Monday, August 24, 2015

Daring to Hope; Hoping to Dare

Sonny Milano visits Cannonfest!
The ramp up to the season has begun, albeit the most difficult part.  Cannonfest 2015 is in the books, and it was a dandy.  Hosted at Dick's Last Resort, right in the shadows of Nationwide Arena, the event filled another venue.  A festival of hockey in the dark days of the off season, Cannonfest allows for some hockey renewal as we start the countdown towards the Traverse City tournament for prospects.

With the compensation of the summer weather, these are some of the hardest times for a hockey fan.  Free Agency excitement is long past, and all you can do is count the days till training camp.  Cannonfest helps to fill that late summer craving for hockey, and as such has become an essential survival tool for the die hard fan.

I have been to every Cannonfest.  But this one seemed a bit different to me, mainly because I am pretty excited about our 2015-16 team's chances.  We haven't even begun the warm up for the marathon in front of us, but the team is already healthier than it was at this time last year, when several players were recovering from surgery or other injuries and the Nathan Horton saga with pain was just becoming known.  Yes, we'll find out about some training injuries when camp opens, but the team is healthier already.  And this team is deep.  Very deep.

Seeing Sonny Milano at Cannonfest was a reminder of how deep this team is.  Sonny is an excellent prospect, with a bright future, but to crack the CBJ's lineup he is really going to have to bring some mojo.  For a guy like Sonny, the proper development track is critical, and unlike past years in CBJ history, there is no pressure to rush him to the NHL.  Ideally, Sonny has a strong season in Cleveland with the Lake Erie Monsters (YES!!!  I'm still pumped about that), and helps to establish a tradition of excellence our new affiliate location.  That puts him on track to attempt to crack the line up in the next two years when he has a pro season or two under his belt.  But the bottom line is that the parent club is SO deep, that a top draft pick talent like Sonny is a long shot to make the big club.

Depth is hedge against the inevitable misfortunes of the hockey season.  A tangible defense against the many things we know can go wrong with a season.  This level of depth lets me dare to hope that we are going to have a really fun season.  As Jeff Little, over on the Cannon, has often said, 'hope is not a strategy'.  And while it must be admitted that there is a certain amount of hope related to our defensive makeup, there is little else on this team that seems to require that.  So I dare to hope that things will go well for us this year.

And deep down, hidden within that battle scarred, cynical shell of a Blue Jackets fan, I hope to dare.  To dare to come out of nowhere like the 2011-12 New Jersey Devils, so when the Cup Final comes, everyone is looking around saying 'how the hell did those guys get here?'  Likely depending upon the foibles of our defensive corps, this group could really cause some trouble for a lot of teams, and Todd Richards must be licking his chops when he thinks of what could be.  So I hope that the players dare to take us on a wild ride that will leave an indelible mark of success on our young franchise.


Saturday, August 22, 2015

twas the Night Before CannonFest

Even my milk is excited for CannonFest!

Twas the night before CannonFest, fan unity our goal
Not a player was slandered, not even Boll;

My #CBJ milk was poured in my glass with care,
In hopes that I'd soon see some players there;

Anticipation of greatness, past year trends,
#HartnellDown donations, and meeting new friends;

something, something, something, something...

Now! Wagner, now! Lukan, now! GregMay and UB Soldiers,
On! Wooten, on! Ashley, on! Artillery and Schroeder

something, something...

But I heard him exclaim, like a voice from God --
Enjoy CannonFest you ALL,
and you're welcome for Brandon Saad

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

So Where Will the Scoring Come From?

Ignoring for the moment that we gave up 3.02 Goals per Game in 2014-15, let's focus on the 2.77 GPG we scored, which resulted in a total of 227 goals for the good guys.  It was an injury riddled year, but the 227 goals was good enough to finish 13th overall in goal scoring last year.  Due to the off season changes, and the recovering health of the team, we can play around a little bit with the numbers, and see where we might end up.

Certainly, many of these numbers will be dead wrong, with all of the foibles of the season laying before us, but here is some conservative guess work on how scoring might turn out.  Obviously, this is contingent on players being healthy.

Player                     Goals Guesstimate    Net from 2014-15
Johansen                         26                                 0
Foligno                           25                                  -
Hartnell                          22                                  -
Atkinson                        20                                  -
Clarkson                        17                                  0
Dubinski                        15                                  +
Saad                                 20                                  -
Wennberg                     10                                 +
Calvert                           15                                  +
Jenner                            15                                  +
Borque                            8                                   +
Campbell                        8                                   0
Boll                                   1                                   0
Johnson                         10                                   +
Connauton                     9                                   0
Savard                           10                                   -
Tyutin                             3                                   0
Murray                          10                                  +
Total                            244

Sorry for the lame table, Blogger has zero functionality in that regard.  But I digress...

