Monday, November 14, 2011

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

Hitchcock working the Blue Jackets bench.
Hitchcock Retrospective

Now that Ken Hitchcock has accepted a job with the St. Louis Blues, it is time to take a look at the legacy Hitch left for the Columbus Blue Jackets organization.  First and foremost, Hitch remains the winningest coach in franchise history, a status that is unlikely to be threatened any time soon.  In addition, he left the legacy of the only playoff appearance in franchise history.  

While we might have debated this issue in August, in the crystal clarity of hindsight, it now appears that the CBJ are past the high point that was the Hitchcock era, and must now rebuild to find those heights again.  As a glass half full kind of guy, I don't think we are that far off from being there again.  On the other hand, there are some real lessons lying out there in the retrospective, that I am not sure we have learned as an organization yet.

As a disclaimer, I am going to note that at the time, I agreed with most of the moves I am going to dissect as potentially wrong later in the post.  I am looking with 20-20 hindsight, and could not perceive these things at the time.  Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it (Santayana).  As a fan, I don't want to repeat the past, in spite of the evidence in front of our eyes in 2011-12.

The story starts in the 2006-07 season, when Gerard Gallant is fired after a 5-9-1 start, and the playoffs are history again.  Who here longs for a 5-9-1 start?  Gary Agnew becomes the interim coach, and after a couple of week coaching search, Ken Hitchcock is named coach.  The CBJ finish that year with 73 points, one short of the franchise best 74 points recorded by Gallant's team in 2005-06 season.  At the end of that season, General Manager and President Doug MacLean was fired, and a search for a new General Manager was initiated.  Shortly before the 2007 entry draft, Scott Howson was hired as the General Manager.  Shortly thereafter, he drafted Jakub Voracek with the 7th overall pick of the draft in Columbus, Ohio.  

Later that summer, as a season ticket holder, I can remember listening with dismay to the news that the next season was going to be played with the essentially the same players.  This was quite a change from the annual rodeo we had usually experienced, where several new players were rounded up each summer to replace those that had escaped.  At this time the team was hampered by the very large Sergei Federov  contract and what was perceived to be a large contract for Adam Foote.  

The 2007-08 team ended up doing very well, finishing with a franchise best 80 points, but falling out of playoff contention late, in part because Foote, the Captain, engineered a trade to Colorado at the trading deadline.  In the turmoil following the trade deadline, the team faded badly and missed the playoffs.  Late in the season, Nash declares he wants the captaincy, news which greatly pleases most fans.

Hitch has been successful in building a structure into the team, and an identity as a hard checking team that was difficult to play against.  Solid defensive schemes utilized by marginally talented players in some cases lead to a fair number of wins.  Because the team did so well, in spite of not making the playoffs, the CBJ drafted 6th overall in a very deep and talented draft, selecting Nikita Filatov.  More importantly, Scott Howson traded the number one pick he got from Colorado for R.J. Umberger.

On July 1, 2008, at the commencement of free agency, Howson added Mike Commodore and Kristian Huselius to the line-up, and traded for Fedor Tyutin by giving up Nickolai(y) Zherdev to the Rangers.  Later in the summer, in a very important move, the CBJ signed free agent Michael Peca, who provided a great deal of leadership in the room that the franchise would soon come to miss when it was gone.  And, in a moment that must seem surreal to current Blue Jacket fans, the fan base was greatly relieved when goal tender Pascal LeClaire was signed to a contract extension, relieving a major over the summer contract concern.

Aided by the youngsters Derick Brassard and Voracek the 2008-09 group of players, after a slow 4-6 start in October (you call THAT slow??!!), proceeded to post winning records in all the remaining months of the season, except April, and garner the franchise's first ever playoff appearance with a franchise record 92 point season.

The team was materially aided on the way by the acquisition of Jason Williams who provided scoring punch in the early months of 2009, and by the acquisition of Antoine Vermette for goal tender Pascal LeClaire.  LeClaire's trade was made possible by the emergence of the Calder Trophy winning Steve Mason at goal tender.

After the glorious vision of playoff hockey in Nationwide Arena, and the thunderous spectacle of Game 4, it seemed as if the franchise was poised to move on to bigger and better things.  And in the hubris of those moments, it seemed as if the franchise lost its way.  And, in the tradition of the great Greek tragedies, pride indeed did go before the fall, and before the end of the 2009-10 season, the General Manager had fired Hitch.

Where Did We Go Wrong?

It seems that things went wrong in the immediate post season meeting between Hitch and Howson.  Hitch asserted, and Howson agreed, that Hitch had squeezed every last drop of performance out of these players. They had maxxed out.  If the goal was to go deeper into the playoffs then changes would have to be made.  And here, in retrospect it seems, Scott Howson made a critical error, which has affected the franchise to this day.  Again, I emphasize, I agreed with the general approach at the time.  In the clarity of hind sight, I can see where I feel this went wrong.  It was the selection of a youth movement at the NHL level, coupled with the elimination of two plus weeks of practices from the NHL schedule to accommodate the Olympics that turned into a terrible fit for a coach who preferred veterans.  The 2009-10 Blue Jackets NEVER practiced, because the schedule was so compressed.  This resulted in the first of 3 consecutive autumnal swoons.

The important point I want to focus on here is that we came into the 2009-10 season with heightened expectations, and a roster that was a poor fit to our coach.  I am not 100% sure that we do not sit in the same position here in 2011-12, which hopefully provides us with some insight on what should be done, if anything.

