Friday, August 8, 2014

Advanced Stats: The future of yesterday

In my life time, the solar system in which we live has gone from consisting of 9 planets, to 10 planets, then back to 9 planets, and then down to 8 planets.  The demotion of Pluto as a planet caused a bit of sentimental stir in the science community.  What led to its discovery, and then the discovery of a tenth planet, and finally the reclassification of both to dwarf planets came from a change in what science was trying to answer in the first place:  why did Neptune lose last night’s hockey game?  I mean, why was Neptune’s orbit wonky?  Looking at the data, it was hypothesized that another planet was affecting Neptune orbit of the sun. Then one day, after some legal crap, a fancy flip book, and some coincidental calculation, Pluto was discovered.  To consider Pluto a planet, you had to accept its counter-intuitive behavior as a celestial body and capitulate that there was really no better way to determine its mass.    But hey, back then, it was a planet!  Science said so.  And because there was no better way to show determine if it was a planet, we accepted it was a planet.  Because, science.

Today, the great debate in science is advanced stats in the NHL. Ok, maybe they aren’t the great debate of our time.  But advanced stats are certainly the topic de jour in an NHL speak-easy near you.  I remember the heady days of Slew Footing, man-in-the-crease violations, and the bane of Six-foot-six superstars everywhere: clutching and grabbing.  Those were topics that dominated discussion around the NHL back when superstars of the 70’s were assuming front office jobs and ruining hockey in the 90s.  Today, the topic that everybody (except players and coaches) is talking about is advanced stats.  Spoiler Alert:  I am a data hound.  In my day job I use metrics as a starting point to help solve issues surrounding profitability and on-time performance.  There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t use metrics at work, which in turn pays the bills.  But, to me, advance stats are A STARTING POINT TO SOLVE A PROBLEM, they don't define the problem or provide the solution.  They serve as a starting point for discovery. Why didn’t we meet our margin goal yesterday?  Oh, this analysis over here says my margin in Houston sucks.  I’ll start looking at how Houston is running their operations.

Of course advanced stats are here to stay because they’ve been around forever.  Read that last sentence again.  Ok, read on.  Advanced stats as they exist today show us things that many coaches and scouts already know, but perhaps they couldn’t articulate them outside of the film room.  Just because coaches likely already know what the stats tell us today doesn't make them any less relevant. Corsi, Fenwick, PDO, and Zone start data are some of the more popular advanced stats in discussion.  I like advanced stats, I love advanced stats in hockey.  However, I am very cynical of their sacred cow status by those largely in the media and bloggin community.  Maybe it’s the nerd subculture that exists with the NHLs social media demographic, but I am beside myself at the nerd rage that ensues when the sanctity of advanced stats are questioned - much like when the ‘planetary status’ of Pluto was first questioned back in the 1970’s. 

Having said that let me also say that advanced stats must be mandatory curriculum for any person filling a roster spot on a professional hockey team.  Zone starts, PDO, quality of teammates, and quality of competition are good indicators of a player’s effectiveness is specific situations.  These things must be considered when vetting candidates thru a trade or free-agency. But any scout worth their salt has been able to communicate this to a head coach or front office from a game planning perspective for a long time.  Analyzing where a player starts in certain situations and where they are vulnerable is nothing new.  A good scout can tell you when a player is likely to turn a puck over, make a bad decision, or why a power play is struggling.  A good coach doesn't need many advanced stat to tell him which players are ineffective in key situations. 

However, it wasn’t until very recently that we were able have a statistical representation of those instances – advanced stats.  Now, we can throw the statistical representation of that data into a slideshow and blog about how awesome or lousy some players or teams are.  But the advanced stats summarize what many coaches already know and put it in a much neater presentation format than a scribbled scouting report.  You have a neat statistical representation of a player's efficiency in an easily digestible format.  If you’re looking to fill an open roster spot you’re already using advanced stats whether you realize it or not.  If you’re not directly or indirectly using advanced stats to fill your roster, they you’re probably doing color commentary, studio analysis, or talking about how awesome you were as the Blue Jacket’s first President and GM on TSN after getting canned. 