If you look at the number of goals scored, with a good deal of the optimistic guesstimates still pretty reasonable and based on a greater number of games played, this is a pretty serious potential jump in goal scoring.  Should this season be blessed with some good luck, rather than the horrifying luck of 2014-15, there is reason to think that the scoring could compete with the top 5 in the NHL.

There is real reason to think that Wennberg might explode this year, as he looked really good down the stretch.  There is also real reason to think that he might have a tragic sophomore slump, based on evidence provided by Messrs Jenner and Murray.  However, there is a ton of depth in scoring this year, which might spell trouble for some of the other teams in the NHL.

The Metro is definitely getting tougher.  Right now over on the Cannon Matt is nursing a review of the Metropolitan Division.  It is going to be really interesting to see how the East stacks up this year.  Did the Atlantic Division just become the least in the East?

The prospect of more prolific scoring for next year is enough to get the juices going during the doldrums of summer.  I kinda like that!  So I thought I would throw these numbers out there for everyone to ponder.


Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Embracing the Thump: Part II

It would be natural for many of our readers to gently chide me for my incessant harping upon the importance of the fourth line, and suggest that, perhaps, some speed and skill on the top lines would be more effective.  And they would be right, a lot of the time.  But an NHL hockey season is an agonizing marathon run in 45 second sprints, but it's a team marathon.  Todd Richards has shown that when he has an effective fourth line, he will just roll his lines and try to exact a physical toll on the opponent.

This was especially apparent in 2013-14 when the CBJ went on a pretty long run of not losing once they had a third period lead and the physical toll of the game was accumulating.  In 2014-15, the fourth line was often ineffective, and we had a nasty habit of coughing up late leads as the injury depleted bench was shortened, the opposite of the aforementioned effect.

More importantly, though, is what Joel Quenneville just pulled off in Chicago, winning a Stanley Cup by essentially playing 4 defensemen.   This is a rather extreme example, but one that I think will be seen more frequently in the future.  The point is, you have to make the other team pay for shortening their defensive bench, and this is where the fourth line comes in.  They either need to get on the ice and pound on the 'royal four', or score on the other two defensemen.  Chicago's defensemen are excellent, but Tampa Bay could not put enough pressure on them with their bottom six to force them out of that mode, or at least to punish them for it.  If faced with such a situation in a playoff series, you need the fourth line to win you a couple of games, assuming that the top players essentially cancel each other out.  And you need to make the other coach reluctant to put his star defensemen on the ice in a highly physical series against anyone but your top lines.  And ideally, you grind them to the point where they are forced out of that mode of play.  This was brilliant and gutsy coaching by Quenneville, backed up by a sterling performance by his top four defensemen.  Your only real weapon in combating that tactic is your fourth line if it is physical and effective.

So my hope is that we have a more stable group on the fourth line this year, and to me, the Gregory Campbell signing goes a long way to ensuring this.  The play of the fourth line will have something to say in whatever success the 2015-16 squad achieves.  Here's my hope that it speaks with a loud voice.


Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Embracing the Thump

Porty Tweeted this Morning the a deal is almost done with
Matt Calvert
For a great deal of the season last year, I spent quite a bit of time calmly discussing (i.e. whining about) the inability of our fourth line to contribute to overall puck possession, and thus team momentum during a particular game.  By puck possession I do not necessarily mean as measured by surrogate statistics, but by the line's ability to win battles along the boards when on the forecheck.  In 2013-14, in our run to the playoffs, our fourth line, lead by a relentless Derek MacKenzie was the group that Todd Richards would turn to when the team's back was against the wall.  Injuries, inexperience, and confusion of roles eliminated this tool from HCTR's tool box for much of the last season.  The 2015-16 season is already looking good in this regard with the free agent acquisition of Gregory Campbell to center the fourth line.

With Campbell, Matt Calvert, and Rene Bourque/Jared Boll looking like the composition of that line, it becomes a line to be reckoned with, and hopefully one that will create some match up problems for opposing coaches.  In 2013-14, with MacKenzie at the helm, this line would take the puck back behind the opposing goal tenders net, and play 'keep away' for full shifts, and the following line change would put a great deal of pressure on opposing players.  We are looking to regain that possession aspect for this coming year, and Campbell, Calvert and Bourque have enough scoring touch to chip in and help with the scoring.

