I was thinking of creating a handful of open-ended questions about the team at the mid-point of the season and asking my fellow CBJ bloggers to join me in answering them on our respective blogs, but Portzline saved me the hassle. The questions, framed like a professional journalist should, are largely open-ended and leave room for plenty of commentary. They also allow those of us who take a shot at responding to Portzline's interview questions to compare our responses to Howson's - a fascinating study, indeed. I'm really looking forward to seeing how my fellow bloggers answer these questions.
So, to my fellow CBJ bloggers: Copy the questions in the interview and paste them into your own blog, and try answering them yourselves! If you participate in this exercise, please post a link to your responses in the comments.
Question: Given the expectations surrounding this club heading into this season, how surprised are you to be closer to last place than a playoff spot in the Western Conference?My answers to Aaron Portzline's mid-season questions of Scott Howson are below the fold...
Q: What player, what aspect of the club, has been most surprising?
Q: Why is coach Ken Hitchcock the right coach for this club right now?
Q: You have one of the youngest clubs in the NHL. Does he work well with a group like that?
Q: Do you feel like you over-estimated Derick Brassard, expecting him to be a No. 1 center this season?
Q: How close did you come to making a deal over the last few days, before the NHL's holiday roster freeze went into effect on Saturday?
Q: Do you consider talking during the next week, even though you can't make a move until after Dec. 26?
Q: Any thought given to a minor league call-up?
Q: You made one change to your blue line last offseason, adding defenseman Anton Stralman. If you had it to do over again, would you have done more to upgrade the defense?
Q: Could this club use another strong veteran presence in the dressing room?
Q: You talk about "going through the process" and "working through it", but isn't that what last season was about? Didn't you feel like you'd already gone through all of this?
Q: Do you need an enforcer?
Q: [Why or] Why not?
Q: Sitting here, five days before Christmas, do you still feel as if that's a playoff-caliber club?
Question: Given the expectations surrounding this club heading into this season, how surprised are you to be closer to last place than a playoff spot in the Western Conference?
As young of a team as this is, and seeing that this is a team coming off its first-ever playoff run and playoff appearance, the possibility of a massive "sophomore slump" existed. But Portzline touched on the right word in the question: "expectations." The expectations, put forth by the club and its broadcasting partners, were ridiculously high. One would have thought that the Jackets were legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. Given the expectations talk, I'm very surprised that the Jackets have not performed at a playoff-qualifying pace. Looking up and down the roster, and now having seen that nearly all of our young players (and more than a few of our older players) have not lived up to expectations, I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised.
At the same time, the fundamental issues facing this team were on the table at the Dark Blue Jacket blog very early in the season. As I posted after the shellacking of the Jackets by San Jose in Game 3: "Managing the youth on the team while posting wins will be Hitch's biggest challenge. This is a young, young team that jettisoned a lot of veterans in the offseason to make room for the whipper-snappers. (And then there's poor Freddy Modin, who keeps getting injured...sigh.) Young players have lots of skill, but their confidence can get paper-thin and that affects the outcomes of games. What a balancing act for our Leader."
And then, there's my post, It's All About Desire, posted just before the season started. I posted, "...Raffi [Torres] was right, 'Work will win out over skill nine times out of 10.' And in the toughest division in the toughest conference in the National Hockey League, the Columbus Blue Jackets are going to need to muster all of their skill and work like mad to get back to the playoffs this season."
So, to answer the question, the signs were equally present to indicate a step up or a step back. They have taken a step back. Sadly, we were told to have expectations that a step back wasn't going to happen.
This is an interesting question. It's not a positive or negative question but rather a "most surprising" player or aspect of the club. It's so juicy that I'll answer both parts.
The most surprising player has to be Raffi Torres (the guy on the right in the picture). With all of his injuries last year, Raffi was a bit of an enigma. Last season, he had 12 goals, 8 assists and 20 points in 51 games. This season, he already has 10 goals, 6 assists and 16 points in 33 games. I suppose that the numbers aren't drastically different than last season on a per-game basis, but his extensive time off due to injury made him a quieter presence in my mind. And the fact that the Jackets were 11-0-0 last year when he scored a goal totally bypassed me, so I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised.
The meltdown of Steve Mason probably comes in a close second. Either he was not mentally prepared for this season, or he lacks the tools to overcome what now is a well-studied book on him as prepared by the coaching staff of the Detroit Red Wings.
The most surprising aspect of the club is the inability, or unwillingness, to play solid team defense. I totally appreciate that the defensive corps has been pounded with illness and injury since the outset of the season, but - as I mentioned in It's All About Desire - the team has shown an ability to rally together to get the job done that I'm just not seeing this year. Would anyone have thought that a Hitchcock-coached team could consistently not play defense? I didn't think so.Q: Why is coach Ken Hitchcock the right coach for this club right now?
He's the right coach for this club right now because he has a method which has been proven to work in the NHL. He did it before the lockout and got a Stanley Cup as a result. He did it after the lockout and got the Jackets to the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time ever. (Of course, the team has to buy into that method for it to succeed.) The performance of the team this season means that the Hitchcock honeymoon is over, however (at least in my eyes), and he needs to start proving that he's the right coach for the long haul. That's done with wins.
If you ask Nikita Filatov, the answer would be a resounding, "No." Ask Jake Voracek, and the answer would more likely be, "Yes." Therefore, I'll suggest that it depends on the individual players and not a group.
I've suggested on at least one occasion, "...the Jackets need to conduct some personality testing on the young Hitchcock 'successes' like Jake [Voracek], Derick [Brassard], [Derek] Dorsett and [Steve] Mason and try to determine what it is that makes them survive/succeed in the Hitch system. Then, they should make their big draft choices take the same tests and compare. Doing this would minimize the chances of getting another personality mismatch like Filatov appears to be." That's a talent evaluation question, which begs the question, "Did Scott Howson appropriately stock the team to match Ken Hitchcock?"