Hockey is not a complicated sport unless you make it that way.  Hockey at its core is simple.  In fact, a good coach doesn’t over complicate drills in practice, but looks to maximize the drills efficiency.  A well-coached Pee Wee travel team practice will look a lot like an NHL practice.  In fact, many good and effective youth hockey coaches already know 80-90% of the drills used in an NHL practice.  I’m saying all this to emphasize hockey is not a complex sport at its core.  I think many new fans and people who didn’t play competitively wrongly assume hockey is vastly complicated in its systems and schemes.  So when they see and “advanced stat” and understand it, they feel like they’ve cracked the code of hockey.  They fiercely defend that portion of the sport they can relate to.  Seriously people, hockey’s not that tough to understand. 

Advanced stats help articulate the ‘why’ in the outcome of a game.  The “advanced” part of used in the nomenclature is not that the calculations themselves are advanced, but that they are an advanced way of interpreting data – which is a good thing.  Ok, the dudes that came up with THoR use some ridiculously complex calculations.  More on that in a little bit.  However, as a coach in the NHL, advanced stats aren’t going to tell you anything you don’t already know.  In the minds of players, their effectiveness on the ice goes beyond what analysts are able to throw into a workbook and graph. 

Corsi, while I understand it, grinds my gears a little bit.  Everyone, including the Corsi fan boys, will admit that the stat is a compromise.  It is the best of what’s around as far as a possession stat.  I agree that while they tell a different story, that Corsi is a better indicator of a player’s contribution to their team’s success than ye olde +/-.  But you have to ignore the counter-intuitiveness of Corsi and that’s what irks me.  There has to be a better way.  If you swear by the sanctity of Corsi, don’t you dare moan when Wisniewski rips four shots in a row four feet wide.  And you Corsi whores better not be the ones yelling “SHOOT IT” when there are four shin guards and a fully dressed goalie filling a shooting lane on a power play.  Context my dear friends, context – it is impossible to garner context from stats.
Most advanced stats provide instant gratification and are often used to answer the “Why” of how a team won/lost in the form of statistical representation.  But the “why” is not “how.”  Stats will tell you why, a coach will tell you how.  Corsi will tell you that Atkinson firing a snapshot into Lucic’s shinguards is neutral at worst, an NHL coach will find out who Atkinson’s pee wee coach was and slap his mother about the head and face.  

There is unfounded resistance to advanced stats and equally there is Jonestown-sian devotion to them.  The vocal nerdy hockey media rips apart anyone who remotely questions the logic of advanced stats.  Critical thinking applied to the theories in advanced stats is often met with ridicule, some of which I’ve experienced first-hand.  On the flip side, there is a lot of push back from the people that actually do the hockey thing for a living.  I understand why.  Ask yourself this:  Would you take workout and dietary advice from the fat guy at work who smokes two packs a day and eats nothing but Speedway hot dogs and ding dongs all day?   Then think of it this way, You’ve spent 40 years playing, coaching, and loving hockey and you get ripped for not taking player utilization advice from a guy who can’t even run a mini-mite practice?  Can a beefcake bro in an Iron Man T-shirt and a Contra Spray Gun tattoo be considered anything other than fake-geek?  You see where I am going with this now?  

One of the things that define a hockey player is their conviction to a belief structure in specific situations.  IE, passive or aggressive pressuring of the points during a penalty kill?  “Five on a dice” even strength Dzone coverage or roving center?  Not shooting the puck on 2-on-1 when your line mate’s relative position to the puck dictates that you should shoot it.  Coaches call this ‘buying into the system.’  And those systems are just the empirical knowledge of advanced stats supported by years of anecdotal evidence and enforced the ability to demonstrate those concepts during practice while seeing the results in games.  The circle of life is renewed as player becomes coach and coach becomes management.  That is the culture of hockey.  Better coaches, players, and GMs are always willing to look at things a different way – if those different ways aren’t gimmicky.  A head coach and player are going to approach advanced stats differently.  A player or coach will say “advanced stats don’t tell me anything I don’t already know” and a GM will say, “This kind of information is very useful in helping me fill a roster spot from the players that are available.”  And to not to beat a dead horse, but when Tyutin misses a wide open net, nobody’s congratulating him on a positive Corsi event.

