Monday, April 23, 2018

Achilles Heel - The Power Play

LOL - Dubois and Jones a year ago, 2016
training camp.
Tonight the Columbus Blue Jackets fell to the Washington Capitals in the sixth game of their play off series, allowing Washington to advance to their inevitable clash with the Penguins.  Still bitter, so don't really want to comment on that series, the wrong things will come out. 

However, the inescapable truth for the Blue Jackets is that their power play, which languished between 31st and 30th in the league cost them this series.  When you go Oh for Four Games on the power play, against an opponent with a lethal power play, you are pretty much done.  And that is what our CBJ did this year.  We could not overcome that goal differential 5 on 5. 

And tonight, in the series clinching game, the power play kill still yielded a shorty.  At the end that glaring deficiency cost them dearly, and they were never able to solve it all year.  Until the can solve it, they won't advance in the playoffs.  You can bet that hockey operations will dissect that problem over the off season, and make changes.

Nonetheless, I'm pretty proud of this group.  Not the best team in franchise history, though they left their mark. But they showed a lot down the stretch, going from the outside looking in, to making the playoffs after the trade deadline when it is heavy lifting around the league.  They won more than their competition, which is saying a lot, because all the competition won as well.  They made the playoffs, but they are not ready yet for a 3 time Metropolitan Division Champion.  So we lost. 

In future series we need Oliver Bjorkstrand and Sonny Milano to make statements in these games.  I thought both players got their feet wet in the NHL this year, and look to take further strides next year. 

I haven't listened to Torts yet.  That should be informative.  I thought he did a great job down the stretch. 

Welp.  The 2017-18 season is over.  It was a good one.  Just wait till PLD is a year older.  Wowza!


Monday, April 9, 2018

Moving the Needle; Adding Texture

Playoff Ice in Nationwide Arena
The 2017-18 Columbus Blue Jackets are returning to the Stanley Cup playoffs in consecutive years for the first time in franchise history.  In this space I opined early in the season that making the playoffs was an organizational imperative.  Mission accomplished. 

Previous iterations of the Blue Jackets have made the playoffs, only to fall back off the pinnacle, and start the struggle to return again.  Making the playoffs in consecutive years shows that you have 'moved the needle'.  That you have gotten better over time.  Stick tap to Jarmo, John Davidson, John Tortorella, and the players for this significant accomplishment.  At times it looked shaky this year, but the team powerfully drove through to the playoffs, and finished by playing some of their best hockey of the year. 

I like the match-up with the Washington Capitals.  Not that it's any kind of gift, they are a very good opponent.  Sort of an 'out of the frying pan into the fire' kind of thing.  What I like is going into a round with another team, which adds texture to our team history.  It should be interesting to see how it all plays out.  I thought Washington was going to take a step backward this year.  Instead they won the Metropolitan Division.  They are also entering the playoffs on a string of very good play; late in the season it looked like Pittsburgh might catch them, but then they pulled away and won the Division.  Good stuff.

The Blue Jackets are an interesting bunch.  The best rookie in franchise history (wow!), Pierre-Luc
Dubois, a trade for a dynamic winger, Panarin, and a Norris trophy candidate, Jones, carried the team to a successful season, aided and abetted by the trade deadline acquisitions of Cole, Vanek and Letestu.  Bobrovsky had another good year, and Zach Werenski was starting to emerge from his sophomore slump by the end of the year.  Nice slump, tied for most goals by a Blue Jackets defenseman, with his partner Jones who set the record for most points by a defenseman,.

Cam Atkinson comes into the playoffs on fire, and one of the big wild cards going forward is Thomas Vanek.  Throughout his career he has been a goal scorer, and he could easily get hot in the playoffs.  I think the chance for hardware matters to him, and I think he will play well.

Playoff bound.  How cool.  What a good time this is going to be!


Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Deadline Moves Resonate

Ha ha! An old pre-Gaborik Letestu,
2013 Training Camp
At the trade deadline Jarmo Kekalainen added veteran depth to the roster at little cost, shoring up multiple parts of the lineup.  Shopping at the untrodden end of the rental market, Jarmo conserved top draft picks and spent mid-draft picks in the third and fourth round in multiple years.  He accomplished two things; he told his existing roster he trusted them and he brought in reinforcements to prop the team up.  For me as a fan, I was really pleased by these moves.