Seeing as he seriously injured his shoulder at the hands of NHL-labeled cheap shotter James Neal of Dallas last year, I had no expectations for Derick. I also didn't see his recovery from surgery, his rehabilitation nor his off-season conditioning. But to expect that he would immediately return to pre-injury form is a little optimistic. Howson and the Blue Jackets appear to have banked on that, one of the gambles you have to make when you're a budget team and not a salary cap team.Q: How close did you come to making a deal over the last few days, before the NHL's holiday roster freeze went into effect on Saturday?
It appears that Howson tried to sniff out a deal but the combination of the salary cap rules and league parity didn't permit anything to happen.
Howson, however, is not a guy who makes deals for the sake of making deals...he has specific players in his sights and will be patient until they become available (see: Vermette, Antoine; Stralman, Anton). For all of the criticism that I'm throwing on Howson in this post, I hope everyone appreciates that I respect the heck out of him for this approach to managing the roster of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
If I was in Howson's shoes right now - managing a team that now if tied for last in the NHL Western Conference's Central Division and only 1 point out of last place in the entire conference standings - I would be willing to talk to anyone, any time, any day. I'd probably be initiating that talking with anyone who would listen. I just wouldn't move past talking until the deal was right for this cash-strapped team. I would think that deals take some time to gestate - unless there are a lot more gunslingers playing with millions of dollars than I think the NHL has - so a conversation now plants a seed for a trade later.Q: Any thought given to a minor league call-up?
If you follow the Crunch hockey blog, you'd see that the cupboard isn't exactly overflowing in Syracuse. The Derick MacKenzie and Mathieu Roy callups were good...but I'm not sure that the Crunch have much more to offer. That's probably why the Jackets traded for Brendan Bell.Q: You made one change to your blue line last offseason, adding defenseman Anton Stralman. If you had it to do over again, would you have done more to upgrade the defense?
This is a real tough one. Going off last year's performance, the Stralman addition looked like icing on the cake of a really strong defensive corps. The Commodore flu bug during the preseason, however, probably would have had me scoping out options a little more heavily and possibly pulling the trigger. But I won't fault Howson for not doing anything in the preseason beyond Stralman.
Then throw in the unanticipated injury to Hejda, the wearing down of Tyutin and the lack of improvement in Methot, and the Klesla injury. I would have been hustling as soon as Hejda went down, and this is where I can see some fault in Howson's inaction. He waited for Klesla to drop; I would have been moving once Hejda dropped.
Problem is, who or what would you trade? The quick answer is "Jason Chimera," but Chimmer has proven to be a reasonably strong scorer and one of the few players who is demonstrably emotional on the ice - something this club desperately needs. Past Chimera, I'm not sure who you would be able to trade. I'd love to lose Huselius and his nearly $5 million cap hit in exchange for a legit top 4 defenseman, but who would take him at that price?
Past that, you have draft picks...and budget teams have to guard draft picks like gold if they want to be competitive over time. It's the only way that you can fill out a roster with talent.Q: Could this club use another strong veteran presence in the dressing room?
Yes. If I had my way, I'd bump Boll, Blunden or Murray down to Syracuse (not sure what the waiver implications are, but let's presume that they would be safe) and sign Michael Peca (see Thought #8 and trailing thoughts). He could be our Chris Chelios - mostly a practice/locker room guy with the occasional start. A playing coach, if you will. The guy is sitting at home, waiting for a call.
Note that it took only 5 games of Freddy Modin playing for the locker room doors to shut and for the team to have it out (after Game 36: Phoenix). This young team is crying out for veterans to show them the way, from the captain on down. In retrospect (and it's always easier to be a Monday Morning Quarterback), the lack of veterans on the 2009-2010 CBJ roster may be Howson's biggest failing - even bigger than the defensive shortcomings. I firmly believe that another veteran voice or two would have that team playing more cohesively in the Hitch hockey system on the ice.Q: You talk about "going through the process" and "working through it", but isn't that what last season was about? Didn't you feel like you'd already gone through all of this?
A team goes through "the process" of learning how to win every year. The key is to have the right mix of players to go through the process. It gets easier over time as success piles upon success, but every team goes through it. It's a long season. Ask the Detroit Red Wings. (chuckle)Q: Do you need an enforcer?
Absent a functioning forecheck (and it is indeed absent), teams do not fear us. They use that lack of fear to ritually abuse our skill players with no real fear of retribution. The early season abuse heaped upon Chimera, Sestito and Boll is evidence.
The only way that the Jackets have to make teams pay is our (close to) league leading power play, which means that we get a goal once for roughly every four cheap shots that we take. And that's about the best that we can expect. It's not good enough.
Oh, and I (heart) Derek Boogaard. Jared Boll isn't worthy to carry his skates, and poor Derek Dorsett is still nursing the results of yet another cheap shot. Give me the Boogey-man, and I'll show you a team that can punch back.Q: Sitting here, five days before Christmas, do you still feel as if that's a playoff-caliber club?
As they look right now, no. Right now, we're banking on the team going on a mid-winter tear like they did last year only to qualify for the playoffs. They will then be tired, having expended everything they have just to get to the party. They also will get a low seed, meaning they would be playing the likes of Chicago or San Jose in the first round. That sounds like a quick exit to me.
I hope to be surprised. Really, I do. I'm just not seeing it in the team this year. It looks like 2009-2010 will be our big "growing pains" year on what will appear to be a much longer upward arc for the Columbus Blue Jackets. And if it takes that for the team to be in the Stanley Cup Finals two or three years down the road, I'll gladly make that investment.