes too.  But Springy is fighting for its playoff life, so hope he starts getting in down there.

Good thing we have Chicago and St. Louis coming up, or we would be in danger of catching Philly and NJ.  Whew!


Monday, March 23, 2015

James Wisniewski: Keeping a Promise

James Wisniewski: Blue Jacket for Life
In late June, 2011 Scott Howson traded the Blue Jackets 5th round pick to the Montreal Canadiens for the right to negotiate with James Wisniewski immediately prior to free agency.  Wiz, as he was come be affectionately known by the fans and media, was pleased that someone would trade for his rights, and signed a lucrative free agent contract with Columbus.  At that time the known defects with our team was at the center position and the right side of our defense.  The acquisition of Wisniewski solidified that situation.

Wisniewski came to the Blue Jackets with a reputation as a physical player with a cannon of a shot.  His defense had its question marks, but he was brought here to score, not to be a shut down defenseman.  Wisniewski did everything he was advertised to be while he was a Columbus Blue Jacket.  Yes, that included the imperfections in his game, but his imperfections were known when he came here, and he delivered the goods at the other end of the ice.

Wisniewski lead the team in assists in 2013-14, in the successful campaign to the playoffs.  He also shattered the record of points by a defenseman in 2013-14 with 51, surpassing the previous record of 45, set in 2002-03 by Jaroslav Spacek.  Wiz battled injuries during his stint with the CBJ, as was advertised before he got here.  Many of those arose from his propensity to block shots on goal with any body part available, and were more a testament to his grit and determination than his fragility.  I wonder how long it will be before a defenseman eclipses that mark?

Wisniewski's other significant accomplishment while with the Blue Jackets was propelling Brendan Shanahan to a position of power in the NHL in the Department of Player safety, which he ultimately leveraged to the lucrative post of president of hockey operations for the Toronto Maple Leafs.  No matter the extent of the injury, NO PLAYER has been assessed a suspension the magnitude of Wisniewski's for delivering an elbow to Diving Cal Clutterbuck.  You could ruin a guy's career, and you wouldn't be suspended for the length of time that Shanahan suspended Wisniewski to "set an example".  Shanahan, you owe Wisniewski a job after hockey, because you stole so much money from him to set yourself up.  Wiz took this debacle by the NHL with a stiff upper lip, which needs to be remembered when he retires.

Wiz, I'm not a big fan of this trade.  But there it is.  Whining won't help either of us.  I will cheer for you loud and long Tuesday night when we have your tribute.  But next year, you're the enemy.  I know you'll forgive me for that.  But Wiz, when you retire, you're a Blue Jacket.  I am grateful for the energy and passion you brought to your role here.  You are who you are.  You were that before you got here, but you delivered while you were here.  I'll never forget your slap shot, nor will I see one like that for awhile apparently.  So it goes.  I wish you well James Wisniewski!


Saturday, March 21, 2015

Canadian Cornucopia

Today the Columbus Blue Jackets completed a franchise first, winning all three games of the western Canadian swing through Edmonton, Vancouver, and Calgary.  This is a very unusual event and one of those little signs of continued progress amongst the wreckage of this season.  Presumably Head Coach Todd Richards is intelligent enough to not say something dumb like the Arniel quote of 'what have you been doing around here?' when they swept L.A., San Jose and Anaheim in the 'glory weeks' of his coaching stint.  Did Arniel ever win another game out in California in his head coaching career with the CBJ?

Anyway, Rene Bourque potted two goals, one the game winner in overtime for the 3-2 victory. sandwiched around an Artem Anisimov, no-look-face-the-other-way-to fool-the-goalie-backhand goal.  The franchise achievement of a sweep wasn't necessarily accomplished by dominating the other teams, it was more about playing with a lot of will against adversity, as the team experienced plenty of adversity in the three games.  I guess what I am saying is that this sweep does not necessarily mean that we have a good team this year or next.  But I think that collective strength of will the team showed is something that is reasonably portable, and will help you in a lot of different situations.  It is also a prerequisite for being a team that will do some damage in the playoffs, and I think we fancy that this team has that kind of run in its future at some point.

I don't think any major damage was done to our draft position, we are still locked in that 6-7 range now, and that's where we should end up.  That should get us some really good players.


Friday, March 20, 2015

Late Night Twofer; Capra hircus Line Rolls

Dano on an amazing roll
Capra hircus is the scientific name for a goat, a new twist on the old gag of a 'Goat Line', with two kids and an old goat playing on the same line.  The Hartnell-Wennberg-Dano line has continued to play fantastic hockey, going 4G-4A=8P, through two late night tilts on the West Coast, as the Blue Jackets beat the Oilers 4-3 in a shoot out two nights ago, and beat Vancouver 6-2 last night.  A lack of stamina and conflicting priorities were among the reasons that I was unable to watch all of these games, catching the first period in each game.