So, for the better part of two pages I’ve talked about how advanced stats as they pertain to situational usage don’t tell a coach/scout anything they don’t already know, and that Corsi and Pluto (the dwarf planet, not the dog) are related.  I’m a data guy, a couple of my DKM/DBJ compatriots are data guys, and we’re going to do some stuff with data.  Of all the advanced stat stuff out there, I like Total Hockey Rating or THoR.  It won the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics award in 2013, long before most people knew Corsi was a name and not an acronym.  THoR gets a bad rap from awkward sci-fi movie watching nerds because the data inputs it uses are suspect – it solely relies on the NHL’s RTSS.  I think when real nerds at MIT, who were Valedictorians and post-secondary standouts, out-smart the socially awkward sci-fi watching introverts, the lesser nerds get ragey which is why they poo-poo THoR. 

Anyways, THoR uses some real heavy-duty genius-level mathematics, in addition to commonly accepted advanced stats to determine how many wins a player is responsible for generating.  But what I like about THoR is one of the calculations they use - they weigh the cause and effect of every action that happens on the ice.  So, when a check, or a shot, or a pass happens they calculate what happens in the next five seconds of that event.  I like that in the sense that it indirectly looks at a Corsi events and considers what happens in the next few seconds after that event.  You can be jealous of THoR and rip on it all you want, but it considers if ripping a shot 4 feet wide is a good thing or not.  It also helps put statistical merit to things like the value of out-hitting another team beyond the intangible physical toll.  If there is a set of stats a hockey coach should try to look at, it’s some of the theories and calculations that are considered in THoR.

I understand Corsi as it relates solely to possession, I do.  I can’t tell you how many blog pieces I’ve read that say “ignore the conflicting/counter-intuitiveness of the data that goes into Corsi.”  I get it.  It is better than anything else out there - Just like the mini-disc was.  But at its fundamental core, how can we say that things which often generate turnovers are positive benchmarks for possession?  And goalie came up with this stat for crying out loud?  Goalies take too many pucks to the head and are quirky.  So this weekend I’m going to watch some CBJ games and do three things:

1.       Augmenting the benchmarks of THoR, I will establish a percentage of how many blocked shots and missed shots turn into turnovers with 3 seconds of the event – ThoR uses 5 seconds which I think is a little too long.  Hell, they go to MIT and I dropped out of college twice – maybe I should use their standard of 5 seconds.    It will either confirm the grain of salt I eat with my Corsi, or it will make me shut up.  To me through 30 years of anecdotal evidence, in an even strength situation, a missed shot or a blocked shot from the point often leads to a turnover.  We’ll see.  And turnover in this instance is defined by a blocked/missed shot going to an opposing player either directly or through the course of a commonly defined turnover.


2.        Corsi does a great job showing comparative data on possession.  It doesn’t show me diddly-poo on the efficiency of those events.  Without giving away my formula for fear it will be stolen before my finding are published, I’m going to borrow from the existing Corsi structure and augment it to show offensive efficiency.  But what I will look to answer the question: Are the shots attempts high quality changes or mostly garbage? 


3.       One of the first mainstream possession studies done was the USA Hockey puck possession study conducted during the 2002 Winter Olympics.  12 years ago they were able to establish an average baseline of ‘for every X minutes the player was on the ice they had Y seconds of puck possession.’  How was this possible?   That kind of technology doesn’t exist today, how could they have had it back then?  EA Sports are the only ones with this kind of technology to calculate “ATTACK TIME.” Well, I know how they did it and I’m going to apply it to the CBJ game footage I watch.  I’m going to track possession time in the offensive zone and come up with a possession efficiency stat derived from Corsi.  Hey Edmonton Oilers, 2002 called and they want their advanced stats back. 