I look forward to with keen interest in how this group performs, and look to see Calvert driving the play with his relentless forecheck, and Campbell and company jumping on the loose pucks as hapless defensemen attempt to get the clear {wipes drool off chin}.  If this line can generate this kind of action, then we have a good chance to have a really fun season.

With regards to Matt Calvert, I know he has played successfully higher up in our line up in the past.  I don't see the fourth line duty for Calvert as a demotion, I see it as pressure from the top of the line up by players like Saad and Clarkson that is pushing successful players into different roles.  In other words, it is a reflection of how good this team can be.  But on the nights when the legs aren't quite there, the play of the fourth line will need to drag the rest of the team into the fight.  This line's ability to do this is critical to the teams long term success this year.  And Matt Calvert's motor is where that action needs to start.  I'm pleased to see that a contract for Matt is nearly done.  It's looking like it is going to be a fun season.


Thursday, July 2, 2015

Jarmo's Team

It's been a wild few days here in Jackets land.  The acquisition of young Brandon Saad from the Blackhawks, along with the departure of Artem Anisimov, Marko Dano, and Mark Letestu, followed by the signing of Gregory Campbell to center the fourth line.  I'm not going to try to recreate the excellent coverage on Puck Rakers, or by our colleagues over on the Cannon, Buckeye State Hockey, or the incomparable Puck Daddy.

From a fan perspective, Jarmo has put a clear stamp on this team.  This is Jarmo's team going forward, and this is a team that has a lot of thump to it.  Yes, Pittsburgh got Phil Kessel, which is kinda scary, but only if we let them play their game.  If we make them play Blue Jackets hockey, we'll be okay.

I've got to confess, this is all pretty fun to think about.

Have an awesome fourth of July holiday, Blue Jackets fans!!  This is one to celebrate!


Sunday, June 28, 2015

Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus

The Sweet, New, Alternate Patch.  Boom!
The 2015 NHL Entry Draft is in the books.  My greatest hope was that we would just eat the good draft position we earned with an under performing year, and re-stock the development pipeline.  My wish was granted, as the CBJ did nothing crazy, though they tried.  That's perfect.  Thank you Santa Claus! The biggest difference between Noah Hannifan and Zach Werenski is where they are on the arc of the development timeline.  There is nothing to indicate which of them has a higher peak, but undoubtedly Hannifan is further along now than the 17 year old Werenski (turns 18 on July 29, according to what I have read).   In short, he is young, and the time spent in development this next year is time well spent.

The bottom line is the CBJ used advantageous draft position to restock the pipeline in a lot of key areas, which is what the franchise needed for long term health.  If you are willing to accept the end of the season run as something representative of what the team, as currently composed, can do, than this upcoming season looks great.  It's more complicated than that, of course, but there are significant additions already coming into the existing squad we watched play last year, namely Ryan Murray and David Clarkson.  Clarkson brings all of the physical, and 75% of the offense that Nathan Horton was supposed to bring, and tore an oblique muscle in his first shift as a Jacket, so was a non-factor last year.  That is unlikely to be the case in 2015-16.  As near as I can tell, no one is having off season surgery this year, which is a definite step forward for the hockey club.

I like the defensive picks we made, as these guys will emerge when we need them to over the next 3 years, when we hope to really be pushing for something.  I especially like the first second round pick of Paul Bittner, Oliver Bjorkstrand's linemate from Portland.  Things that maximize Bjorkstrand's potential have a real impact on how far this team can go ultimately.  Bittner brings real size to the game, and it will be intriguing to see how this develops in the future.  I love this pick.

Keep in mind the two headed (Lake Erie) monster we need to deal with here.  It is in our best interest to establish a winning culture in Cleveland, with the Lake Erie Monsters, while making a significant push for the playoffs with the parent club.  Having Karlsson (Wild Bill), Dano, Rychel, Anderson and Bjorkstrand down there to get things rolling, and establish a winning culture is a huge contribution to the organization.  Let me say this a different way.  Establishing a winning culture in Cleveland will result in box office success for the minor league club, while prepping these guys for the NHL.  We have a large, vested interest in the Lake Erie franchise, and it is a good time to establish that success while we have a glut of veteran forwards at the NHL level.  ERATTA - Oh yeah, I forgot Sonny Milano.  Doh!

Our team needs to establish itself as a force in the Eastern Conference this year.  We have a veteran group of forwards who will need to get that job done.  If we can establish that this year, we have a pipeline of talent that will help to sustain that position.  And if you are serious about a run for the Cup, you have to be in a position to compete, year after year.  We haven't been there yet, but it's getting close.


