Monday, December 5, 2011

Brass, Commie, Calvert and Claude

Derrick Brassard in a post-practice shooting drill
I've been mulling these topics over for several days, the whole situation, and the discussion concerning Derrick Brassard, of the Columbus Blue Jackets.  In a previous post on this subject I opined that some of Brass' struggles this year were a normal developmental stage, that had been delayed by the dearth of talent in the franchise.  The more I think about it, the more I think some of that is definitely true, which we will explore later in the post.

Late last week, Brassard's agent issued a statement calling out Coach Scott Arniel for Brassard's situation. For the whys and wherefore's of Brassard's Agent's comments, I highly recommend this excellent post over on Ten Minute Misconduct, and the commentary which follows.  This really puts the whole situation in a current context in the NHL.  What I want to do in this post is to explore the similarities between what is happening to Brassard and someone who was absolutely and unquestionably relegated to Scott Arniel's doghouse, big Mike Commodore.

I got a pretty unique opportunity last year, a chance to have a chat with Mike.  This occurred following a childish and petulant outburst in this space (long since retracted).   In our conversation I later characterized this to Mike as a rookie mistake, which was a pretty apt description. He was gracious about my failings, for which I was grateful.  He IS a pretty big guy.  But he had a pretty rough experience at the hands of Arniel, and I think his experience is pertinent here.  So I'd like to discuss his experiences as they might relate to Brassard,without rolling Mike under the bus.  I would like to affirmatively state that he refused to criticize any coach in any way.  This was wise on his part, as hockey is a pretty tight community and that stuff gets around.  Mike Commodore would not comment on Scott Arniel.

But he sure got the doghouse treatment from Arniel, no matter what he refuses to say.  And, I think he got that treatment in spite of what might have been needed to for the CBJ to win hockey games.

Chart of location of goals-against from 5 games in 2010-11
Commodore has never have been described as fast (in the NHL context), his strength was to be a stay at home defenseman.  The record shows that there was a need for someone who could play defense in front of the crease last year, whether they could get up the ice or no.  One of the characteristics of the CBJ late last year in the down hill 'Roll to RyJo' was an inability to defend the low slot.  To support this assertion, I'm including a chart I made last year showing where goals were scored against the CBJ from a series of  5 games.  Since this defensive pattern (or lack thereof) was repeated early this year (time after time after time) during the horrific 3-13-2 start of 2011-12, with a completely different set of defensemen, it seems clear that its not the players.  My point is that in 2010-11 a big, red haired defenseman would have been handy to have standing in the crease instead of being relegated to the press box, then sent to the minors, and ultimately bought out.

Yes, Commodore is not quick.  Isn't a coach supposed to make his players succeed?  Wouldn't a 1-3-1 work for a defenseman who is not fleet, but can still defend the crease?  Looking at the chart above, reflecting on the 2011-12 team's start, and considering its recent fortunes after they abandoned whatever scheme it was that Arniel was trying to do, it's clear that it is not all the players.

In my conversation with Commodore, we talked about the problems he had in Hitch's last year, the injuries in camp.  It is well documented that he trained very differently coming into the 2010-11 season, and he didn't play that poorly over in Sweden, but by the time he got back, he was squarely in the dog house.  In 20 games in 2010-11 Commodore was 2G, 4A, 6pt, -8 +/-, with 2 Game Winning Goals.  These numbers are quite comparable to Clitsome (25gm 3G, 7A, 10pt, -9 +/-) and Wisniewski (18gm 1G, 11A, 12pt, -13 +/-, 1 GWG) thus far in 2011-12.

Thus, there is a reasonable body of evidence that residence in Arniel's dog house is not performance based, but can be motivated by other factors.

Brassard had been bumped to wing before much of training camp had passed.  As Jeff over at 10 Minute Misconduct so ably points out, this is a new position and something of a demotion for a guy who had been automatically penciled in on the top line.  And, as Matt over at The Cannon points out, Brassard is behind in his development compared to his peers.  And what the heck does Matt Calvert have to do with this anyway?!

As part of our team's history of a dearth of talent, it is not unusual in this franchise for players to pretty much 'automatically' get positions, especially if they have a modicum of skill.  Matt Calvert had a good year in the AHL last year, and built that up into a pretty good performance for part of the year at the NHL level.  At the end of the season, he was fading, as was much of the rest of the team.  Many Blue Jacket fans assume that once a guy is up here, and does well, he is here for good, and thus penciled Matt Calvert in as a player on this year's team.

Matt started out with some injuries, and didn't have a great camp, though he made the team out of camp.  He was soon sent down to the AHL, as he should have been from the start.  Matt's not ready to take on the NHL full time yet, and some more time in the AHL will be good for him.  I'm sure he doesn't like it.  But on a normal team, that's what happens.

For Brass, when he had healed up from his shoulder surgery, he was immediately cast as a number one center.  Just think what that means.  Who do you play against?  Pavel Datsyuk, Joe Thornton, in short, some of the best players in the game.  In your first full season.  The dearth of talent at center was such that, if you maybe should have had a seat in the pressbox every now and again, instead you just got moved to the second line.  So now we're two years down the road, and all of a sudden there is WAY more talent at center than this franchise has ever had.

It seems silly for me to say that because of the additional talent there is more pressure to perform, considering how many players came into this season and have performed poorly.  Since we have reasonably established that factors other than performance can have a role in getting a player into the dog house, perhaps we should consider what those factors could be.  Some suggestions are:

  • Arniel just needs someone in the dog house.  Some folks are that way.
  • Arniel wanted to use Brassard as an example to the poorly playing veterans whom he could not afford to sit as things spiraled out of control.
  • Arniel and Howson wanted to use Brassard as an example of what can happen if you don't perform to the guys who are currently at the AHL, e.g. Atkinson, Calvert, Kubalik.
  • It is performance based.  Again, Ten Minute Misconduct addresses this issue well.  However, RyJo thrived when his responsibilities were reined in on the wing.  Brassard withered.  He needs to bloom.
Since we all know that the CBJ have a spotty history with regard to player development (and I am being kind here), I am willing to concede that player development may be the 'cause du jour' in this case.  If we can improve our player development are 10 or 15 games of Brassard eating nachos in the pressbox worth the cost?  

And finally, I come to Claude.  I have to confess I am haunted by the comments Claude Noel made regarding problems with the franchise, how he knew how to fix them, and that it wouldn't be pleasant.  (Editor's note: This really fries Mrs. Gallos' grits.  She says its easy for him to say 'cause he'll never have to prove it.  Good point.)  If you take Claude's comments as essentially on point, then you have to accept the notion that Arniel and Howson may be dealing with the 'problem' in their own way.  And in that context, I would assert that one has to accept that some things are going to happen that can't explained on face value, simply because they can never be publicly explained.

And so here we are.  We don't really understand what Arniel is up to, and I'm sure he won't tell us.  But the pressure to perform has been cranked up on Derrick Brassard like it has never been in his career.  If Brass breaks through this and emerges as the player we all hoped he could be, then maybe this horrible season will have been worth the cost.  Plus we get to "Nail down that first pick"!<rimshot>


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