Letestu's story book return to Columbus, scoring a goal, and having an obvious impact in play sets a feel good vibe that hasn't been around the club much this year.  2017-18 is a season burdened with very high expectations, and the young team has seemed to struggle with that weight, while showing obvious potential.  So how do you help?  Add veterans.

In addition to Letestu's positive impact on the fourth line and special teams, Jarmo added Ian Cole and Thomas Vanek, a strong defenseman on one hand, and an accomplished scorer on the other.  For these players, they all come from a situation where their team was out of the playoffs (Ottawa for Cole), to a team that is in playoff position, if tenuously.  For Vanek this is a real opportunity. A new contract is probably less of an issue for him than an opportunity to take a shot at hockey's big prize.

So in the end, I think, these pieces make the Blue Jackets a much more dangerous team in a playoff round.  The playoffs are a different beast, and these veterans bring a variety of experience and talent to the equation that could make the end of this season very entertaining.  And if the rentals don't work out, you fall back on the team that got you this far.  It is a very advantageous position for the organization to be in, as they try to move toward being a perennial playoff team. 

And boy oh boy am I happy for the Letestu family.  Welcome home folks.  We've missed you.


Saturday, February 10, 2018

On the Outside Looking In

Dubois, Anderson and Wennberg, circa 2016
There is something kind of surreal about being a long time Jackets fan, and hearing the phrase "the CBJ dropped out of a playoff position for the first time in a year and a half."  Nonetheless, an unprecedented run came to an end last night at the hands of the Capitals, and the Blue Jackets are not in playoff position for the first time in a long time.  Which, at this stage of the game, is probably healthy.  If there were 4 days left in the season instead of a looming trade deadline, it would be time to panic.  This, however, is not that time.

No matter how poorly they played in January, the CBJ just could not seem to drop out of that third slot in the Metropolitan Division.  Now that they are actually showing signs that they can play hockey, they can't seem to win.  I think it will come though, as they are actually starting to forecheck effectively.  So we will see what happens tonight against the Devils. 

The Jackets have a run of Metro teams to try to handle here in February, so this is a good time to try to win some games.  One of the excuses for not bringing your best just went away though.  Now that they are looking up at playoff position, it shouldn't be too hard to get motivated.  The veteran core is showing signs of life, and Atkinson looks like he is getting ready to get hot and start scoring.  We will see if that pans out. 

The games matter from here on out, which should make for some compelling hockey.  I'm looking forward to watching these games down the stretch.  It should be fun.


Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Why the Jokinen Acquisition is Such a Strong Move

Jarmo hanging at Cannonfest
Today the CBJ acquired Jussi Jokinen off of waivers from the LA Kings.  Jokinen is roughly 34, has scored in the past, harmed us in the playoffs when with the Pens, and is coming off a knee injury at Florida last year.  I feel really strongly that this is a good move.  The fact that it is a no cost move may move it into the great move category, depending on how it all turns out.  No assets were given up, there is no risk to this move, but possibly a really decent upside for this particular CBJ team. 

I had been thinking that a really good move  would be to acquire a couple of veteran checking wingers/centers at the deadline for the stretch run.  There is a legitimate need for a more productive fourth line, and going rental veteran is likely a pretty solid strategy to upgrade that line's performance.  But it does erode those lower round draft picks if you have to make a trade and that's where Jarmo and his crew of scouts make their money (see re: Nutivaara).  So even though they are low round picks, they are valuable to the organization and should not be given up lightly.

But Jokinen fills this role, for free.  And while I think he can hold this role down, there is potentially an upside that could make him even more valuable.  So I feel pretty good about this move.  And for a young team under duress with injuries, the sight of reinforcements coming over the hill may give them a needed spark. 

