Monday, January 2, 2012

Logic, Flaws, and Strategy

Scott Howson, GM and Aaron Portzline of The Dispatch 
Ok, before I get started, I'd like to point out that the Flyers lost a third period lead to the Rangers tonight. It happens to other teams too (just not as often)!

Secondly, I guess I'd like to point out that I'm a glass half full kinda guy. When someone makes the commitment to come do the hockey thing with the Columbus Blue Jackets, I am generally on their side and wish them success, be they a certain Hall of Fame coach, or an AHL coach.  It's my team.  I want them to win and be successful.

It may come as mild shock to the casual reader, but things haven't really gone too well for the CBJ in 2011-12.  Thus, at the beginning of the New Year, it seems worthwhile to consider where we are, and where we might go with things in the upcoming year.

I guess lastly, I have the benefit of hindsight on a lot of this discussion.  I have generally supported the moves our General Manager has made (with the exception of firing a certain Hall of Fame Coach) at the time the moves were made.  The GM has the tough job, forecasting into the future to find the right combinations that will produce a winning franchise.  I have the easy job, looking into the past to see why it didn't work.  So my caveat is that I do not want to seem unduly critical, if there is such a thing for a last place team, but want to look at how the past might, and should, shape the future.

Back in late October, I made this post regarding the need for a semblance of stability in the franchise.  In one of the comments, Pete G. made the following excellent observation:
I'm with you on the advantage of stability in a winning organization. Problem is in recognizing when the right people are in place and being sure the path chosen is the right one to follow for a significant length of time. Are Howson and Arniel on the right track? If we stick with them, will the team see success for years? 

I have had the basics of this comment in the back of my mind for a couple of months now.  And, in thinking all this over, I think it is fair to say that Howson and Arniel are not on the right track.  The reason for that is a fundamental flaw in the logic that is being applied to the problem.

As I recall, the problem was summed up as this: The 2008-09 team had maxxed out in making it to the playoffs.  Hitch had managed to wring 100% out of the players, and it was clear the team was at their ceiling.  I believe both the coach and the GM were in agreement on this issue.  Likely the approach to solving the problem was the first significant split between the two of them.  Scott Howson looked at the post lock out landscape and determined that an upgraded offensive capability was what was necessary to go systematically deeper into the playoffs.  In an expansion franchise with a dearth of talent in the system, much of this 'upgraded' offensive capability was to come from youth.  Sadly, this did not turn out, as the expectations for youthful production were far too high (make sure you include me in that count).

Additionally, Howson determined that more offensive production from the defensive corps was necessary, and a number of moves were made sacrificing defensive capability for offensive production.  In the year following the playoffs, an unfortunate series of events, such as the implosion of the shut down defensive pair, and the corrosive loss of 'character' players out of the locker room (Michael Peca,  Manny Malhotra and Jason Chimera) lead Howson to fire his Hall of Fame Coach, Ken Hitchcock.  I think this was a panic move, and a move signifying the division of philosophy between the Coach and the GM.  Howson did not show the level of patience with Ken Hitchcock as he has shown with Scott Arniel, a coach who shares his offensive philosophy.

Essentially the adoption of that offensive philosophy is the beginning of the spiral that we find ourselves in today.  At least, however, we will be in a position to draft a player to fill some of those offensive needs.

Here's my problem.  The stated objective following the playoffs was to make the moves that would allow the franchise to routinely make it deep into the playoffs.  And, in the GM's support, it seems clear that routine trips to the playoffs must be preceded by last place finishes in several years (See Penguins, Pittsburgh), so you could say this season is all part of that long term strategy.  I guess I fell into the trap of not seeing that since he did not enunciate the really bad part of it.  But in my mind, the real problem is that an offensive system and capability will get you to the playoffs, but not deep into the playoffs (see Capitals, Washington).  Why is this?  Because once you get to the playoffs, the refs swallow the whistle and the game is played in a pre-lockout fashion.  You have to be bigger, stronger, and badder if you want to win.  You have to play through the physical contact, and the hooking, holding, and obstruction penalties that are not going to get called.  In other words, you need to play Hitch hockey once you get to the playoffs.

So if the stated objective is to go deep into the playoffs, but you don't want to play Hitch hockey, then you have a fundamental flaw in your logic.  And that, I fear, is where our GM finds himself.

So what should we do from here?  Between now and the trade deadline, the GM and his new advisor, Craig Patrick, should hammer out a strategy for the future.  Patrick is an ideal resource for that.  Once the new minority owner, Nationwide Insurance, is on board, you sell that direction to the owners.  Then you move players at the deadline towards achieving that direction.  People will make stupid moves at the deadline if they are looking at a playoff run.  

Meanwhile, there is no real reason to fire Scott Arniel.  He has his merits, along with his considerable baggage.  You can usually get 30 to 40 minutes of highly entertaining hockey out of each game.  Don't look for any winning, as we go down to the wire in a dogfight for that first draft pick.  And hope like h**l we finally win a lottery.

There are fundamental flaws with the team as constructed today.  Half of it is built to play Hitch hockey, the other half is built to play something else.  Look at the under performing veterans, and you will see the ones that made the playoffs with Hitch.  Are they the right people for this system?  Since this system seems unlikely to take you deep into the playoffs, based on the last 10 or so years of playoff hockey, is this the right system to be using?

Determine your course, wait till the off season, and hire an NHL coach to with a similar philosophy to implement it.  The AHL experiment got us AHL results.  And, take a long, hard look at the Capitals.  Cause if you can't play defense, you aren't going deep in the playoffs.  Which is the stated objective.