I will publish my finding along within the next few weeks and share all the variable of my experiment – even if the results show I should get “CORSI” tattooed on my face.  I will disclose what game(s) I watched, any errors in data collection, and how many beers we consumed conducting the experiment.  Heck, I might even call an NHL coach or two to pick their brain about advanced stats!  I am excited to test my theories regardless of the outcome.  More importantly, I excited to see what things we’ll discover that we hadn’t anticipated.  And while I may not discover the next Pluto, there’s a very good chance I'll end up staring at Uranus.




Thursday, August 7, 2014

Pontificating RE: Milano

2014 Development Camp
Today, good old @BluejacketsNHL threw me a bone, by retweeting something they posted back on Tuesday, which was Sonny Milano stating that he was committed to attending Boston College.  I like this choice a lot by Sonny.  True he might have played more games with Plymouth of the OHL.  And I think Plymouth wants to be a credible junior team, so no worries about the desire to win.

But Boston College has a very competitive NCAA program. and Sonny will face seniors in the games he plays.  And, as a rather slight individual. the ability to firm up his physique will help him in a quest to reach the NHL.  Here's the thing though....

Say Sonny goes to Canadian Major Junior (OHL), and he tears it up, just like all us #CBJ fans want.  Guess what?  He has a choice, make the NHL, or stay in Juniors.  Say Sonny goes to the NCAA, and tears it up, just like all us #CBJ fans want.  Maybe leads his conference in scoring, or something like that, or wins a Hobie Baker award as the best player in NCAA hockey as a freshman.  Unlikely, true, but it's what we hope for as #CBJ fans! What then?  Well, from the amateur ranks, he can turn pro, and play in the AHL OR the NHL.  Keeping in mind that moving from a freshman kicking butt in the NCAA to the AHL is a logical development step, whereas if he is in Juniors he MUST go to the NHL, or he MUST be in Juniors.  The NCAA route at this point for a player like Sonny Milano gives the most options.

Mike Reilly, 2014 Development Camp.  Can you say raw
speed?  Sure you can!
Contrast this with the development track of Boone Jenner.  Physically, Boone was ready to compete in the NHL.  Going to Juniors made the most sense, and he jumped to the NHL when his play warranted the move.  It would be no slight on Sonny Milano if he needed a year in the AHL to adapt to playing against pro players.  In fact it is a natural development track for a guy without the advantage of NHL size out of the box.

The NCAA track provides the most flexibility for when to turn pro.  Look at Mike Reilly.  If he was forced to turn pro this year he might not be ready.  On the other hand, he has a really decent chance of winning the Hobie Baker as a Senior at Minnesota, but as a defenseman.  It is common for defensemen to take a longer period to fully adjust to NHL hockey, whereas that jump is often easier for forwards.   He will likely start in the AHL following his college career, which is a logical development step for him.  If he can kick the door down from Springfield, he is ready for the NHL.  But it is a wise choice for him to play his senior year at Minnesota, and compete for that Hobie Baker award.

Maybe it only takes Sonny 2 years to jump to the AHL.  The college route gives him the most flexibility as to when to turn pro.  Going to Boston College is a wise decision Sonny!  I'm looking forward to enjoying watching your collegiate career.

By the way, while I'm pontificating <purrr, it makes you feel good!> I noticed the Blue Jackets giving Cannonfest a plug on the website, which is really well done.  Wait!  Did I not shout this at you?

Cannonfest V!!! (why is this in a small font??  It's huge on the editor!!  But you get the idea!)

Sunday, August 31st, 1-4 pm

400 West Rich Street

Seriously, this is looking like a crazy good time, at a really exciting venue.  Now if only I could pressure my season ticket rep to ensure a player was there.  Hmmm.  Must diabolically plot.....


Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Cannonfest!! Wahoo!! Hockey in August!!

Don't have the new logo, so will have to make do with this one!
Today our colleagues over on the Cannon, in conjunction with our colleagues over on the Union Blue announced the time, date, and location for Cannonfest 2014!!  We encourage you to check out this post on the Cannon for the exciting details, but the important thing is this:

Cannonfest IV, 2013
Sunday, August 31st 
400 W. Rich St Columbus, OH 43215


Kudos to Matt Wagner, Greg May, and Alison Lukan (@bzarcher, @gregin120, @AlisonL on Twitter, give 'em a follow!) for carrying on this awesome Columbus tradition.  Now I'm not saying Jarmo is going to show up, but it's not like it never happened before either.  Who knows?  This year even Jody Shelly may show up!!!
Cannonfest II at BW3 Grandview

This is a really awesome time to get your Blue Jackets fandom rolling in preparation for training camp, and the season to start.  Mark your calendars now!!  Plan to be there!!