So from what I have seen in the twittersphere today,  he is apparently good at faceoffs (a huge need) can play any forward position (we need centers), has played center in the NHL(!), and is 2 years removed from a 60 point season.  So the biggest question is how much is left in the tank, and a waiver wire claim that is an upgrade for your team is a great way to find out.  I did note that RJ Umberger tweeted that he could be over in 20 minutes if Jarmo needed some help.  You gotta love that!  I'd love for RJ to have that chance, but probably not gonna happen.  I don't think RJ ever had the speed you need in today's NHL, even at the prime of his long and fruitful career.

So it's a good day in CBJ land. 

Coach Hitchcock comes back to town on Thursday.  I am really happy for him.  We never shoulda fired Hitch in the first place, but I am impressed with what Tortorella is doing.  That last Jack Adams wasn't for nothing.


Monday, November 27, 2017

Why This Season is Unlikely to Go South

Well, Thanksgiving has come and gone, and the Blue Jackets sit one point out of first place in the Metro and 3 points out of a tie for first place in the league.  Rarefied atmosphere to be sure.  On the other hand, as of this morning, the Penguins sit out of playoff contention, but only 5 points out of a tie for first in the Metro.  That puts the CBJ and 3 other Metro teams between them and a tie with the surprising NJ Devils.  So the Division is super tight, and likely to remain that way for some time to come.

We have seen this before, the old timey Blue Jackets fans.  The times of yore, when the CBJ faced the Red Wings of a different era in a back to back for Central Division supremacy just after Thanksgiving.  A money on the board game at home, followed by the loss on the road and the dreaded December swoon as the team lost 8 straight to fall out of playoff contention for good.  So what's to keep this year's team from following the same pattern?

Defense, mostly.  And Bob.  In the aforementioned scenario we were looking for Steve Mason to recreate his awesome performance of 08-09, and it just didn't happen.  It this case, well, Bob.  And Seth, and Zach.  And Murray and Nutivaara emerging to challenge Johnson and Savard for the second pair role.  With Harrington and Carlsson as spares, the CBJ defense is deep.  In the aforementioned scenario, Lidstrom was still patrolling the blue line for the Winged Wheel, at the height of his awesomeness (dammit).  Fortunately we have the reincarnation of said Lidstrom, in the form of Werenski, carrying the puck up the ice.  Not to mention Seth Jones.  Oy!  What a player!

So yeah, this team looks and functions a lot better than those old Western Conference teams ever did.  As evidenced by how the team skillfully managed the dreaded December swoon last year by winning ALL of the games in December.  While it is unlikely to happen again this year, there are two things that make me hopeful.  First of all, the Cleveland Indians went on to put together two ridiculous streaks, in back to back years.  The CBJ players were in town preparing for camp and were able to observe the record setting run by the Tribe.  At some point they will think, 'why can't we do that?' Secondly, they have a nice little run going now, to be sure, but importantly they are starting to play the kind of smothering forecheck and defensive game that this team can play when it has it going.

During last year's streak, the CBJ were allowing less than 2 goals per game, a tremendous defensive feat.  To AVERAGE less than two goals per game, you need to hold people to 1 goal or no goals lots of times, especially for every 3 goals surrendered game you might have.  But in the last two games, Calgary and Ottawa, that smothering defense has emerged again, and it seems like the other team doesn't have a chance to turn around and there is a Blue Jacket on the puck.  That defensive effort was the foundation for The Streak.

So we'll see.  Les Habitants tonight in Montreal.  That ought to be a fun game.  Carey Price in goal tonight, instead of the time they rolled Montoya out and surrendered 10 (ten!) goals.  It should be a hard fought, close checking affair.  Dubois and Savard back on their home turf, and I hope the Jackets come away with more badly needed points to keep pace in the Metro!


Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Warming to the Kid

PLD, Hartsy, and Torts, in the old days
Tonight, the CBJ lost to the Nashville Predators 3-1.  The only goal was scored on a rush by Pierre-Luc Dubois, which represents visible strides taken by this young player with each game.  It won't always be this way.  He will hit plateaus, have slumps, get hot, just like every other player.  This is a normal progression, with the exception of how well he has played over the last few games.