Friday, June 26, 2015

First Round Point Producers since 2000 (a cool visual)

The other day I was at the local hockey bar talking with a buddy about the upcoming draft. The discussion centered around this year's draft class and the words "depth", "skill" and "potential" were getting tossed around at rather dangerous levels. While it's fun to talk about how good this class could be, my mind started drifting toward things we could actually quantify.  I tend to do that.

Right away the draft from 2003 came to mind. Rightfully so,  2003 is the year that gave the NHL the next wave of super-stud talent.  The first round alone had 16 players make at least one All-Star game.  Names like E Staal, Vanek, Carter, Parise, Getzlaf, Perry, Kesler, Richards, Seabrook, D Brown, Horton, Michalek, Suter, B Burns, Phaneuf. 
Now that's a draft class where a GM really can't miss on a player. Well, unless you draft Nikolai Zherdev I suppose.

Curiosity got the best of me and my new obsession was to find a way to visualize how the different draft classes have performed. I started coding, web scraping and building visuals and after a couple of hours, I came up with this chart.  Now while this visual satisfied my craving, it was thrown together really quickly and there are quite a few things to point out prior to you consuming.
  • Goalies aren't going to be very high on here.  Sorry goalies, your value will be measured some other way, but not here
  • Defensive player abilities are unfairly represented on this. This chart looks at point production only.  So the heavy shot from the point on a Power Play may bump you up, but that solid shut-down guy won't find glory in this
  • This starts in the year 2000.  I'm sure there were some amazing draft classes before then, but I had to start somewhere in the last 15 years, right?
  • In the interest of time, I calculated "points per year since drafted" and not "points per year active in the NHL".  I wish I had a better excuse for this, but it boils down to a lot more work to get to that level and I play for "Team Lazy".
  • Using points per year unfairly penalizes a player that misses a significant number of games due to injury. Let's all subscribe to the fact that they live in a galaxy far, far away and move on.
  • Hey look, Rick Nash is a pretty good player from his draft class. That Doug MacLean is a genius!


Saturday, June 20, 2015

Draft Day is Coming

Ever since I took the Union Blue, all I can think
about is defensive depth - Jon Snow
Now that the Stanley Cup festivities are over, and the Blackhawks have salted their modern day dynasty, we can move on to things more relevant to our CBJ, which is the upcoming draft.  If you want to get a flavor for how people think we will draft, the Cannon and BSHockey  have mock drafts posted.  Check them out.  The idea of drafting a defenseman, Provorov, is a good one.  A Russion defenseman to play along side Tyutin while he learns his trade would help.

But I found Jarmo's comments, published in this Puck Rakers story very interesting.  Jarmo said that to abandon your draft board to draft by position, particularly in the first round, is unwise.  The part of his comment I found interesting was where he said that by the time the draft pick broke into the league, your situation might be totally different.  With that in mind, the player that I hope is still available when we pick is Mikko Rantanen.  Here is the Hockey's Future write up on him.  A 6'4", 195 lb right wing would look good alongside any of our many centers, and he looked really good in the world juniors playing for Finland.

With 2 high second round picks, there will be plenty of opportunities to add good organizational defensive depth.  It is my belief that the 'system' of ranking young hockey players does a better job with forwards that it does with defensemen.  Jarmo will therefore rely on his scouts, who will have seen all these kids several times.  It will be interesting to see who they pick.  It's like Christmas in June, with all that new talent coming into the organization.

The draft is a good time.  I'm starting to anxiously await the draft, and the blessing of Development Camp, which will come soon after.  Time for our little mid-summer hockey fix before the long drought of August.


Sunday, June 7, 2015

Glass Bangers - Stanley Cup Edition

Since I am sporting a wicked summer cold and confined to quarters, so to speak, I figured I'd knock out a Glass Bangers edition.  Like someone randomly pounding on the glass at inappropriate moments, it will probably be mildly annoying, but with an awkward entertainment value.  It's who I am.

Nationwide Arena

The Dispatch ran an article in today's paper that the fund for upkeep of the arena is essentially dry.  I guess this doesn't really surprise me on a lot of fronts, and I'm not concerned for now.  If it persists for a long period of time its a concern.  First off you have to remember that the financing plan for the Arena was based on the wildly optimistic revenue estimates of the Casino folks, that I never believed for one moment.  The first thing I did when they announced that deal was to look to see what happens if Casino revenue does not meet expectations.  Well, this is what happens.  It's all written in as part of the deal that was signed in the first place.  This was an outcome that was foreseen.  I guess we need more gamblers.  
2013-14 Stanley Cup Playoffs in
Nationwide Arena

Second the first thing this fund did was to replace the woefully inadequate original equipment scoreboard and sound system with a state of the art system for the All Star game.   A maintenance fund ideally has some time to build before you drop a big dollar investment right out of it.  But it was sorely needed, and the new scoreboard definitely enhances the Arena experience.  Anyone who was there and heard them play In the Air Tonight before Game 3 of the playoff series against the Penguins knows that every dime was well spent.  I still get chills...