  1. "Essentially the adoption of that offensive philosophy is the beginning of the spiral that we find ourselves in today."

    I disagree. EXECUTION of that offensive philosophy is what has led us here. We didn't commit to building the whole team to implement the strategy the two Scotts want us to play.

    If you want to play up tempo, puck possession hockey, then you can't have Boll, Dorsett, McKenzie, all on the roster. One of them to play shut-down defense and kill penalties with Pahlsson? Sure, and it's probably Dorsett. But all three of those guys just shows our total lack of depth at forward.

    But here's my recent list of head scratchers...

    1. Dorsett getting more ice time in a game than Nash.
    2. Vermette getting more ice time in a game than Carter.
    3. Pulling our top pair off the Ovechkin line on NYE.
    4. Taking our defensive forwards off the Ovechkin line on NYE.

    None of those decisions come from the GM over the summer.

  2. OK, fair enough. What I am confused about is not listing Umberger in your list. What do you think about that?

  3. So which up tempo puck possession team went furthest in the playoffs last year? A: Vancouver.

    Why did they lose? Because the attrition in their very deep defensive ranks knocked out their top Defensive pair. Bieksa was rumored to be on the trading block all year because of that depth, and he ended up on the top pair in the cup final.

    I guess my point was that even if well executed, that system is unlikely to get you deep in the playoffs, the stated goal, unless you can play darn good defense.

  4. re points 3 & 4 I thought the rearranged the Ovechkin line, splitting off Ovechkin off into line 2 & we did not react by rearranging our defense to follow him.
    D Mac is a 1 man defense by himself, I'd hate to see him go.

  5. My only question to the discussion; how to light a fire under those"underperforming veterans." If I were the bench coach and perceived that my star players had quit in their effort( forecheck, backcheck, etc.) I would cut their ice time too. Put the players on the ice that are giving 100% . The problem is, would you be able to even ice two five man units???

  6. Great stuff, Gallos. I largely agree that Howson lost his touch once he decided that he knew how to best win in the NHL - adopting the Chicago "attacking" system (that was, what, two or three team identities ago?) - and designing a team that was nearly a perfect opposite of the type preferred by the Hall of Fame coach that he inherited. This team once had clarity in purpose ("Blue Jackets hockey is Hitch hockey," or something like that, came from Mike Priest's mouth). I just don't see it now.

    Howson did a great job getting the likes of Peca, Williams and Vermette to augment Hitch's playoff team. It's when he drafted the likes of Filatov and traded away valuable role players for The League of Ex-Captains and salary cap relief that he went off the rails. Let's not get started on the impressive overpayments delivered to returning veterans (rendering the likes of Methot, Brassard, Vermette and Mason all but untradeable) and the acquisition of one guy (Carter) who probably would rather not be here and another (Wiz) who is being asked to be much, much more than he currently is capable of delivering for a host of reasons.

    As for Arniel, I don't know as he's the right coach to implement the type of system that Howson wants (or wanted, depending on how seriously you take his recent embrace of the Bostonian pugnacious approach). Looking at his results, however, you can pretty much say he's not the right coach to implement it in Columbus - with what Howson has given him.

    I don't think a new minority owner means much in the big scheme of things. I also remain dubious that Patrick's hire means much - until McConnell/Priest tell us it does. (Remember, the story goes that Patrick was hired exclusively by Howson...with nary a conversation with Priest or McConnell.) Does Patrick have the chops to push the "reset" button on the franchise? Probably. Will he be empowered to do so? Because of the incredibly long leash given to Howson since his hire, I'll have to step back into the Missouri camp: SHOW ME.

    Of course, there's the argument that the season is lost, so there's nothing gained by Arniel and Howson losing their jobs until the offseason - the club would have just another set of dead contracts to honor. If that's the case, I sure hope that Howson has to get someone else's signoff before trading away assets.

    Again, good piece that provoked a lot of thought on my end.

  7. Good analysis, Gallos. My only point of disagreement is regarding Arniel - he must go. Now. His recent meltdown on Lori Schmidt, the game mismanagement you've pointed out, and his inability to get adequate performance from his roster has sealed his fate. It's clear to all who follow the team that he's done here, it's just a matter of when. I think that must be sooner, rather than later; not for any positive change in direction or result, but to give some sliver of hope to the fans that upper management is aware of the depths of this disaster and share at least some of our pain. Do nothing and many will feel like this team is being run by Marie Anntoinette, with distain and disinterest. Then comes the revolution and blood in the streets!

  8. For an alternative viewpoint, see LTL!

    iViva la Revolution!

  9. Excellent excellent post, good sir. I also look to Patrick to provide some much needed insight. I see the fact that only Howson has talked about it as a sign of people doing jobs they're asked to. I doubt Howson made that hire in total isolation and personally, I don't want a lot of comments up and down the food chain. Then we all just start questioning who's pulling the strings.

    I also agree re: Arniel. While he is certainly not the "coach of the decade", we are remiss if we focus only on him when analyzing what has happened this season. Even with no coach, this team shouldn't be this bad. There are other issues in play here. Simply bringing in a new coach for fact of bringing in a new coach does nothing.

    I also continue to point to Howson's comment of last year: "next year, it will be on the players". There is fair consideration that Howson is done with Arniel, but is more than fine using this as an object lesson to see what these players can and cannot do. Many fans will object to this logic and demand change now - and I get that and often voice the same (particularly after a loss ;) ) but we need a plan to get a real, long lasting team. And we may need to force the acceptance of some big time shake ups that only a season such as this can justify in the eyes of the fans and organization.

    And total hat tip for the Pens reference - been using that for a while as an example of what it truly might take to be as good as they are.


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