The events since Thanksgiving have exposed five glaring weaknesses on the squad:
- A set of forwards who seem embarassingly ashamed to take a shot on goal, as if it would hurt them with the all-important style points that the Eastern Bloc figure skating judge gives out. (The Romanians love to see passing, apparently.)
- A set of defensemen that redefine the term "square pegs in round holes" with their inability to implement Scott Arniel's hoped-for defensive scheme. They can't push the puck up the ice, can't pass the puck up the ice and can't defend the goaltender like, well, just about any of the NHL teams that they have played this season.
- A pair of goalies (one a post-adolescent mental case, the other a capable backup) who appear to often lack the ability to carry the team on their backs as top-level goalies occasionally do.
- A coaching staff that may or may not have been ready for the toxic combination of the above - combined with a team mentality that apparently accepts withdrawing to a "happy place" where wins and losses don't matter as much.
- Head coach Scott Arniel knows what's wrong (personnel, culture) and appears to lack the tools to fix it, not that he's not trying.
- Defensive coach Brad Berry probably will need counselling by the time this season is over. He could be a great coach, but we'd never know because his defensive corps simply can't do what needs to be done. On the bright side, his penalty killing has looked decent.
- Offensive/power play coach Bob Boughner has not demonstrated that he is ready for NHL prime-time. Goal production is pitifully low, and power play goals are few and far between.
- Gauging his behavior with the media, goaltender "coach" Dave Rook appears to be more interested in protecting his professional reputation and apparently more important consulting gig than in bringing his star pupil back to his Calder Trophy-caliber level. (Note that said trophy was earned in a season when Rook was not around.)
- A front office that, while doing an admirable job (re?)stocking the AHL-level talent pool and exhibiting remarkable patience considering the implosion that they are witnessing at the NHL level, cannot bring themselves to make any of the potential personnel moves that are necessary to get this team on the right track. While I grant that "it takes two to tango" in any personnel move outside of an AHL demotion, I also note that teams have actually made trades for players of reasonable substance during this season. Ask Montreal, Los Angeles Colorado and their trade partners whether it's impossible to make a meaningful trade mid-season. And don't try to tell me that there aren't teams out there that are ready to deal. I submit that Ottawa, Toronto, Calgary and the Islanders appear from media activity to be ready to make something happen. If I thought about it harder, I bet I could come up with more.
And so, seeing the team going nowhere on Sunday night en route to a totally unnecessary loss against a division rival that has been suffering from poor defense all season long and that was missing its top two scorers, I turned off the television set. Since starting to watch the Blue Jackets seriously just prior to the announcement of Ken Hitchcock as head coach, I have never done that voluntarily. I just could not take it any more. I saw nothing, and I mean nothing, from the CBJ that would have given me hope that the team could turn that game around. In fact, I'm surprised that they kept it to a three-goal game.
Since that debacle, I have reflected upon my attitude and actions vis a vis the team. Am I overly negative? Am I contributing to the "culture of whining/losing" that some might suggest exists in the Blue Jackets fan base?
No. Let's make this clear, there's a huge distinction between my criticism and that of a "whiner".
Mine is 110% pure frustration.
I haven't been around the Columbus Blue Jackets since 2000. I only witnessed the tail end of the Doug Maclean era. I'm, if you will, a "new" Blue Jackets fan - one who has seen the worst that the team could be (the Agnew games were not good, not at all) and the best. I intentionally try to focus on the team we have in front of us and do my best to not be bogged down by what appears to be an unfortunate franchise history. I'm not part of a losing culture because I've been a fan of a team that retooled and actually won.
Speaking of that, I still believe that this is a talented team, especially up front and in goal. In fact, it seems to me that this is probably one of if not the most talented CBJ rosters from a pure skill perspective in the franchise's history. They have a bright head coach. They have a smart general manager. And, up until Thanksgiving, this team played some pretty damned great hockey (with the inevitable "coaching culture shift" games tossed in to keep the fan base honest). The Montreal, Philly, Chicago games and the incredible three-for-three West Coast road trip gave me hope and confidence that - finally - this team had figured out how to play at a premier level in the National Hockey League.
I was cautiously optimistic about this season, offering plenty of reasons why in the "Time to Step Up" season preview series. I was so bullish about this team and this season that I helped organize "CannonFest" as a means to get the positive hockey talk going earlier than in recent past seasons.
However, they have imploded in epic fashion. This, after such a promising start. (And while they were nice, back-to-back wins against the failing Maple Leafs and Senators only proved that the Blue Jackets are not cellar dwellers.)
Despite the slump, however, the team remains two tantalizing points out of playoff position. They have time to set things right and keep 2010-2011 from becoming another "Season that had to happen." Arniel appears to be trying to pull his weight on the locker room front with calculated scratches and use of the media to light a fire under players. He's also subtly changing his on-ice philosophy to match the aptitudes of his players (I've noted many more dump-and-chase scenarios of late). But where's Howson in this? And why are more players not taking charge of their destiny by playing to win?
As the title of this post suggests, I'm loyal to the Columbus Blue Jackets and won't be going anywhere any time in the foreseeable future. At the same time, I'm not a lemming. I will not sit back idly by and praise indifference and patience when aggression and decisiveness is required.
For the time being, at least, this team controls its own destiny. This fan wants to see them retain (regain?) that control for the balance of the season, as it still can be a success by any measuring stick if the right changes are made.
And, really, I want to go back to cheering for the Columbus Blue Jackets for all the right reasons - because they're winning, and because they're playing their hardest.