Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Part II: The Dark Blue Jacket's Definitive History of the CBJ

The MacLeanian Epoch - The Early Deludian Period


The Columbus Blue Jackets 'Stinger' logo
As we rejoin our Dark Blue Jacket History of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Doug MacLean has successfully sprouted an NHL franchise where none existed before.  There is no doubt that this is a significant accomplishment.  After an inaugural season with 26 sell outs, the fan base is excited, which results in the sell out of all the home games in the second season.  41 sellout games.  Take note Winnipeg!  Like the inexorable Greek tragedy, pride here goes before the fall.

An editorial side note here on the structure of this history.  From the structure of  the first post, one might assume I would go year by year citing the statistics, which would be tedious at best.  This post encompasses NHL years 2001-02 to 2003-04, in other words, this span of time goes from the second year of the franchise, to the Ice Age, aka the lockout.

The MacLeanian Epoch was not all doom and gloom.  Indeed, as always, the off season brought a new hope (he resists the urge to insert a Star Wars graphic).  Players were often 'going to take a step'  and fans often felt a personal affection for our few young players.  The draft was the only way to infuse talent into a talent challenged organization, and the fans often liked the 'upside' that young players would have.  In other words, it had not yet been proven that the young players were in over their heads.  The term 'player development' was unheard of, and the concept was foreign.


We resume our tale at the beginning of the 2001-02 season.  I remember that the marketing slogan that year was something along the order of 'All Out Every Night', which conjured images of the inaugural team.  I can remember thinking to myself 'Geez, that kind of thing is hard to do!  What if it doesn't happen that way?'  And indeed, the fans soon found out that it wasn't going to happen that way.  Nationwide Arena still rocked, the game operations videos and songs were all  relatively new, and there was a palpable buzz in the building that took years to fade.  After all the off season hype, the season started miserably, with an October record of 1 Win - 7 Losses - 4 Ties and 0 OT.  While they fared somewhat better in November, playing essentially .500 hockey, the handwriting was already on the wall.  With a total of 7 wins going into the month of December, they were eliminated from playoff contention before the season was a third over.  The team finished with 22 W - 47 L - 8 T - and 5 OT in 2001-02 to finish with a paltry 57 points, the lowest point total in franchise history.  Instead of the short step to the playoffs that had been promised in the off season, there was a precipitous fall.  Ouch.

In case you were wondering who the best player on the team was, it was Ray Whitney.  Ray led the team in all offensive categories, with 21 goals - 40 assists - 61 points.  Jody Shelley led the team in plus/minus with a plus 1.  Youch.  Jody also led in penalty minutes.  Mike Sillinger  led the team in power play goals with 8 and face off percentage at 57%.  Espen Knutsen led the team in shorthanded goals with 2 as well as notching a hat trick.

Deron Quint lead all defensemen with 25 points, but Rusty Klesla lead all defensemen with goals, at 8.  Mike Sillinger led the forwards in ice time, and Deron Quint led all players in ice time.  Ron Tugnutt led the goal tenders in winning 12 games and posting a 2.85 goals against average (GAA) and a save percentage of .900.  Late in the season, Jaroslav Spacek is acquired.

Errata:  I got my draft picks confused in my previous post.  Rusty Klesla was drafted in the 2000 entry draft, prior to the season.  After the inaugural season, Pazzy was drafted.  See as follows.  My bad.  Sorry.

Prior to the season, Pascal LeClaire was drafted with our number one pick, which was eighth overall.  However, in one of the real bright spots of the MacLeanian epoch, the miserable finish in 2001-02 allowed Doug to trade up to the number one overall pick, and select Rick Nash.  This was a brilliant move by MacLean, and provided a franchise cornerstone player.  But our history has a long way to go yet.

The Nash Years Begin


A shocking surprise over the summer, the number one over all draft pick is selected by the CBJ.  This sets a good tone for the beginning of the year.  Obviously dissatisfied with the performance the previous year, the General Manager, President, and eventually Coach, Doug MacLean goes shopping.  To bolster the defense, he brings in Luke Richardson and Scott LaChance.  I can remember really liking this move to bolster the defense, as we had a guy from Philly's  3-4 (Luke 'one punch' Richardson) pairing coming to our team, where he was expected to be successful in the 1-2 pairing.  Luke did his best in that role, but in retrospect it might have been asking a bit much from him.  LaChance was a 5-6 guy expected to 'take a step' when given an opportunity in the 3-4 pairing.  His -20 plus/minus indicates that this was a bit hopeful.

To help with the offense, Doug recruited Andrew Cassels to come during free agency.  This was one of the first moves to try to solidify the center position.  And we all know what a long road that has been.  Nonetheless he was a great addition to the top six, all things considered.

So begins the 2002-03 NHL season.  New offense in Andrew Cassels and rookie Rick Nash, new defense in Luke Richardson, Jaroslav Spacek, and Scott LaChance.

