Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Schedules, practice and those pesky Winter Olympics

I'm not suggesting we lay blame for this season's lousy Columbus Blue Jackets showing on anyone other than the team themselves, but let's face the facts:

1. The Columbus Blue Jackets are in the midst of a significant youth movement.  It's reasonable to presume that part of this shift to a younger roster is a lot of practice.

2. The Jackets have had relatively few mandatory practices.  Or, perhaps better stated, they have a lot of optional practices and optional ice time.  The worst example of this is last week's optional where only two players, Milan Jurcina and Mathieu Garon, worked out.  (Didn't do much for Jurcina, seeing as the poor guy is living in the press box during games....)


3. The Winter Olympics are screwing up the NHL schedule this year.  Commissioner Gary Bettman is on record as not liking that the Olympics force the NHL to shut down for 2 weeks.  To start the season on time, end it on time and fit the Olympics in, his league office has designed a schedule that is just plain brutal.  To prove my point, check out this nugget of information from the CBJ web site:
  • On January 30, 2010, the 2009-2010 CBJ played their 57th game.
  • The 2008-2009 CBJ didn't get to game 57 until February 16, 2009.
  • The 2007-2008 CBJ had it a tad rougher, getting to number 57 on February 8, 2008.

That means that the CBJ schedule has compressed by 17 days against last year's schedule to date, and almost 10 days against 2 years ago.  You wonder where the practice time has gone?  Folks, I'll suggest they have been sacrificed to the Olympic gods.  Think about it.  The Jackets have lost nearly three full weeks of in-season practice/rest time so far this season.  Insane.  

Captain Rick Nash appears to agree with this assessment in saying
"There are so many games right now and I think it's more beneficial to ride the (stationary) bike than practice," Nash said.
Now, that's all fine and good for a world-class performer like Rick Nash (who probably practices more just to help his teammates and get a little timing down with linemates), but what does it do for the young players?  It deprives them of learning time.  It deprives them of a deeper acclimation to the team culture.  Considering this fact, it's amazing that players like Derick Brassard and Jake Voracek are keeping their heads above water.  It's not surprising that Steve Mason is so slow in correcting his flaws and getting back to form.

Perhaps most damning of all is that it took Kris Russell sitting for at least 5 straight games to find his game and emerge as perhaps the CBJ's most dynamic defenseman.  Do you think that he had a little practice time during that hiatus?

Long story short: I totally understand why the CBJ went with their youth movement - all of the young talent was bubbling up as a result of the accumulated first-round draft picks from years past - but, gosh, couldn't it have happened during a year when there was time to get a couple practices in?  Or could it have been forestalled for one more year?

On forestalling the youth movement, look at the Phoenix Coyotes.  Lowest cap hit of any team in the league.  Currently sitting in fourth place in the Western Conference (yet with more points than the third-place team).  Why?  Veterans.  GM Don Maloney took the garage sale route with castoff veterans and pieced together a roster that 1) was cheap and 2) could play reasonably well with minimal practice.  Oh, and Maloney sent most of last year's young guns down to their AHL team for the year for seasoning.  That makes a perfect combination in this messed up year.  In many ways, the Coyotes are a more extreme example in this season of what the CBJ demonstrated last season: If your team isn't great, get a couple veterans and a hot goalie...and ride on to the playoffs.  Good for them, and perhaps shame on us.

(Note that I'm not excusing players for skipping optional practices.  Especially Rick Nash and his gaggle of alternate captains.  Those guys need to lead by example.  But that's an issue of leadership, something for another post.)

So....whaddya think?

3 comments:

  1. Good post -- At the other end of the spectrum is Chicago, who decided to play the young kids 18+ minutes per game, let them make their mistakes, learn at full speed and get acclimatized to each other. Worked pretty well so far . . .

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  2. Agreed on Chicago. I suppose I subconsciously ruled that out because of Ken Hitchcock's demonstrated lack of trust in the youngsters.

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  3. @JAL the difference between Chicago and Columbus, is they have had more than 2 days off a few times this season. Columbus has their first 3+ day break since November next week.

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