Saturday, November 12, 2011

Tale of Two Cities

James Wisnieski adds mobility and a shot to our defense
Well, maybe four.  But that doesn't make nearly as good a title because I wouldn't be plagiarizing from a classic.  But I digress.  Back to hockey.

In today's Columbus Dispatch, Aaron Portzline published an interview with Claude Noel, former Columbus Blue Jackets interim coach, and now coach of the Winnipeg Jets.  In this interview, Coach Noel said the following:

“I would have liked to have been given the opportunity to keep the job, because I felt like I had a leg up on that situation, Noel said, referring to the chronic losing in Columbus. “I knew the situation deeply, to its core. They felt that would be a disadvantage. It came up three or four times in my interviews, and I disagreed every time. I still disagree.
“I knew that team. They may not have liked the music I was going to play. But we were going to give them the music. It might not have been pleasant. But I feel I knew what was at the core of what it would take to get that team going in the right direction."
These statements really took my aback.  After all, the DBJ and I have been debating this kind of thing over the last day or so in a flurry of text messaging (I really need a new phone).
Holy Darkness Batman!!  What could this deep dark secret be??

In my mind, it is the fundamental construction of the team that he is referring to, which is interesting, because he has kind of the same problem to deal with in Winnipeg.  Or at least that is one of my examples.
My initial reaction to the core comment was to think, 'oh crap, it really is Nash'.  Which of course is complete balderdash.  The problem with Nash is that he is playing on the right wing instead of the left, but that's a completely different rant.
No, I suspect the interview conversation went like this (stick tap to Monty Python for the dialog):
Noel: The back end of this team is complete crap.  We can't defend in the NHL.
Howson: Is not!
Noel: Is too!
Howson: Is not!
Noel: Is too!
And so it goes.  So my reference to the cities in the title, is to compare Nashville and Minnesota to Columbus and Atlantapeg (Winnlanta??)  
The Nashville and Minnesota franchises were built on the notion that strong defense will take you a long way, especially if you are talent challenged in your early years as a franchise.  This approach has been rewarded with multiple playoff appearances by both franchises.  They both appear to be ready to contend again this year.
The Columbus and Atlantapeg franchises, on the other hand, were built from the front end back, with draft picks or trades of flashy forwards (?Picard?) being favored over defensive depth.  Both of these franchises have precisely one playoff appearance, and it looks like neither of them is likely to contend this year.
The DBJ and I have been debating whether there is really a dearth of talent in Columbus (a GM problem), the poor use of otherwise good talent (a Coaching problem), or something else.
If my assumptions about Noel's belief are correct, fixing the problem might take some time.  After mulling in my head over night my electronic conversation with the DBJ, I decided that there was a compelling piece of evidence that made me believe that our problem is one of talent acquisition (a GM problem).  
In spite of the roster turnover, we have basically the same core players on the team as we had when we made the playoffs, in terms of forwards.  The defense has been rebuilt to support a high flying offense, which can't get off the ground.  This has resulted in a situation where we don't have the personnel (or inclination?) to defend our own crease.  While Mason's play has been erratic, he has been exposed to some really, really prime scoring opportunities.  When you leave the opposing player in the low slot, or at the edge of the crease, with the puck and all alone, your goal tender doesn't have much of a chance.  It's no wonder Mason is a basket case.
Our defensemen have been selected for the job by their ability to move the puck, not by their defensive attributes (by the GM).  I tend to agree that you need mobility in today's game, but you also need to be able to defend your goal.  When the opposing team can score two goals in 40 seconds to steal a game from you, you can't defend your goal.  And thus you can't win games.
It is true that our one playoff season came with the undisputed best run of goal tending in the franchise's history.  This was behind a Hitchcock defense, and we actually had a defensive pairing that could be termed a 'shut down pair'.  The forwards were committed to the defensive scheme (by the coach, if not mentally).  Since then our GM has been re-shaping the defense to be more mobile to support an up tempo offense.  But many of these players were able to play in a more defensive system as well.  Let's compare the 2008-09 defense to today's defense:

2008-09                                        2011-12
Tyutin                                            Tyutin
Methot                                           Methot
Russell                                            Russell (he was here for this debacle, so I am counting him)
Hjeda                                              Martinek
Commodore                                 Wisniewski
Klesla                                              Clitsome
Backman                                        Moore
Tollefsen                                        Johnson

If you look at the differences in the list, with the exception of Backman, every other player is giving up something in terms of defensive 'stiffness' to their counterpart in 2008-09.  On the other hand, the defense is more mobile, I do not think there is any doubt of that.  But is there a 'shut down pair'??  I don't think so.  Perhaps they are too mobile for their own good, and have a tendency to vacate the middle in pursuit of the puck carrier.  I don't know the answer there, but the middle of the ice is distressingly open this year.  It is also important to note that the forwards are not particularly committed (by the coach, not their mental state) to the defensive scheme (a Coaching problem).

Our goal tending has been shaky this year, and we can't score.  A BIG part of the shakiness of our goal tending is the quality of the chances.  If the CBJ forwards had been provided by the other team with the types of chances our defense gives up, some of these games would not have been so lopsided.  In that regard then, I see some of the defensive problems as how you are using the talent that is provided (a Coaching problem).

Since the GM and the Coach share a fundamental philosophy in how the game should be played, and they have managed to oust the only other hockey person who has a different hockey philosophy (congratulations Hitch), this is the philosophy the organization is committed to, over the long run.  If we view this as a talent problem (a GM problem) and how the talent is utilized problem (a Coaching problem) then we have a structural problem (an Organizational problem) that will take years to correct.

Our coach and our general manager have a strong belief in an up-tempo offensive approach to hockey.  They now have an unfettered opportunity to implement this vision.  Unfortunately, it has yet to actually prove results.  If we have an deep organizational problem in that we have adopted the wrong fundamental approach to the game, you really can't do anything about that in mid season.  You have to let them try to get this system on track.  At the end of the day, you will have the information you need to determine if you need to make structural changes to the organization, to blow up and rebuild.  That result is so drastic, it is worth taking the time to ensure that the approach and philosophy you are going to adopt for your organization is going to be what you are willing to live with for a long time.  Because if you can't live with up-tempo, you are really looking at changing out your President, GM, Coach, and a number of players at well.  Which gives you an idea of the magnitude of the problem this horrific start has inflicted on the organization.

We are approaching a cross roads.  In that case it is worth taking the time to study the map carefully. In that regard, a failure to make changes immediately is wise.  You need to make this choice based on an 82 game season, not the first two months.  Let's try this with two all stars in the line up.  We haven't seen that yet.  
I have talked in circles a bit here, but I still think the answer to Noel's core issue is that defense and goal tending, until they are truly addressed, will limit what this team can do.  Both Howson and Doug MacLean had preferences for forwards.  After 11 years, this has left us with a team that can't defend and a system that exposes a fragile goal tending situation.

And, like Claude said, it will be a long and daunting task to fix it.



  1. Gallos -

    Yet another fine post. Kudos.

    I'm really not sure what more I can add (cue the "BUT....").

    Perhaps the only additional thought is that what has been portrayed as a "talent OR coaching" matter is actually a "talent AND coaching" matter.

    Howson has assembled an expensive roster, but it's arguable that he received a commensurate level of talent for his investment - at least thus far.

    At the same time, Arniel has had at least two iterations of coaching philosophy come and go this season, and the Blue Jackets have 5 standings points to show for it. (And the last three games have been increasingly hard to stomach.) I won't even try to understand last season, with the historically great start followed by the double-dip slump. If you can rationalize that one in light of what you've been seeing right now, well...good luck.

    I've offered my appreciation for Claude Noel all over this board, so let's just leave it with this from the preview blog post before today's Dispatch piece on Arniel and Noel:

    "I always loved Columbus," Noel said. "It's a good hockey town, it really is. The people there are just mad. They're mad. They want a winner. They've waited too long."

    Can't argue with that assessment. Claude got it. In spades. But he's gone, and the team has to play the hand it's dealt.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.