Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The fork in the road

With tonight's season debut of suspended top-line defenseman James Wisniewski, the Columbus Blue Jackets have played all of eight games in their 82-game National Hockey League season.

A little visual irony to lighten the mood of what
surely will be a "weighty" blog post. 
In Wiz's absence, the team has not won a game and only accumulated a single standings point.  Not that Wiz's absence is the sole factor in the Blue Jackets' faceplant out of the gate, but surely it's a contributing cause.

Regardless, let's work on the presumption that it will take 98 standings points to get to the playoffs.  That means that the CBJ need to pick up 97 points in 74 games, or 1.31 points per game.

As a point of reference, that 1.31 points per game works out to a 108-point pace over all 82 games.  Last season, the Vancouver Canucks (117 points) were the only club in the entire league to play at or above a 108-point pace.  I think that puts the magnitude of the challenge ahead in proper context.

Now, let's add a layer of complexity to the situation.  The Blue Jackets are now a salary cap team, meaning that they have committed (more or less) the maximum amount allowable to player salaries, bonuses and buyouts.  They literally have next to no flexibility on the salary front, further constricting their ability to make roster adjustments on the fly.  (UPDATE: Make sure you read the comments below for additional clarity on this matter.)

Jeff Carter provided spark (if not goals) for the
CBJ offense, but now he's out with a broken foot.
Then there's the unfortunate fact that the CBJ are crippled by injuries - and injuries to critical players to boot.  In the Ottawa game, for example, the club was able to put only $40.7 million of salary on the ice. That includes the team's $7.8 million captain, Rick Nash.  Injuries heal, however, and players will return (while others surely will get injured as well...it happens in sports).  Whether players return in time to affect the season's outcome, and whether the team chemistry will gel as the roster re-shuffles with each return, well - that remains to be seen.

As best I can see it, the Blue Jackets are quickly approaching a second fork in the road on this season.  The first fork saw the team abandon their smaller, youth-laden approach last weekend with the demotions of Matt Calvert and Cam Atkinson to Springfield, which was accompanied by the veterans Alexandre Giroux and Cody Bass.  After the team spent most of the offseason and training camp talking up the notion of putting a high-powered scoring offense on the ice, they dumped two of their young scorers in exchange for larger players with "stiffness".

This second fork, as I see it, is a little trickier.  First, it's important to appreciate that last weekend's "extreme makeover" of the squad didn't accomplish much at all.  The team still lost every game and only in the Ottawa game scored more than two goals per game.  The defense and goaltending was still as porous as it was before the kids were sent back to the AHL.  So where to go from here?

I'll suggest that there are two fundamental paths from which to choose.  You might disagree, and I'd love to hear your comments down below, but this is how I see it: 1) Attempt a major shakeup with the team in the hopes of cobbling together a playoff run with a whole lot of luck.  2) Reconcile the team with its apparent fate for 2011-12 and make moves not toward this year's playoffs but instead toward achieving a wider organizational mission that will make the CBJ contenders for years to come.  Each path has its own considerations.


SALVAGE THE SEASON - WIN NOW

It's not the greatest position to be in, but it is totally understandable in Columbus.  Much as the coaching staff appeared to convince the players that the wins were going to just come rolling in once the season started, the club's PR machine and - more importantly - internet echo chamber convinced CBJ Fan Nation that this was a legitimate playoff team.  To enter the season with this definite of an expectation and then go 0-for-October thus far is entirely unacceptable as the early season performance has jeopardized that playoff dream.  Combine that with the fact that the very public votes to accept the arena deal are still being made by our civic leaders, and the team may have no choice but to try to win now.

If you look to try to salvage the season, you think short-term and act short-term.  You might trade away those who are not contributing right now and add those who can help right now.  You might honoring the tradition of sacrificing the bench boss because you can't fire the entire team and fire a coach - regardless of whether he's a good coach or not (something that is totally open for debate when it comes to Scott Arniel and the Columbus Blue Jackets).  You look to pick up assets instead of draft picks.  And, because you have to act quickly, you bargain from a position of weakness and only have the ability to shop for players that are available in your window of panic.

On the bright side, Wiz IS returning tonight...and other injured players will be coming back over the course of the Fall.  Too late to impact the season's playoff chances?  Probably, but the return of the wounded to the ice provides a degree of hope and a rationale to salvage this train wreck.

Oh yeah, there's also the rumor that the team leadership's jobs are on the line with this season.