Again, a slow start haunted the team.  A 3-5-1-0 October, followed by a .500 November, and a 4-8-1-0 December leave them trailing the pack.  In a panic move, Dave King, the coach was fired on January 7, 2003, and Doug MacLean stepped behind the bench.  The lack of talent on the ice did not match the expectations heaped on it by the General Manager, and King was the scape goat.  It is important to note that the team did no better under MacLean's coaching.  A January rally of 7-6-2-0 is followed by a dismal 3-7-1-0 February, a 5-8-1-1 March and you can stick a fork in them, because they are done.

The CBJ end up with 69 points, two shy of their inaugural season.  That is good for 5th in the Central Division, and 15th in the Western Conference.

Again Ray Whitney leads the team in offense with 76 points on 24G-52A for 76P.  However Geoff Sanderson leads the team in goals with 34.  David Vyborny leads the team in +/- at 12.  Jody leads in penalty minutes, Sandy leads in Power Play goals with 15, and Mike Sillinger leads Shorthanded Goals with 3.  Andrew Cassels leads Game-Winning Goals with 5, and Mike Sillinger leads face off percentage with 56.5.  Tyler Wright  turned in two hat tricks.  Rick Nash turns in 17G-22A-39P in his rookie season.  He was also -27 in +/-.

Jaroslav Spacek leads points by defensemen with 45, a number never yet equaled by a Blue Jackets defenseman (I hope you are listening Wiz!!).  Spacek also lead defensemen with goals at 9, but also turned in a -23 +/- rating.  Ouch.  Spacek led all players in ice time with 24:47 TOI and Ray Whitney led the forwards with 21:00 TOI.

In 2002-03 Marc Denis has taken over the goal tending reins, and he plays in 77 games this year, and plays for 4,511 minutes, an NHL record.  He may never have been the same after this year.  He turned in a 3.09 GAA and a Save Precentage of .903.  He leads goal tenders in wins with 27.

In the offseason, the Jackets draft Nickolay Zherdev with the 4th overall pick of the 2003 entry draft.

The 'Rocket' Richard Year


Dissatisfied with the previous year's results, the PresGMCoach was busy in the off season.  On July 22, 2003 he traded Mike Sillinger and the 2004 second round pick to Dallas for Darryl Sydor.  Syd had played well for Dallas, and the GM wanted to bolster the defense of Richardson and Spacek.  This sure looked like a good move in the off season.

To bolster the forwards, Doug brought ins Todd Marchant at center and Trevor Letowski as a wing.

With an upgraded roster the CBJ confidently approached the 2003-04 season.  Again, a slow start hamstrings the hockey club, as they go 3W-6L-0T-1OT in October.  This is followed by a 4-6-3-0 November, and again they go into December with only 7 wins.  This is followed by the first December slump, and they go 2-9-1-2, and the season is over before the new year starts. A 6-6-3-0 January is the bright spot of the season, after Doug MacLean steps down as coach and names assistant Gerard Gallant to the coaching position.

An historic Columbus Blue Jackets event occurred in late November, when Manny Malhotra was claimed off waivers from the Dallas Stars to help bolster the center position.  Manny ends up playing 4 more seasons for the CBJ.  Freaking out by the whole situation in Columbus, Darryl Sydor wants out, and is traded to Tampa Bay for the hulking center Alexander Svitov.  Thus, on the advent of the lockout, the CBJ keep acquiring big, relatively 'not quick' players.  Ruh-Roh.

The 2003-04 team finishes with 62 points, good for 4th in the Central (I think Chicago was really bad this year) and 14th in the Western Conference.

The bright spot of the season is that Rick Nash ties for the Rocket Richard trophy, named for Maurice 'Rocket' Richard, for scoring the most goals with 41 goals.  This is a significant accomplishment for the second year player, and a true bright spot in a fairly dismal year.

Nash lead the offense that year with 57 points and 41 goals, turning in a  41G-16A-57P performance.  Unfortunately, the young Nash was -35 in +/-.  David Vyborny lead the club in Assists with 31, starting a 3 year trend.  Anders Eriksson lead in the plus.minus statistic with -6!  Obviously this team was not a defensive juggernaut.  Jody again led in penalty minutes, and Nash lead in Power Play goals with 19, by far the club record.  This is the one year in the club history when the power play was a threat.  Nash was scoring, and Ray Whitney was running the action from the point.  It was a pleasure to watch.

Veebs lead with 4 shorthanded goals, Nash had 7 game winning goals.  Manny Malhotra started a string of 5 seasons where he lead on face off percentage with a 53.9% winning percentage.  Nickolay Zherdev turned in 13G-21A-34P rookie season with a -11 +/-.

