Saturday, March 12, 2011

Maxxed out?

It's been 8 games since the February 22nd party in the Columbus Blue Jackets' locker room following the 4-0 obliteration of the Nashville Predators - you know, the one where majority owner John McConnell came down from the owner's box to offer hugs and handshakes of congratulations with the team.

The Blue Jackets fanbase was thrilled.  Our team was roaring into the trade deadline!  General Manager Scott Howson had the green light to get active in the trade market - and traded away oft-injured, ill-fitting defenseman Rusty Klesla for sparkplug forward Scottie Upshall and (somewhat) puck-moving defenseman Sami Lepisto after grabbing veteran blue liner Craig Rivet off waivers.

Since then, the CBJ are 1-4-3.  The one win was the first of those eight games (before the reinforcements arrived), meaning that the Blue Jackets haven't won in seven straight games.  And that pretty much took a team that was in striking distance of the Stanley Cup playoffs (4 points out of 8th) and pushed them out of contention.

After the Blue Jackets' 2009 playoff playoff run, then-coach Ken Hitchcock said that the team "maxxed out" in just reaching the playoffs.  Essentially, they used up everything they had just to get to the dance yet had nothing left once they got there.  They preceded to get swept in four games by the Detroit Red Wings. This was the gist of the rationale for dismantling the veteran-heavy roster of the likes of Mike Peca, Jason Williams and others in favor of more playing time for a younger core that arguably had more skill (or at least the promise of skill).

Whereas that 2008-2009 team maxxed out from a physical sense - riding Steve Mason well past exhaustion (and mononucleosis), icing 18 skaters (yet only giving 16 skaters significant playing time) - I'll suggest that while injuries to the likes of Brassard and Huselius cannot be overlooked, the 2010-2011 Blue Jackets maxxed out from a mental perspective right around March 1, 2011.

After the pleasantly surprising fall honeymoon run of 14-6-0 for new head coach Scott Arniel, the Blue Jackets went into Thanksgiving weekend challenging Detroit for the top spot in the Western Conference.  Think about that - this team was challenging for 1st place!  As we know, the Red Wings learned all they needed in the first game of the home and home series, moving on to undress the Blue Jackets in the second game - sending the CBJ into a 7-14-5 tailspin between November 26 and January 18 and pushing the team out of playoff seeding.

What does a coach say to his team when they're emotionally spent
from pulling themselves out of a near season-ending tailspin?
Unlike last year, however, the Blue Jackets started to find themselves again.  Be it the locker room leadership starting to grow into their roles, be it the new coaches, who knows...but this team did not give up.  They battled back, going 9-3-1 from January 19 through February 22.  And, on February 22, McConnell made his trip down to the locker room.  The party had started.

And the team took its foot off the gas.

I argued over the course of two blog posts that the Blue Jackets made their miraculous rise from the dead on the backs of some poorly performing teams - and that the run to the end of the season was not going to be as generous.  It's turned out to be the case.  What is surprising about the 1-4-3 run, though, is that not only are the Blue Jackets not beating teams that have been playing well of late...but they've been playing poorly against those who have NOT been playing well.  If I had to pick a game where it was clear that this team was spent, it was the March 3rd loss in Edmonton to the NHL's then-worst team.

Surely there are a million explanations and rationalizations for this late-season collapse.  I'm sticking with my guns: After the Holiday Season From Hell, the Blue Jackets maxxed out simply to get to the trade deadline in playoff position.  They had nothing left to give - if not physically, then definitely emotionally.  The team has looked flat, uncharacteristically careless at times and often tired.

So we're looking more and more like it's an early tee time for the Columbus Blue Jackets.  Sure, there's still a sliver of a chance that the team can run the table...but they really don't have any more room to fall down. For the entire remainder of the season.

It's going to be very, very hard.  Especially when you're maxxed out.

1 comment:

  1. I think you are on this DBJ. This is a time of the year when those veterans we signed should be ramping up their game for perhaps one last shot at the dance, and it has simply not happened. I like your point about the quality of opponent and how that may be factoring into things.

    Last night it was really evident that LA knew enough to pressure our point players (D-men) on the power play. It worked well for them. So good on them.

    Good post DBJ!

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