One of the really great things about this year's Cannonfest is that the folks at Strongwater Food and Spirits are helping to put the event on.  In a selfless gesture of public service, I have sampled their wares, and I can attest to the quality of their 'strongwaters'! 

And Boomer goes 'sssssssssssssssss' on the DKM Hockey
This is a really great time for the whole family.  Why not let the kid witness the awe filled majesty of a DKM Hockey Podcast.  A memory sure to scar, er, last them a lifetime!

It's time for Cannonfest!!  One of the greatest times of the year, when it's not hockey season!  

Mark your calendar!  Be there!


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Summer Time Dreaming

It's Summer Time! Hockey is at its nadir, and there is nothing much in the way of content.  So I thought I would leave you with this picture of Anton Forsberg and Alexander Wennberg mixing it up in 2014 Development Camp.  Ease back in the summer heat, and dream of CBJ future .....

Sunday, July 20, 2014

No Longer At Loggerheads

It's not often that you get a member of the media to serve you a real softball for a blog title, but today was one of those days.  This afternoon, Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch tweeted "If there is a better phrase than 'at loggerheads' I've not heard it". Follow Aaron at @Aportzline for an informative twitter feed.  And, you may get a softball someday, you never know.

For the record, Lori Schmidt (@LoriSchmidt) was the one piling on, Arniel was the one serving up softball quotes that time.

The use of the phrase was a reference to the status of the negotiations between Ryan Johansen and the Columbus Blue Jackets.  And they were definitely 'at loggerheads' with no real movement or activity towards an agreement being reported.  However, just prior to that quote, Porty broke the news over on Puck Rakers that there had been progress on the Ryan Johansen contract talks.  This is good.

Things were no where near panic stage yet, but it is darn good to see progress on this front.  Apparently there is a sense of agreement on a bridge contract, which is of shorter duration.  That is real progress in the negotiation, and sets the stage for getting something done.  The money was probably 'I've got a Stanley Cup ring on my finger' large, because of the concession on term.  Which is the way you do it in a negotiation, and likely it is something they will come off of, and a number that Jarmo and Zito will come up towards to get the money worked out.

So good news on a lot of fronts.  I was racking my brain for something that could be considered close to content for a blog post.  Porty obliged on a quite summer Sunday.  Thanks man, it's a long summer.  I'll try to get you back with an adult beverage of your choice if I can.

If this can get done fairly soon, then the momentum towards the season can start to gather.


Monday, July 14, 2014

Can the Fourth Line Still Drive Possession?

Mark Letestu in 2012-13 Training Camp
 (Not Gaborik)
Seeing as the Columbus Blue Jackets finished pretty much in the middle of the pack in the NHL, there are plenty of teams out there that are a real handful for our squad.  Our team battled hard in lots of those games, but there were times when the ice was tilted against us, due to the talent and effort of our opponents.  Often times, in such a situation, Head Coach Todd Richards (HCTR) would dump his fourth line out on the ice.  Lead by the indomitable Derek MacKenzie, the fourth line would gain possession, get it into the offensive zone, and start to cycle the puck along the boards.  There were times when the opposing team simply could not regain possession, and HCTR would actually get another line out on the ice before possession was lost.

Now, to be sure, this type of possession is difficult to measure with Fenwick or Corsi statistics, because those statistics have a foundation on a puck getting directed to the net at some point, and I'm not saying our fourth line last year did a ton of that.  So it would be interesting to see those types of statistics for the times when Derek MacKenzie, Blake Comeau, and Corey Tropp were on the ice as our fourth line.  But there were games when HCTR used that line to shift the momentum, and that is a real credit to the effort level of those players.