On defense, Anders Eriksson lead all defensemen with 27 points, as well as leading in goals with 7 goals.  Veebs got a hat trick (I threw a really sweet 'Old School Hockey' CBJ hat on that hat trick; it had to have been the second hat on the ice as we had splurged for lower bowl seats in about the 6th row).  Jaroslav Spacek lead all players in ice time with 23:26, and Todd Marchant lead forwards in ice time with 20:38.

Marc Denis is the goal tender of record, scaling back to a mere 66 games and 3,796 minutes from the previous season.  He has a GAA of 2.56 and a save percentage of .918, both improvements from the previous year.

And thus ends the 2003-04 season, with some great individual performances, but a dismal team effort, that saw them out of the playoffs by Thanksgiving.  Again.

The 2003-04 season ends at the NHL entry draft, where the Blue Jackets select Alexandre Picard with their first overall pick, selecting 8th.

Conclusions


The Early Deludian Period of the MacLeanian Epoch spans from the second year of the franchise's existence  to the Ice Age, the 2004-05 NHL season that was lost to the lockout.

There is an important consideration to keep in mind when evaluating this period.  The advent of NHL expansion is a boon to 3rd and 4th line players.  The expansion draft allows the expansion teams to acquire the other team's 3rd and 4th line players, and there is increasing pressure on the free agent pool.  Since the established teams attract the premium free agents, the 3rd and 4th line free agents tend to gravitate to the expansion clubs.  Occasionally you get a 2nd line player looking for top line opportunity.  Nonetheless, the only way to really acquire top shelf talent is to draft it and develop it, a long and arduous process.

The Early Deludian period of the MacLeanian Epoch is marked by a couple of major delusions.  One, that the second rate talent could routinely come together as a tight team and out work everyone else, and thus 'work' their way into the playoffs.  This delusion was instilled in the fan base by the fantastic, crazed effort of the inaugural club, who had to strap it on every night against clubs they knew were vastly superior.  The closing of the talent gap incrementally, and insufficiently, each off season lead to the belief that since the team was better on paper, they would succeed even more.  However, later teams lacked the incredible urgency shown by the inaugural group, and the results were not comparable.

The second major delusion was that we could draft young players, and throw them in at the NHL level and thus raise our talent level directly.  We were drafting high enough, and had such a dearth of talent, that throwing young guys into the fire WAS an improvement in talent.  But it had a self-destruction element to it as well, often burning the young talent out before it was ready.  Had we the number one overall pick every one of those years, we might have succeeded.  But we didn't have picks that high, but the lesser talent was still and upgrade, so they made the team when perhaps they should not have.

Dave King and Doug MacLean were not necessarily proponents of the 'defense first' school of hockey, a la Ken Hitchcock.  When looking at our expansion brethren , the Minnesota Wild and the Nashville Predators, these teams took that 'defense first' approach as their solution to the dearth of talent factor that all expansion teams face.  Jacques LeMaire and Barry Trotz figured they had a bunch of third liners, so that was how they would play.  During the Early Deludian Period (i.e before the lockout) the way the game was officiated favored this type of play.

As General Manager, Doug was always angling for the quick trip to the playoffs, which he accomplished as coach of the Florida Panthers.  Bringing in Ray Whitney, and later Andrew Cassels were efforts to bolster the offense around the young giant, Rick Nash.  Doug was unwilling to do what it took to retain those players, and the team continued on the low side of mediocrity.

A third major delusion of this period is the perception that Doug is somehow a much better evaluator of talent than the rest of the NHL, and that they guys that are playing on the third line elsewhere really should be on the top line.  Manny Malhotra and Todd Marchant are the poster children for this syndrome.  Manny was slotted as a 3rd/4th line center on a talented Dallas Stars team when Doug claimed him off waivers.  The notion was that Manny had been held down in Dallas, and that he was really a top 6 centerman.  Manny is a great person, but he is a very solid third line center when he is properly slotted, as was demonstrated this year in Vancouver.  On the CBJ, he was slotted in the top two lines, where he was serviceable at best.  We will discuss his fortune to be playing on a Ken Hitchcock team in a later post.

Todd Marchant was brought in as a top 6 center to the CBJ.  When he was traded to San Jose in the Federov trade, he became one of the top 4th line centers in the game.  He was properly slotted there, but he played in the top 6 on the Blue Jackets.

Thus concludes our evaluation of the Early Deludian Period of the MacLeanian Epoch.  In spite of what we believe, due to our various delusions, the CBJ remain a small, quick, under talented team in the holding and clutching pre-lockout years.  Towards the end of this period we started to trend to be much bigger, with the acquisition of players like Svitov.  Unfortunately for us, the rules were about to change.

And thus, the Ice Age cometh.

GO JACKETS!!

2 comments:

  1. Great work, Gallos!

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  2. This series is gold. Thank you, Gallos, for helping this CBJ fan understand what the heck happened in the pre-Hitchock CBJ world.

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