Speaking of the Dispatch

The word dropped this week that the Wolfe family has sold the Columbus Dispatch to New Media Investment Group.  It is to be hoped that New Media are hockey fans, and maintain the excellent newspaper coverage we get of the home town hockey team.  The Dispatch has maintained two beat writers, Aaron Portzline and Shawn Mitchell (who replaced 'the Condor', Tom Reed) and a columnist, Mike Arace.  This results in excellent coverage, something that I have always really appreciated.  I'm an old school guy.  I like to start my morning with a cup of coffee and a hard copy sports page with a lot of hockey news in it.  If it weren't for the fact that summer is just basically awesome, this would be a very difficult time of year for me.  The Dispatch has an awesome sports page, with great coverage of a lot of things.  If you doubt this, pick yourself up a copy of the Nashville Tennessean, and see how bad it could really be.  We want our hockey news, New Media.  Please maintain this excellent tradition.

Regarding the Captain

The more I think about Nick Foligno as the Captain of the team, the more I like the idea.  Of course it is a role he will grow in, but this is a wise choice.  When last season was going off the rails due to injury early in the year, the team was able to field credible line ups which should have been able to win, but couldn't muster the will to play Blue Jackets Hockey.  The aforementioned style of hockey is physically demanding on the players, and the subconscious of the human brain defaults to conserving energy, and must be overridden by conscious will.  Our players have that will, to be sure, but in the doldrums of the early season, when three quarters of the schedule lie before you, that will can become uncertain.  A stronger team structure will help in times of uncertainty.  

Nick is a pretty unique guy.  I think he is going to excel in this role, and he's the right person for the job.  Here's a little anecdote about Nick.  It was in late May, the year of the lockout shortened season. You'll recall we missed the playoffs by a point. I had had major knee replacement surgery, and it was the last Friday while I was on disability before I had to go back to the salt mines, so I paid a visit to Front Street Friday.  Nick was there signing autographs.  Well, the line was long, I didn't have anything for him to sign, so started checking the rest of the festivities out.  

After hanging out a bit, I noticed that the line was dramatically shorter, so I figured 'what the heck', I'll jump in line and figure it out as I go.  So who's in line in front of me?  Dancing Kevin.  So I''m thinking this should be fun.  And, while I was in line a kind member of the Jacket Backers gave me a program with Nick's picture to sign, so I'm all set.  When I get up to the head of the line, Kevin naturally has Nick sign 'the belly', and they get a few pictures of that which requires Nick to get up and leave the table, and they all have a few laughs.  Then Nick comes back, sits down, and he's ready for the last guy in line, me.  

So I gave him my program to sign, and told him that as a season ticket holder I really appreciated their stunning run at the end of the season, and that they had done a really good job.  You know, the regular blah, blah that I'm sure the players hear from the fans a lot. But on this warm May morning, and incredible transformation came over him.  His eyes just started burning with intensity, and he got excited, and he emphatically told me 'We're gonna be even better next year!!'.  Well, yeah you got that right,Nick!  First home playoff win ever.  What are you going to say?  

That was two years ago.  Nick has come miles since then.  He's the right guy for the job.

The Clorton Effect

The whole dynamic of the Nathan Horton for David Clarkson deal has yet to be really felt in Blue Jackets circles, and it will be interesting to watch that develop this year.  I have seen at least one discussion this year where an author forgot to include Clarkson in his projected CBJ starting lineup.  I think it highly unlikely that we will see a lot of a Hartnell, Wennberg, Dano line this next year because of the pressure of Clarkson's presence.  As well as the young guys played down the stretch last year, they are going to have an even harder time cracking the CBJ line up this year.  Add to that an expected level of regression in the form of a sophomore slump, and you get an expectation that some time up in Cleveland playing for the Monsters for Dano and/or Wennberg would be considered a normal part of their development.  

As far as expectations for Clarkson, a physical presence, and some goal scoring.  I'd pencil him in for about 17 goals, based on dropping his high year and his low year, with a hope for 20 goals or more.  I think Blue Jackets Hockey fits his style of play, and I think he will achieve a level of comfort with it pretty quickly.  Things in Toronto did not go the way he wanted them to.  I think he will be pretty motivated to have a good season, which could bode well for the CBJ.

Well, that should be enough for today.  Looking towards the summer milestones, the draft, and free agency.  Have an awesome summer everyone!