Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Time to step up: Mike Commodore

  • Defenseman
  • Alternate captain
  • 30 years old, 11th year in National Hockey League
  • $3,750,000 cap hit 
  • 6.3% of Columbus Blue Jackets salary cap
  • Contract expires at end of 2012-2013
  • 2009-2010 numbers: 57 games played, 2 goal, 9 assists, 11 points, -9, 62 penalty minutes, 19:00 avg. time on ice
Will we see Mike Commodore sporting a
Stanley Cup playoff hairdo at
the end of this season?
I've caught a little bit of flack over the use of the "Time to step up" theme across these player season previews.  The argument goes, if [Player X] plays well or not...it's just not going to impact the Columbus Blue Jackets' season that much.  There are  [insert small number here] factors that will make or break this season, and [Player X] isn't one of them.

My friends, Mike Commodore most certainly does not fit that categorization.  

In the salary scheme of things, Mike Commodore is one expensive player.  "Commie" is one of the players to whom Scott Howson has hitched his wagon as general manager in Columbus.  Howson gave him the big money over the long term.  He's the CBJ's highest-paid defenseman (by almost $800,000 more than Rusty Klesla, the second-highest).  He's tied with R.J. Umberger and Antoine Vermette as the third-highest paid player on the entire squad.

So when Mike Commodore tries a new conditioning regimen over the offseason prior to the 2009-2010 season, and it results in perhaps the worst conditioning of his career (leading to the most epic charley horse injury known to sport, not to mention missing more than 30 percent of the team's games)...we have a real big problem.  

When a player has as abysmal a season as Commodore had, and presuming (hoping?) that last season was an aberration, looking at that season's numbers is a tricky exercise.  So let's consider his post-lockout averages without last year to gum up the works.  Including a four-season span that includes Commie's time in Carolina, Ottawa and his first season in Columbus, here's what we might find reasonable to expect from him:
  • 76 games played
  • 5 goals
  • 15 assists
  • 20 points
  • +4 rating
  • 113 penalty minutes
Before you cringe TOO hard, realize that Mike Commodore was not signed to be a scoring machine.  He was signed to be a defender.  The +4 average rating could be higher, but his past performance hasn't been the most consistent.  He was a +11 in the CBJ playoff year, coming off a -9 season in Ottawa.  Interestingly, he was a +12 in the Carolina Hurricanes' Stanley Cup season; might a strong plus-minus be a bellweather of the team's overall performance?

At the same time, we've heard time and again that Scott Arniel plans to install a puck-possession, push-up-the-ice system in Columbus.  That will require our defensemen to more resemble the fleet Kris Russell than the immobile...well, you insert your favorite immobile defenseman.  Commodore has proven over his career that he can score a few goals and add some helpers.  Can he build out this aspect of his game, so relatively late in his NHL career?  Could be an interesting sub-text to his season.  

Commie's game is played largely behind the blue line.
Will Scott Arniel's puck possession game change that?
(And can he adapt?)
If scoring isn't Commie's thing, then we need to look at defensive play.  And that means we should re-acclimate ourselves with Corsi ratings.  I'll admit that I've been struggling with Corsi numbers, even to the point of bagging it for this series, but Kent Wilson of Five Hole Fanatics offered some assistance in interpreting the data, including this succinct definition of the Corsi rating:
The purpose of the stat is to determine possession. It is, in fact, a proxy for "zone time". A positive corsi rate = more offensive zone time. Negative = more defensive zone time.
OK, this makes sense.  (Also means I need to revise my Grant Clitsome piece.  Sigh.)  Looking at Commodore's Corsi ratings over the past three seasons, we have the following:
  • 2009-2010: -9.14 (3rd lowest on the CBJ)
  • 2008-2009: -6.35 (lowest on CBJ)
  • 2007-2008: 5.87 (2nd highest on Ottawa, but the rating includes his 41 games in Carolina and 26 games in Ottawa that season)
A couple of things jump out at me in looking at these numbers.  First, his Carolina/Ottawa number suggests he can play in the offensive zone.  That should be encouraging to Scott Arniel.  Second, I'm guessing his poor conditioning last season forced him to retreat to the defensive zone a lot more than one would have expected.  (Or it could be a function of the coaching scheme, which I kinda doubt...)  Third, his -6.35 in 08-09 was the worst on the team that season, but his -9.14 in 09-10 was third worst?  That tells me that the entire team spent more time in the defensive zone - a logical conclusion considering all the shots and goals that the team gave up.  The Corsi numbers offer a mixed bag, indeed.  

Commodore's experience shows on the ice, though.  When healthy, he seems to rise to the occasion in big games.  Take his tough guy treatment of Evgeni Malkin in the 2009 Pittsburgh game.  That was epic...and suggested to me that he's the type of player who can be a real jackass (in the Chris Pronger mode) on the ice while being a friendly fellow off.  And, personally, I want our team to have a couple of jackasses.  The NBA's Detroit Pistons did pretty well for themselves in the "Bad Boys" years with Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn protecting the likes of Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars; can we not hope to have a smart but tough defender or three covering the ice for Nash, Voracek and Mason?

Lastly, the huge salary for a relatively older player like Commodore implies a level of obligation - responsibility, leadership, whatever you want to call it - on his part.  To his credit, I'll suggest that he's fulfilled that end of the bargain.  He hosted a holiday dinner for a number of teammates at his place this past season (can't find a link, but I recall seeing his photos of his efforts with the roasting pan).  He seems to always be available for media queries, but that could be in part because he's got such a great demeanor about him.

The thing I'm most impressed with about Commie, though, is that he's a stand-up guy.  The speculation has been flying fast and furious about the poor conditioning level that many members of the team brought into camp last season.  To the best of my knowledge, only Mike Commodore has thus far come forward and tried to address this matter (note two separate links...he's gone on the record more than once).  It takes a level of maturity - or perhaps a near-untradeable contract with a few years left? - to be so honest and candid, but that candor is precisely what this young teams needs in the locker room and on the ice.

Mike Commodore comes across to me as a proud professional who's taken a significant misstep (the off-season conditioning change) and moved to correct it (going back to the University of North Dakota, his alma mater, in a back-to-basics training effort).  My scoresheet expectations for Commie will never achieve what I think his salary demands, but perhaps - just perhaps - he's one of the select few in the locker room who truly lead by example.  And if that's the case, maybe Scott Howson can stop his maddening trend of bringing in journeyman "leaders" to take valuable roster spots that could be used on more productive players.

To be clear, he has a cautionary tale to tell (actually, he has a couple).  If he turns it all around on the ice this season - and that is, without question, the challenge that he must meet - that's going to be one powerful story for the impressionable young roster in Columbus.  

2 comments:

  1. Excellent write-up! I couldn't agree more.

    I really do think Commie is going to have a good year, and I think he's one of the guys who tries hard to be support for the room.

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  2. Great stuff DBJ. Keep it coming, you are all that is getting me through August. Wait! Its September! Yeehaw. Ok, time for a constructive comment. To me, there is a bit of one year on, one year off in Commie's career. That's part of why the 'pundits' panned the original free agent signing. He was coming off his 'off' year. His first year in the Union Blue was an 'on' year, last year was... well, not 'on'. So theoretically, in an esoteric kind of existential way, Commie is going to have a great year.
    gallos

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