In both games, the faint hearted (moi) would have gone to bed early, thinking the late season tank job was in good hands.  Against Edmonton, an early 2 goal lead looked like it had been squandered, but a quick goal by Letestu set up the eventual shoot out.  The late charge last night was a surprise for this morning, and would have been fun to watch except for the lingering effects of the earlier OSU and Cincinnati games.  So it goes.

No matter the outcome of this season, or the draft, we have seen a steady progression from Dano and Wennberg as they improve.  And for Scott Hartnell, I am really happy.  It had to be a tough off season for him, but he has responded with a really good season.  He's keeping it simple, going to the net with his stick on the ice and Dano and Wennberg keep finding him.  Against Vancouver, this line was 4G-2A=6P, which would mess up any team in the league.  This all came in the second half of the game, after the mid-point of the second period, though I thought Dano looked dangerous in the first period when I was watching.

I know the folks over at @PlanetCBJ are blasting me (and I mean this in a good way, seriously) for weaseling on my McTank for McDavid stance, but I was finally able to find the Dave Lozo article that made me think twice about it.  That article was written about the Carolina Hurricanes, but it is really apt for the CBJ as well.  It took two GMs and a complete roster turnover to eradicate all signs of the 'country club' atmosphere that was reputed to exist in Columbus, and you just don't want any of that to creep back into existence.  The injuries are record shattering, but this season's outcome cannot be regarded as acceptable in any fashion.  So seeing a couple of good games like this doesn't bother me as much as it did a couple of weeks ago.  I want to see these players play well, because I expect to see them play very well next year, and to become a force to be reckoned with in this league.

This is part of the problem with Edmonton.  Losing became an acceptable approach as part of their 'rebuild' attempt.  The players who have come to understand that losing is an acceptable approach, are having a hard time with the 'OK, its not acceptable to lose anymore' change.  That is not something you just switch on or off.

Ken Hitchcock once said about the 2009-10 Blue Jackets, during a vicious December swoon, (following the then best start in franchise history), 'this team will never compete effectively until they learn to hate losing more than anything else'.  The implication was that team was able to see losing as an acceptable outcome.  Since no one goes undefeated in the NHL, everyone has to grapple with losing.  And you want to have players that burn to flip it around to the winning side.  After torching the roster that quit on Ken Hitchcock, the CBJ now have several players who have that burn, and who will lead/drag the team into the battles necessary to get the wins.  The problem for this year, is that is was hard to get those players on the ice due to the injuries.  But the foundation is there, and you never want these guys to think that losing is an acceptable situation.

Fortunately, we have some good things in play.  First of all, the players themselves know the situation.  At this time last year, Nationwide Arena was building up toward a deafening crescendo of noise that peaked in the playoffs.  This year, its a pretty quiet place, urged on by a dismal home record.  The CBJ road record is actually quite respectable.  Perhaps the easiest thing to fix in hockey is your home winning habits, and I expect that to change next year.  If your home record is all you need to fix to make the playoffs, you are in pretty good shape, and I think big picture wise, that's where we are.

We are going to get good players in this draft that are going to help us for the next several years, and we have a reasonable chance for a lightening strike.  Given that, protecting a culture of winning is perhaps the highest priority down the stretch for the CBJ, followed closely by a priority on developing the young players.  It could be a lot worse than this.


Sunday, March 15, 2015

So What Do I Do With This?

Dano.  Really?  Jeez-O-Man he put some moves on tonight.
Bah.  I don't know what to say.  The Blue Jackets lost tonight in highly entertaining fashion in a four point game against Carolina who trails the CBJ in points.  A Western road trip looms for our guys, and the yin and yang of wanting to win and wanting to lose gains more weight.

Promise to self.  I'm not gonna look at the standings to see where we might pick.  In the absence of a 13 game winning streak, we are gonna pick well.  Either we hit the lottery, or we don't.  I'm okay with that.  But games like this help, no matter what.

Ok, I had fun tonight, and in the swirl of renewing season tickets, I lost track of Carolina drawing ahead.  In spite of that, the Jackets kept playing pretty good hockey.  The Wennberg-Dano-Hartnell line was dangerous all night, and Dano put a really sick assist on Hartnell's goal.  Gosh darn, I know other teams are going to watch tape, but Dano undressed defensemen a couple of times in this game.

Ok, it's late, and I have to work tomorrow.  A top six pick is a really great pick.  A top 5 pick and there is a darn good player available.  A top four pick, and we get our choice of darn good players.  I still think we'll be picking 6 or 7.  But an improbable loss at home tonight, puts us in a good situation.  Make no mistake, the loss of Wisniewski is noticeable.  Teams have no fear with challenging the points on our power play.  It was that way before Wiz came here, it is that way now that he is departed.  There is no substitute for a cannon from the right point.  Wiz had that.  We don't anymore.  When was the last time you saw a penalty killer writhing in pain on the ice?  Anyway, that is water under the bridge at this point, and a trade that Jarmo has yet to overcome.  I'm a big fan of the GM, but the Wisniewski trade was misguided.  I'll address that more fully when Wiz comes back to town as a Duck.    Rant complete.  Time to get some rest.