Friday, April 16, 2010

The season that had to happen: My thoughts on the CBJ, 2009-2010

To recap the Columbus Blue Jackets' season with a proper perspective, I have to go back to the 2006-2007 season.  Gerard Gallant was the coach, Doug MacLean was strangling the franchise as General Manager and President.  All was lost.  Gallant was fired in November 2006, and Gary Agnew was the interim coach.  I attended my first CBJ games in that period with Mrs. DBJ, and we were both amazed at the inability of the team to do much of anything on the ice.  For that team, with the likes of Sergei Federov and Adam Foote on the roster, getting the puck past center ice against the Red Wings was considered a moral victory.  It was downright painful.

In retrospect, I'm not sure how that experience could have led to me becoming a Blue Jackets fan.  Maybe I'm just a masochist.

Bear with me, good readers, this story has a point.
So Agnew heads back to assistant-hood when Ken Hitchcock is hired in late November 2006.  At the press conference announcing Hitch's hire, the late John H. McConnell tacitly acknowledges the state of the franchise when he refers to Hitch as "the man who will save our franchise."

 The team has next to nothing going for it (in a team sport, having one superstar like Rick Nash just isn't enough), but Hitch is a Man with a Plan: Team Defense.  Everyone plays defense.  Even Federov - Hitch literally put him on defense.  We couldn't score much, but that was OK as Hitch had our defense clamping down.  Well, sometimes it was OK.  The Jackets set a record for being shut out 16 times that season.  I told you it was bad.

MacLean got the boot in April 2007, and Scott Howson was hired within a couple weeks of  the 2007 NHL Draft in June.  Mike Priest took over as President.  Howson came from the Edmonton Oilers.  Priest came from the McConnell companies.  It's important to recognize that Hitch came before Howson and Priest: Hitch was McConnell's man, not Howson's man.

Like most shotgun marriages, the Howson-Hitchcock partnership lasted for a while.  2007-2008 was the turnaround year on the ice.  Howson moved Federov and Foote (Foote, as we all know, left town rather awkwardly).  Hitch preached his gospel of defense first, everything else second, and pushed a low-talent team to 80 points.  But it also was the first time that Ken Hitchcock coached a full season for an NHL team and didn't make the playoffs.  You think that left a scar?  I do, too.

With salary cap space (or should I say team payroll budget, seeing as the Jackets don't approach the salary cap?) opened up, Howson was free to go to work in the 2008 offseason.  Consider these moves, all in the offseason of 2008:
  • Gilbert Brule traded to Edmonton for Raffi Torres
  • Nikolai Zherdev and Dan Fritsche traded to the Rangers for Fedor Tyutin and Christian Backman. 
  • Kristian Huselius signed as a free agent
  • Mike Commodore signed as a free agent
During the 2008-2009 season, Jason Williams and Antoine Vermette came to town - and Pascal Leclaire left.

Howson was moving fast and furious.  He also was drafting, too...2007 saw Jake Voracek and 2008 gave us Nikita Filatov.  In 2009, Howson drafted John Moore.  Combine that with youngsters Steve Mason and Derek Brassard, and a youth movement was underway in Columbus.

At the same time, however, Hitchcock had to coach the team that he had on the ice.  In 2008-2009, Hitch discovered that Steve Mason was able to play goalie - really well - and rode him and a bunch of veterans to the first round of the playoffs.  The first time the CBJ ever went to the playoffs.  EVER.

But they got swept in the first round by Detroit, and, as I understand it, the post-season debrief was sobering.  Management and coaches came to the conclusion that this combination was good enough to qualify the Jackets for the playoffs - but not good enough to do anything when they made it that far.  I believe the term used was "maxxed out".  The team, in its 2008-2009 configuration, maxxed out at barely qualifying for the playoffs.  They weren't good enough to do much more.  So it was decided to jettison some of the veterans and make space for the talented but raw kids.  This, on a team coached by a guy who is notorious for favoring the old vets.  OK....

Which brings us to 2009-2010.  

The season started out reasonably well.  They won a bunch of games.  They won, yes.  But convincingly?  Not so much.

They also found fit to lose in spectacular style when they lost.  An early set of losses on a western swing led to a bunch of six-goal losses that the Dispatch guys called "tennis scores".  And the cracks in the armor were showing in the most predictable area - the gulf between Hitch and his young players.  In Game 3, when the Jackets lost 6-3 to San Jose, I stated,
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.
Pardon me while I pat myself on the back.  I'm not sure a more prophetic statement was made on this blog.

Long story short, it didn't turn out like we hoped.  In my opinion, Hitchcock panicked early with regard to the youngsters.  When the tennis scores piled up early, Hitch "clamped down" on the team.  The veterans sucked it up and dealt.  The kids didn't take it so well.  Case in point: Nikita Filatov decided that a year on loan to the KHL's CSKA Moscow club was preferable to 4-5 minutes a night with the fourth line on the nights that he wasn't a healthy scratch.

