Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Time to Step Up: Loyal, but not a lemming

Frustration has now deeply set in for your somewhat-trusty blogger as it pertains to the Columbus Blue Jackets.

The events since Thanksgiving have exposed five glaring weaknesses on the squad:
  1. 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.)
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.  
    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.
    4. 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.)
  5. 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.

10 comments:

  1. Excellent view of the situation. I feel mostly the same, there are moves to be made to improve this team, even if it means addition by subtraction and calling up Holden and/or Clitsome. I mean really, could they be any worse? This team seems to have the mental toughness of my 5 year old daughter, and it really is kind of sad. The other night I actually admitted that maybe we should shop Nash. This team does not look anything like a playoff team at all.

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  2. Oh gosh, please...no more calling up kids only to ruin their careers for short-term fixes.

    Look at the successful teams and learn from them. http://darkbluejacket.blogspot.com/2010/12/who-stays-who-goes-part-iii-is-youth.html

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  3. Holden is 23, Clitsome 25, I'd hardly call them spring chickens like Moore and Savard, who should stay in the AHL this year.

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  4. DBJ -
    No, seriously, don't hold back, tell us what you really think. ha, ha, ha! As always, good post. One point I'd like to make, and I learned this from Hitch's comments, and have observed it a couple of times is that there are times in the year where the contenders take a step and up their game. January is one of those times. December is another. The all star break is the next one, and finally the trade deadline is the last frantic push for the playoffs. Our team has a history of not being able to make these steps, partly because they have been out of contention at that time of year, so don't have a lot of experience with it. The two times they have done it, once they made it, the other time Captain Coward bailed on them. So it remains to be seen if they can do it this year. So lets face it. The Nashville game is not the first time these guys have laid an egg, and its not going to be the last. But they are also, with about the same frequency, able to put together a pretty good game, and the rest of the time they are sort of muddling along. Is that going to be enough to get them into the playoffs this year? Probably not. But the longer they remain in contention, the more it validates Howson's approach. And they are in contention, no matter how disgusted one might be after the Nashville game. I've been to that arena. Its a tough place to play. So does that really define the charachter of this team for the whole year? No. Its one game. All they need to do is survive the road stretch, stay in contention a little longer, and a move at the deadline will become suddenly much more possible. So we will know at the end of January what this is going to be. Don't be a lemming. But it ain't over till the fat lady sings.
    gallos

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  5. Gallos -

    If you were the only person reading this blog, it would be a worthwhile venture.

    DBJ

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  6. I love this post DBJ because I have reached a similar frustration /breaking point level. My problem with Gallos and all the other it's not that bad comments out there is that by the time we realize, yet again, it really is this bad...

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  7. CBJMad -
    I get what you are saying. As deep into this whole thing as I am at this point, pragmatically it may still be a couple of years away before they can really turn the corner. I'm not trying to tell you its not that bad, I'm trying to tell you its too soon to tell for this year. Even after the Pens debacle, the Vancouver shellacking, the Nashville quit fest, they have managed to beat enough of the east and the other teams at their level to stay in contention. I think it will sort itself out in January, and we'll be where we are all thinking we are gonna be, out of contention. That said, they are two stinkin' points out. And everyone else in the west is having the same kinds of problems we are, except for the obvious few. But make no mistake, in spite of our woeful defense, there is room on this roster for this group to take a step in January. There are people who are under performing who have it in them to jump up and do better. But its what's between the ears that's holding them back. That is something that Arniel seems to be unafraid to address. So its okay to be mad. Heck, I scared some lady when I was getting a hair cut the other day when she said she was a Pens fan, and I told her I had an axe to grind with Pens fans. Must have been the low growl, but it shut her up. So that fat lady hasn't sung yet, but she could be warming up in Phoenix as I type. Keep the mad, CBJMAD. Its what keeps this game great.
    gallos
    ps. Thanks DBJ. Reading this blog is a treat.
    gs -

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  8. la, la, la, la! She's warming up CBJMad. 2-0 Phoenix.

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  9. the above comment is spam. BUT, I've got a motorcycle, with CBJ plates, trying to figure out how to get a decal on my helmet, maybe.... naw, I'm too lazy. I'd rather read DBJ.
    gallos

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  10. gallos -

    Thanks for catching the spam. I've removed the offending post.

    DBJ

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