Dubois has shown a steady progression early in this 2017-18 season, and has shown signs that he may be a driver of play in the future.  He certainly did his part in that department tonight, scoring the only goal, but also being a visible presence all over the ice. 

Tough night tonight for the CBJ, losing their second game in two nights.  Korpisalo played well enough to get them the W, giving up only two goal, but the CBJ could only solve Pekka Rinne for one goal.  There it is. 

A young, young, young team gains more experience, and they still lurk at the top of the division and the conference.  A good Metro tilt coming up on Friday, which is becoming a must win game against a similar, young, and talented Carolina team.  It should be fun to watch, much like tonight's game.

The CBJ have a lot of growth to accomplish as the season progresses.  That process should result in some entertaining hockey.  I'm looking forward to it!


Saturday, November 4, 2017

This is the Future of Hockey

Hannikainen has as many goals as Dubinsky and
Panarin combined.  
Tonight the Blue Jackets lost in a shoot out to the Tampa Bay Lightning for a score of 5-4.  This was a game of raw speed, with both teams flying up and down the ice.  The entertainment factor was huge, and I thought the Bolts were going to skate the Jackets off the ice, the CBJ rallied in the third period to tie the game and steal a point. 

For all of the complaining about our fourth line not having an identity, the fourth line has gotten on the board in the last two games, with critical goals, driven by Marcus Hannikainen who doesn't want to go to Cleveland any more.  It is important to keep in mind that this is a VERY young team, but the talent level is very high, shockingly so for a long time Jackets fan. 

Dubois is getting better every shift.  Love the commentary from the Dispatch and the Athletic about Dubois being in center.  The quote was that it helps him keep his legs moving.  Late in this game, he was playing high in the lineup, albeit as wing, and finding the play physically rich.  But he is a big boy, and he can make that adjustment as the season goes on.  Sonny Milano may fade, or he may get better.  I'm not sure where this will go yet, but I think he is ready for it, and I am betting that he will find his way in the NHL this year.  As long as the coach is feeling he wants to learn, and he has reasonable success in implementing those lessons, it will be okay.  He has less than 20 games experience now, when he makes it to 60 he is going to be a steadier player.  He took his first shoot out shot tonight.  It will come.

This is the kind of game the NHL has envisioned, and shockingly, the CBJ are right on the curve in adapting to the new, fast, mobile, NHL game.  The CBJ are looking like an offensive juggernaut without the power play, and with the stars not playing well at all.  The stars will start to play well as the season matures, and some of the guys that are hot now will fade, but there is a lot of depth on this team right now, and a lot of guys who can score on any given night.  The power play cannot remain this pitiful can it??  Gosh is this going to be a fun season, however it turns out.

Great rally in the third to steal a point on the road.  Well done lads!!  Rangers are up next, go get that one!


Monday, October 30, 2017

Spousal Strife. Is it Better to Beat the Bruins or the Penguins? #SaveTheCrew

Shoot Out Winner Oliver Bjorkstrand
Okay, right out of the gate.  It feels good beating the Bruins.  They did their usual crappy cheater game, set a good pick on the tying goal, and climbed back into a game where the Jackets tried to set the tone early.  It's a good pick if interference isn't called right? 

Anyway, that ravening beast, Oliver Bjorkstrand drew his first NHL major for boarding (LOL!!!), but the Jackets still got the power play because it was really a minor and their guy jumped Bjorkstrand, who threw his first punch in his career (watch out NHL, you have unleashed the Kraken), and then turtled like a guy who ought to turtle.  Then he undressed Rask in the shootout with the game winner.  Bjorkstrand has to learn to stand up for himself in a league that will physically dominate your game if you let it.  This is a journey for all young hockey players trying to break into the NHL.  You end up needing to handle teams like the Bruins (or the Kings, that was not intended as a slam against the Bruins, it's who they are), and learn to play your game in spite of that.  In the end, Bjorkstrand did so, scoring the game winner.  That's his game. 

So my lovely and faithful spouse and I got in a good natured tiff about whether it was better to beat the Bruins or the Penguins.  We beat the Bruins tonight, so of course that was my argument, but she held that it was better to beat the Penguins.  Tough call.  It's always delicious to beat the Pens.  So there it is, I'm likely to lean toward who we played last, so long as the Jackets win.