Corey Tropp is the sole remaining player of that group, and it is thought that Mark Letestu will take over centering that line, with Tropp and Jared Boll as his linemates.  Challenges will be coming from below by D'Amigo, or from higher in the lineup if young talent from the AHL starts to assert itself.  Boll can be a wrecking ball, and as one of the remaining enforcers in the game, if he keeps his mitts on, and concentrates on winning board battles rather than on big hits, then the fourth line will be able to play the same role without Boll sacrificing his deterrence factor.

Mark Letestu is an extremely steady player, but I sometimes wonder if he will be able to replace the fire that MacKenzie brought to the job.  But, Letestu often finds a way to get the job done, time after time, so it is to be hoped that he can lead the fourth line into outplaying the competition.  To me, this is one of the very big questions coming into the 2014-15 season.  It should be interesting, and entertaining to watch it play out.


Saturday, July 12, 2014

More on the Craig Patrick Legacy - Dubinsky

Yesterday Brandon Dubinsky signed a 6 year contract extension with the Columbus Blue Jackets.  The details of the contract are largely irrelevant,  at least in this space, whereas his desire to remain in Columbus for an extended period of time is hugely important.  The core of this team has been formed, and will remain in place so long as they continue to find success.  The nature of the core of players for the Columbus Blue Jackets is simple.  They badly want to win.  They think they can.  They know the road to winning is paved with hard work.

Contrast this with the core of the future team that was in place following the franchises initial playoff appearance.  Going into 2009-10, the core of the franchise was Rick Nash, Derrick Brassard, RJ Umberger, and Steve Mason.  Before he was fired later that year, during the awful December swoon following a fast start, Ken Hitchcock opined that 'these guys had to learn to hate losing more than anything' before they would return to the playoffs.  That didn't happen with that group, and ultimately, Craig Patrick was brought in to help Scott Howson with the transition during the 2011-12 debacle.  As a reminder, Patrick enunciated his value system during a season ticket holder meet and greet, when he said that he valued character over talent.  Craig Patrick has since moved on because John Davidson and Jarmo Kekalainen live and breath the same value system.  Patrick was the driver in the Nash trade where we traded a 30-40 goal scorer for a 15-20 goal scorer (along with Arty Anisimov, another 15-20 goal guy, Tim Erixon and Kerby Rychal).  Talent went one way, character came back this way, and now is the core of the Blue Jackets team.  Scott Howson deserves ultimate credit for listening to Patrick.  Jarmo and JD deserve credit for recognizing what they have, and locking it up.

So the core of this team is now Dubinsky, Horton, Foligno, Hartnell, Wiz, Jack Johnson, and Bobrovsky.  Forming the stiff spine that supports all the character is of course Fedor Tyutin, the remaining player from the first playoff run (I know Jared Boll is in there too, but Tyutin is logging first or second pair defensive minutes).  Behind that core is a cadre of young talent, lead primarily by  Ryan Johansen.  Hopefully Joey will not do something dumb like hold out, as that will set him back enough to compromise future earnings.  I think something will get done. He will certainly get the large raise he deserves.  But he is also surrounded by players of high character, who will demand his best.  And for all the young talent gathering below this core, they will demand the same level of commitment and serve as an example of what it means to be a professional.

The rest of the Eastern Conference has been making moves to try to get better.  The CBJ have largely stood pat, with the exception of the Hartnell for Umberger trade.  It is time for consistency and stability for the franchise, as the last few years have seen lots of change.  Part of the slow starts in the lockout year and last year are players getting familiar with each other.  Their burden to do that is much less this year, and I think will show at the start of the season.

The CBJ finished in the middle of the pack in the NHL last year.  A little movement either way has a big impact on whether they will be in the playoffs or not.  So I don't view the playoffs as a given at all.  They are a distinct possibility, but not a given.  The hedge against slippage is the character factor that Craig Patrick imported to the talent evaluation process in this franchise.  Kudos to JD and Jarmo for quietly getting this team locked up and ready for next year (well except for Joey, but that will get worked out).

It looks like it is going to be a fun year.  I am really looking forward to it.  But first, the doldrums of summer.  So get out and play kids!!  It will be winter soon enough!  Thank the lord for Cannonfest though, I'm not sure I'd make it without it.