ACCEPT YOUR FATE - LOOK TO THE FUTURE

While there are surely other options than just these two, I see this as the most likely alternative to a panicked midseason retooling.  And for it, I look to the model of the 2010-11 Colorado Avalanche.  The Avs were wracked by injuries and saw their season tank - finishing 30-44-8 and 15th in the West.  Over the course of the season, they traded away players once considered critical components of their squad.  They finished poorly and drafted well.  And they kept their coach around despite the tremendous disappointment.  They've now become the surprise team of the Western Conference, going 6-2-0 over 8 games and sitting atop the Northwest Division while holding down the number two spot in the West as I type.  Who knows if this early success will hold, but it's still one remarkable turnaround.

Banish those Adam Foote memories - the 2010-11
Colorado Avalanche could provide a roadmap for
this season's Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Avs have shown a remarkable level of organizational discipline.  They have a defined style of play - speed ├╝ber alles - that they have stuck to through thick and thin in the post-Sakic/Forsberg/Roy/Foote era of their club. When they moved talent (and they moved some fairly significant pieces of their roster last season), they brought in players that fit this strategic vision.  And they apparently had faith that Joe Sacco (who coached the Avs into the playoffs in 2009-10) was a good coach who was a victim of circumstances.

It should go without saying that the Blue Jackets aren't known for organizational discipline.  Now in its 11th season in the NHL, the team has had four "permanent" head coaches and four interim head coaches.  I put "permanent" in quotes because a two-ish season average tenure is hardly permanent.  At the same time, the current regime of president Mike Priest, general manager Scott Howson and now coach Scott Arniel promote the notion of Nashville-style stability in the front office (the Preds have had only one GM and one coach since the franchise came into existence).  The team now even has a strategic plan that everyone in the organization apparently understands.  So the template is in place to use the balance of the season for a continued strategic re-positioning - if that's what ownership wants to do.


WHAT NOW?

Do the Blue Jackets take the Avalanche approach?  Do they scramble to save the season?

If I had to guess, the decision will come fairly soon.  The Wisniewski return is a major benchmark in the club's ongoing organizational self-assessment.  Word on the street is that Scott Arniel's job is safe until he can show what he can do with a healthier roster.  Thus, we can presume that the return of Jared Boll (XM Home Ice said it would be 2-3 weeks), Kristian Huselius, Jeff Carter and Mark Dekanich will be progressively lesser milestones.  The team can't wait for everyone to come back and all be healthy at once before making strategic decisions...for the chance of that happening is slim to none, and even if such a chance occurrence of a perfectly healthy roster happens, it'll likely be too late to affect a playoff run.

The Columbus Blue Jackets are at that fork in the road.  They have to make a "fish or cut bait" decision on this season at some point - and if the numbers are correct, it'll likely have to be soon.

4 comments:

  1. One major quibble with your article here. The Jackets have had numerous players on IR over the course of the season so far. This allows the Jackets to go over the salary cap by the amount of those contracts. Huselius himself will allow the team to pick up almost $2m. And if this is done later in the season, only the portion remaining counts agains the cap. So lets say Huselius misses half the year, Howson could pick up a $5m player at the trade deadline and still be under the cap. With this many players hurt, and the guys hurt making that much money (~$20m), there will be plenty of room to add pieces later (so long as management okays it). There will be a fork coming, but its at least a dozen games away.

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  2. A fair criticism, one I touched on in the "Ottawa game/salary cap" post which was linked herein. Of course, the number I used was the one I had on hand, which would not have used LTIR 'credits' (Is that the right word?) that have not yet accumulated.

    Thanks for helping clarify, Coach.

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  3. I really think you have to take the strategic approach. Its been as rough a start as you can imagine. But our hot starts of the last two years meant nothing as well. I dunno. I think this team is going to put together a run at some point this season.

    I think we have a week in December where we have a bunch of playoff teams coming to Nationwide. How we fare that week is going to tell us a lot. So we'll know by Christmas what this is all about. What was New Jersey's record last year when they fired their coach?

    You have to take the strategic approach because the number of pieces we need are much fewer than last year after this off season.

    But this is a brutal start. Brutal. But you can't let 8 games dictate your organizational strategy. Or even 10 games. You need at least a season to evaluate the whole thing, especially with the changes we made this year.

    Stay the course. (he winces, thinking of tonite's game).

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  4. @ Gallos, Devils were 9-22-1 when Johnny Mac was shown the door.

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