According to Twitter, the Jackets are a mess.  No centers, we can't beat good teams, power play sucks, back-up goal tenders no good, etc.  Best October in franchise history.  It is good to be this much of a mess, and this far along.  The team well knows that they can be better.  But they are resilient, and that will take you far.  Now the challenge of a good November, with the dreaded December swoon laying in wait.  Our guys have a lot of climbing to do.

Tomorrow our home town Columbus Crew embark on a further playoff run.  Best of luck to the players.  Interesting news out of San Antonio today.  Those folks are thinking they have been ripped off by the Crew's enterprising owner, and have assigned a criminal prosecutor to the job.  Do yourself a favor MLS.  Vote down the move to Austin, and keep the Crew in Columbus.  You have to ask yourself; 'Have you ever been in a Texas jail?'  On the other hand, life is a journey, and six months of hard confinement so your buddy can have his team in Austin isn't that much of your life, right?  Just think of the stories you will be able to tell!!


Sunday, October 22, 2017

Getting a Sense for the 2017-19 CBJ

I've been kind of quiet here at the beginning of this hockey season.  Probably because my angst level is low.  A top 5 finish the year before helps that a lot.  It's also because I haven't been real sure what we are seeing.  Most of our early season wins have been against teams that have struggled coming out of the gate (Rangers! Whew!), but these last two games against Tampa and LA I thought would be good measuring stick games against two very different teams.

Tampa, wow!  They dismantled the Penguins last night, almost extending their shutout streak to two games.  That's a fast, balanced team that has their goal tending problem solved, and are playing like a team two years removed from a Cup final that is mad they did not make the playoffs last year.  They really have it going.

The Kings presented a much different problem, that big weighty team, and I wondered how much our younger players were going to get pushed around.  And, coming into last night they had only given up about 10 goals all season, and their penalty kill had given up none (zero, 0).  The Jackets lit them up for 4 goals, including an early power play goal, so that was good.  Unfortunately, the Jackets surrendered 5 and an empty netter, with Kopitar potting a killer goal with 2:34 remaining last night.  So it goes.  It was a 'rich' game for our youngsters, and they will benefit from the experience. 

As far as the CBJ this year, we inexplicably got younger, with Bjorkstrand, Milano and Dubois all making the team and playing.  Nice to see both Milano and Bjorkstrand score last night.  One thing for sure there is a lot of room for growth in the 2017-18 CBJ, and we will see the ups and downs of that growth as the season goes on.  Having Boone Jenner return to the lineup stiffens the team, and will be very helpful going forward.  Don't judge Nick Foligno's ability to play center until you get to the end of the year.  It's possible the Jackets will make a move, but if they don't have to they may not. 

For Milano, Dubois, and perhaps to a lesser extent Bjorkstrand, you want to see how they are playing at about the 15 game mark.  That way any bump in energy they got from making the team is long gone, and what you are seeing is the best picture of what you've got.  If at that point they are playing solidly, and still generally improving (with ups and downs allowable), then we are in pretty good shape for the future. 

Everyone has Werenski circled this year, and it is interesting watching him deal with that.  Other teams know what they want to do with him, so he'll have to play through that attention.  I was interested to see Werenski skate by Drew Doughty last night.  Werenski is actually bigger, which surprised me.  He might not be thicker yet, that will come.  Seth Jones, likewise, is still trying to really get going.  I did a preseason poll of some die hard Jackets fans, and they were unanimous that you don't split these guys up yet.  I guess I see what they are saying.  They need to learn to be a dominant pair first, and they are not there yet.

Next up is Buffalo, our 'Rivalry Night' game, for some reason or another.  Perhaps they thought the Foligno brothers would have a steak riding on the game, but Marcus got traded to Minnesota.  Buffalo is an interesting team, it should be a fun game. 

Last night we didn't really get the result we wanted, but there was no doubt that it was a fun game to watch.  And a good test for our young team.  There are more of those to come!