I think that many of us knew that something was up.  It didn't take being on the Blue Jackets press corps; even the casual observer could tell that something wasn't right.  I remember a Twitter conversation that I had with Hockey Night in Canada's Kevin Weekes when he called a game in Columbus in November - the Jackets lost the game, and I was interested in his opinion.  I asked him if it was possible that Hitchcock was losing the team.  Weekes suggested that he hoped it was not the case, that Hitch was a legendary coach with much to offer.

The team went into its now-legendary tailspin from November through early January, with a 3-14-7 record during that stretch that got Hitch fired in early February.  The compressed league schedule due to the Olympics did not help the Jackets one bit and probably hastened Hitch's demise.

(Oh, the injury bug decimated the Blue Jackets' blue line as well throughout the season.  Our team defense was nothing like last year, even though most of the defensive core returned from last season.)

The team played .500 hockey coming out of the slump under Hitch and, more or less, did the same for interim coach Claude Noel (10-8-6).  Noel, of course, was hired right before the Olympics and was screwed out of a standard 10-ish game honeymoon as a result.

On the bright side, the kids came on under Noel.  Voracek, Brassard and Mason all seemed to find their games.  AHL'ers like Grant Clitsome made statements of their own.

The Jackets now have the number four pick in the draft and will be sure to pick up yet another young talent.  John Moore, after getting slighted by the Team USA junior world championship team, performed pretty darned well in juniors and will likely get the requisite year in Springfield before coming up to Columbus.  Matt Calvert is a wrecking ball in juniors; he'll be another young one to watch in training camp.

Presuming that Scott Howson will hire a permanent coach that knows how to develop young players on the fly a la the Joe Sacco-led Colorado Avalanche (and Howson's judgement has been pretty darned good since coming to Columbus, so I'll give him the benefit of the doubt), the future could be bright for a while in Central Ohio. I remain optimistic about the Columbus Blue Jackets and encourage my readers to feel the same way.    It's going to be a fun ride over the next few years.

So why did this season have to happen this way?  

If you can't tell, I feel that the story of this season was Ken Hitchcock.  Hitch was the Hall of Fame coach, the Stanley Cup winner (pre-lockout, mind you), the Man Who Was Going To Save The Franchise in Columbus.  When he came to town, he inherited a marginally talented team in total chaos.  It was so bad that he couldn't coach the team to the playoffs.  That was a black mark on a pretty stellar coaching record.

Hitch also likes his veterans.  He likes them to a fault.  It didn't take a genius to see that the central challenge of this season was whether the old dog could learn new tricks...whether Hitch could manage a squad of talented kids through to the promised land.  I think it's safe to say that maybe he can, but he largely didn't do it with the Blue Jackets.

I honestly believe that the early season blowout losses spooked Hitch.  The 2007-2008 year probably scarred him when he couldn't pilot the club to the playoffs - something he was determined not to repeat.  The team (and broadcast partners, especially Fox Sports Ohio) had hyped the "raised expectations" of this season ad nauseum, and Hitch knew he had to figure out how to get the team to the playoffs with a squad that he largely didn't trust.  So he dug in and played the harsh taskmaster.  That approach might work well with veterans, but it didn't with youngsters. They wilted under Hitch's pressure, or  - in Filatov's case - skipped town.  And it all fell apart.

The Columbus Blue Jackets needed Ken Hitchcock when they hired him.  They needed Hitch badly.  But Scott Howson was able to overhaul the roster by the middle of last season, and the (many) young players are now ready to make their case to play in the NHL.  And Hitch clearly is not the right guy to be coaching such a young team.  It's a fundamental mismatch.  But Hitch was The Savior, and Hitch was the late Mr. Mac's man, so Howson had to let Hitch go longer than most sane general managers would.  No one can say that Ken Hitchcock wasn't given plenty of opportunities to turn the mess around.  Hitch didn't.  Hitch couldn't. So Howson did what he had to do.

Hitch was perfect for the 2006-2007 chapter of the CBJ, but he wasn't right for the 2009-2010 chapter.  Problem is, the 2009-2010 chapter probably wouldn't be possible had Hitch not taken the reins in 2006-2007.  Hitch instilled a sense of professionalism, of discipline, of success that the Jackets apparently have not even smelled since coming into the league in 2000.

Without the incredibly hard work of Hitch and his staff, the Jackets would be as listless as they were under Gallant and MacLean.  Instead, we have a team that now is competitive on a day in, day out basis with all but the elite teams in the league.  (And we can sneak out a surprise against the occasional elite team, too.)

Sure, Claude Noel had a degree of success in his interim coaching tenure, but he was building on the Hitchcock foundation.  When Hitch came to town, there wasn't a foundation.

The season we had really did have to happen.  So it did.  And now it's time to move on.

Coming soon, I'll offer my choice for Columbus Blue Jackets 2009-2010 Most Valuable Player. Hopefully, Kirsi and PuckeysMom will have their selections as well!

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