Wednesday, July 2, 2014

This is Just a Tribute

Standing in line for my press pass at the media luncheon prior to the 2011-12 NHL season is one of the strongest memories I have of my experience as a hockey writer. Most of the banners on the walls bore the images of players no longer with the team, otherwise Nationwide Arena appeared the same as it does today. The general feeling about the team was optimistic and exciting. General Manager Scott Howson had acquired two big new pieces to play alongside Rick Nash. Free agent defenseman James Wisniewski was a generally unknown player among Blue Jackets fans having spent most of his career in the Eastern Conference. What fans did know is they were now paying him a king's ransom to employ his cannon of a slapshot. The other addition was center Jeff Carter, acquired in a now infamous trade with the Philadelphia Flyers to be the center Rick Nash never had. New Head Coach Scott Arniel was an ex-NHL player who had success as a coach in the AHL. Fans, even the stalwart Howson detractors, seemed to be optimistic that perhaps this team could make it back to the playoffs for only the second time in franchise history. As both a fan and the owner of a brand new press pass I was especially hopeful that I could be covering a team on the rise. I remember sitting at the Q&A session for Howson and Arniel thinking these could be the men responsible for raising the franchise out of also-ran status.

Obviously that did not happen. Fans were quick to look past the fact Carter was a shooter not a playmaker, and that he obviously did not want to be in Columbus. If you have to send a contingent of players to go drag your new acquisition out of hiding that's a truly worrisome sign. Wisniewski is a hell of a power play quarterback, but his defensive lapses have probably left a permanent red mark on some fans foreheads. Scott Arniel's disastrous tenure was highlighted by his implosion at a press conference. Asked a simple question by Lori Schmidt about the team's struggles in 4-on-4 play Arniel seemed flustered and had no answers, instead lashing out at Schmidt and other reporters accusing them of piling on. Scott Howson did yeoman's work fixing the awful state of the roster and organizational depth Doug MacLean had left behind. Unfortunately for every good move Howson made, he made just as many that didn't work out and eventually the bad moves caught up with him.

I spent many nights in the Nationwide Arena dressing room listening to players toe the line and speak in platitudes about playing hard and just not getting breaks. I had never spent time around professional athletes, and after getting over the initial fan reaction it actually became tiresome. Most of the players would answer a couple questions with rote answers then go off to shower, especially after losses. Some players would rarely grace the media with their presence. There were exceptions though. James Wisniewski loved to talk and was a great quote, Cam Atkinson was very approachable and would answer lots of questions. The one player that always stood out to me though, and unfortunately wasn't always available was Derek MacKenzie. I specifically remember after a particularly tough loss. MacKenzie was one of the few players made available for us to speak to. If you've never interviewed a player after a loss, you learn quickly to ask a few questions and let them be on their way. MacKenzie though was different, he would stand there as long as people were asking questions, and he would answer each one thoughtfully and honestly. He would look at you as he spoke to you, and you felt that he cared that you were there. I could tell he was gutted by the loss, you could see it in his face, yet he stood there answering questions for a solid fifteen minutes. It was truly impressive to me as a new reporter to see a player so approachable and accommodating. After speaking to him a few times I started paying more attention to his play on the ice. I quickly began to appreciate MacKenzie's game as much as the person. Tenacious, good defensively, good penalty killer, great hockey sense, and a demon in the faceoff circle. MacKenzie was a fourth liner, but he always seemed to make smart plays and do the little things right in his 11 minutes a night. 

I understand why the Blue Jackets are moving on from MacKenzie. He's on the wrong side of 30 for a professional athlete, probably wanted more term than Jarmo Kekalainen was looking to give out,  and there are prospects hungry for playing time. Perhaps MacKenzie wanted out and the thought of playing in sunny Florida and not paying state taxes was appealing, but I doubt it, MacKenzie won't enjoy the losing. Columbus is not just losing MacKenzie the player, they are losing MacKenzie the professional. His contributions on the ice will be missed but his leadership and professionalism will be missed more. I hope there is another Derek MacKenzie in the glut of prospects filling out in Springfield or juniors, but I doubt it.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Pipeline Primed

Today the Columbus Blue Jackets completed the priming of the pipeline by adding a draft full of prospects to their development pipeline.  These guys all need more development time, but are a good complement to those already in the pipeline.  3 forwards, 3 defensemen and a goalie.  The writers over on Puck Rakers give a good break down.