Scott Howson, as General Manager is responsible for the long term health of the team.  I believe he concluded in the summer of 2009 that our youth had seemed well equipped to handle the rigors of the NHL season, and that a youth movement was the appropriate course to take to go deeper in the playoffs.  This was appearing to work well for Chicago (with their pair of number 1 overall picks, and the CBJ with our 6 and 7 overall picks) and I think he felt we were poised to emulate that.

One fallacy of this conclusion was that Derick Brassard would pick up where he was when he was injured in the 2008-09 season.  It is arguable that he has ever returned to that level, but it is definite that the expectations for Brass have never returned to those he played under in 2008-09.  Nonetheless, Jake Voracek, Derick Brassard, and Nikita Filatov were supposed to be the next wave that would carry us deeper into the playoffs.  We all know this didn't happen, and before season's end we had a fired coach and a dysfunctional team.

Where Howson made a mistake, was in going to the youth movement too soon.   This is totally in keeping with the traditions of the CBJ in failing to properly develop our youth.  This I believe is a function of our expansion history, and the dearth of talent in an expansion franchise that can only be filled with youth.  Other mistakes he made were failing to match his roster well to his coach, and failing to anticipate the impact of the Olympic year.  These are mistakes of inexperience, and so long as Howson learns from them, he can still be an effective GM.

Let's review some of these mistakes in more detail:

Understanding Your Coach

OK, Hitch was totally transparent here.  Hitch loved veteran players.  It was spoken in a joking manner by the Dispatch writers on many occasions.   The reason Hitch loved veteran players was that they were able to handle the higher level of preparation that he was going to throw at them.  In the face of these WELL KNOWN tendencies of his coach, the GM presented Hitch with Filatov.  'oh, by the way Hitch, you'll have to remember to change his diaper'.  These are the things that I think lead Hitch to later say that he knew in the first weeks of the 2009-10 season that they were in real trouble, even when they were off to a franchise best start.

In the off season, Howson let Peca, Manny Malhotra, and Williams walk, and traded Chimera before the season was half over.  Peca never played again, but his leadership was sorely missed, and Howson made innumerable moves trying to replace something he could have had for relatively cheap.  He made Manny a decent offer, but was unwilling to really try to get it done, and jumped to Pahlsson quickly, a move that has not necessarily rewarded him.  These were guys that played core roles with the playoff team.

In retrospect, this was a mistake.  Howson should have, and could have signed veteran players into spots ahead of the youth.  He should have pushed Brass, Jake and Filatov down into the minor leagues, and made them rip their NHL spot out of the quavering hands of an old veteran.  This would have been a much better fit for his veteran friendly coach who had already proved he could squeeze the playoffs out of a group of marginal veterans.  He would have done it two years in a row if Foote hadn't blown the situation up.

Howson assumed that Brass would have a good year, he didn't force him to prove that he could have a good year.  I think this assumption still haunts both of them.

The Olympic Year

As a coach, Hitch slaved to make sure his players were prepared.  He needed players who were ready to take that information and put it to good use.  With the truncation of the schedule due to the Olympics, the Blue Jackets seldom practiced.  They would go a week where they didn't practice because Hitch was not big on practices on game days, and between the travel and the schedule, they seldom practiced.  Veterans would have known what to do with the information Hitch would give them.  I think the youth was not sure what to do with it.  I think this emphasized the mismatch between the coach and his team.

Too Soon

I think that Howson just went to the youth movement too soon.  He did not have a back up plan when Jake, Brass, and Mason suffered sophomore slumps.  They should have been sent to the AHL, but Howson did not have a back up plan for that.  More to the point, they should have started the season in the AHL.  Keep firmly in your mind that none of this was evident early in the season, when the team started with a franchise best start.  It was in the wicked December swoon that these things started to become evident, and it was too late.  If Brass, Jake, and Mason had been forced to win jobs from the AHL, they would have been under much less pressure to perform.  As it was, we hung the future of the franchise on them, prematurely it seems in retrospect.

Application to the Current Situation

Well, since it is not an Olympic year, we can write that issue right out of the equation for the 2011-12 CBJ.  My work here is done.

Ok, seriously, the other two issues have a great deal of application to the current situation.  It clearly seems as if we attempted to go too soon with a youth movement to bolster an up tempo approach with a third scoring line.  That proved unsuccessful in the way it was implemented, and was quickly abandoned, but not before the season was already in jeopardy.  But that's ok, because those kids are mostly in the AHL, where they belong.  The Letetsu move brings in a more experienced player, and the Nikitin move seems to address an identified deficiency, size, and seems like a good adjustment over the short term.  But the damage has been done.

As far as a good fit to the coach, Arniel was brought in because they felt he would handle the young players well.  But it appears as if he does not know how to handle his veterans, because not a one of them is playing well.  I think Arniel's AHL approach, especially considering the last coahcing staff, rings hollow to the veterans.  They know it is not adequate, especially as they have been exposed to the level of effort and analysis that Hitch and his coaches put together.  In short, the current coaching staff may not be working as hard as the previous staff.  I do not intend to disparage them, that is not the point, but more than one veteran player coming here had been impressed by the level of preparation by Hitch and his staff.  That is not the feed back we are getting out of the coaches and team right now.

In that regard here, it appears the players are once again mismatched to the coach.  It is gratifying to see RyJo do so well.  But in the absence of a Calder Trophy, he should understand that he will start the season in the AHL.  Winning a job against pre-season competition is a mirage.  You can't judge that until you see regular season competition.  Players should know coming into training camp if they are up or down.  And the only way you change that is with regular season performance.

Arniel needs to demonstrate an ability to handle our roster well in the short term.  He has not done so yet this year.  Unless he can do that soon, we need to acquire a coach that is a better match to our roster that our GM can live with.  If that can't be done, we will need to blow it up in the off season.

At least that's how I see it from under this rock.


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