First round pick, Frank "Sonny" Milano is a forward, with sick puck handling skills.  Search up the YouTube video from the 2014 draft combine.  The lad has a feel for the puck.  He is currently committed to Boston College in the NCAA, which is a more than adequate path.  He will develop there facing good competition.  Plymouth owns his rights in Canadian Major Junior, and Jarmo has indicated that they would sit down with the family and review his options.  To me, if you think he will be NHL ready after a year of junior, then that is the route to take.  If it is any longer than that, I'd prefer he go to BC, as I think it will aid his physical development.  We'll see what the family and the CBJ come up with as the best path.

Our second round pick is 6-foot-5 defenseman Ryan Collins.  Another Collins, and another Ryan.  Hmm, this could get challenging in a few years for the inebriated fan.  At any rate, this stay at home defenseman is committed to University of Minnesota.  Like Sonny Milano, Collins hails from the US Development team.  This is a solid defensive depth pick.

Our third round pick is goaltender Elvis Merzlikens, from Latvia.  Elvis has played a lot in Switzerland, and according to the Puck Rakers story is a good puck moving goalie.

Our 2nd third round pick, taken one pick after Elvis is defenseman Blake Siebenaler, who appears to be a pretty good puck moving defenseman with some speed.

Our fourth round pick is Left Wing Julien Pelletier, who looks like he will be playing for Cape Breton in the Quebec Major Junior league next year.

Our fifth round pick is right wing Tyler Bird, who will play for Brown University next year.

Our seventh round, and final pick, was defenseman Olivier LeBlanc, who plays for St. John in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

All of these players need development time, and can develop at their own pace.  This is a solid, if unspectacular draft, and we should expect to see players starting to emerge from it about 3 years from now.  I'm feeling good about the way this went down.


Thursday, June 26, 2014

Draft Eve, Big 43

Draft Eve.  A great two way player, good hands, thinks the game quickly, she's not afraid to mix it up in the corners.  Or, the day before the draft.  You make the call!

On a more serious note, tomorrow night is the first round of the 2014 NHL Entry draft.  With Columbus picking 16th, any player selected is likely to have some development needs.  We are making the transition to a franchise that can afford to give players the proper amount of time to develop, and in my mind this draft is just another shot in the arm to the pipeline.  We have a group of players emerging from juniors and the European leagues converging on Springfield for some AHL development time.  This draft will result in a restock of the players developing in Juniors.  The rule of thumb for all of these players is that you must kick the door down to make it to the big club, because all seats are occupied.

Its possible that a trade could emerge, but I kind of doubt it.  And I am happy with the notion that we use the picks we have, and take advantage of the group of scouts that Jarmo has assembled.  I like the notion of back pressure in the pipeline.  It's very healthy for the franchise.

The other thing that emerged today is that Scott Hartnell has decided to wear number 43.  I think that is interesting, as the players who have worn this number before are a group of unremarkable tweeners (between the AHL and the NHL).  Hartnell has an opportunity to make that number magical in CBJ lore, and his charity #Hartnelldown already has shirts for sale with the number.

Speaking of that, the Dispatch writers on their Cannonfodder podcast revealed that Hartnell's charity has already paid for 10 AAA Blue Jackets to attend an elite hockey camp this summer.  The guy is already investing in youth hockey in this City, which is a great thing to see.  Kudos there Hartsy.  Well done.  I also loved the quote that Jarmo tossed to Porty.  We'll see if he uses it in his write-up on Saturday.  Yes, I know I am doing 'things that make Morgan mad' by using those nicknames, but I'm too lazy to write it all out, and the prose becomes too stilted anyway.  So deal with it.

The offseason has picked up pace lately, and is becoming more entertaining.  We get a lot more to think about in the next two days, and then free agency hits.  Gonna be a fun week.