Thursday, January 26, 2012

What I would do: The roster

Now that I've decided that Craig Patrick should replace Scott Howson ASAP, it's time to tackle the roster.

We'll start with the coach.  It's established that Todd Richards is the interim head coach through the end of the season.  To date, I've seen nothing to suggest that his performance should preempt a full coaching search.  Not sure much more needs to be said on that front.  I'm not married to a playing philosophy...I just want a guy that knows how to coach NHL players and knows how to win with them.  Period. So let's move on.

Candidly, individual players are not my strong suit.  I mean, any lunkhead can look at goals, assists, time on ice, penalty minutes, plus/minus or even the advanced stats like Corsi et al.  You can even try to develop a formula that considers the productivity value that you find against the amount (and length of time) that you're paying the player.

Problem is, I feel that this is precisely what Scott Howson has done with his roster.  What's missing, and is clearly so desperately needed, is an addressing of the culture of the team and its roster.  This is where Howson has fallen completely flat on his face.  As evidence:
  • Trying to shore up the lack of leadership by bringing in other team's ex-captains - and shipping out high character players in the process.  
  • Trading for a player (Carter) who clearly didn't want to be traded - and I won't even suggest whether he wants to play here or not.
  • Letting the team collapse for three straight seasons now with no change in its core.
The last point is perhaps the most damning, and it's the one that I'm going to suggest gets addressed with a blunt force object.



DBJ's TACTICAL NUCLEAR OPTION

In my mind, the overarching issue to be addressed is the cultural predisposition of this team to quit.  Quitting might involve not practicing hard (thanks for that insight, Mr. Prospal), might involve not playing a full 60 minutes.  It might involve tuning out a coach.  Point is, it's not winning hockey and fans like me don't want to pay to see it.

So taking the premise I suggested back when answering the big question, that the team has quit on two full-time coaches and only given one interim coach (Claude Noel) a winning record since the CBJ's sole playoff appearance, I'm going to presume that the players who have been here through all of that are at least partly complicit in the club's fall off the precipice.

I'm not savvy enough to suggest which players exactly are at the root of the blame - I have no special insights beyond what I read and hear (and I get precious little insider information), so that's why I'm going to cut wide around the margins and order a tactical nuclear option:

I would aggressively work to move every single holdover from the February 4, 2010 Blue Jackets roster out of Columbus as soon as feasible.

Why that date?  That's the date that Claude Noel coached his first game for the CBJ.  Thus, the players who were on the squad at that point and still are with the team have been through Hitchcock, Noel, Arniel and Richards.  That's four coaches in less than two years.  In my estimation, that group is toxic to any coach's career (good/Hitch or bad/Arniel) and, by extension, the team's prospects for success.  And it must change. Now.

Who's left over from February 4, 2010, you may ask?  Here's the list, taken from the game's roster report:
  • Jared Boll
  • Derick Brassard
  • Derek Dorsett
  • Kristian Huselius
  • Steve Mason
  • Marc Methot
  • Rick Nash
  • Sammy Pahlsson
  • Fedor Tyutin
  • R.J. Umberger
  • Antoine Vermette
Is it drastic?  Totally.  Is it overkill?  Perhaps.  Would the Blue Line store melt down with useless stock?  Most likely.  Will it go a long, long way toward turning the CBJ locker room into a place where winning isn't just nice but actually expected?  I believe so.

Now, if some new general manager can apply the ability to read minds and figure out how to conduct a more surgical excision of the root causes of this team's current blasé culture, I'm all for it.  Save the "good," dump the "bad."  But as I said, I'm not savvy enough to be any more precise...and the problems facing this team, in my estimation, are so deep as to suggest that it's worth losing a couple "good" players to make sure you lose the "bad."

Am I suggesting a garage sale? Am I suggesting selling off this crew for late-round draft picks?  Of course not.  I am suggesting a systematic purge of those players from the roster in as quickly an efficiently a manner as possible, getting as much in return (players, prospects, draft picks) as humanly possible.  Some of the trades will work out great for Columbus, some won't...but the roster will get an overdue scrubbing.

So I'm not calling to blow the entire team up.  But gosh, I sure come close.



NEXT STEPS

While the purge is underway, steps need to be taken to move the team in the future direction.  The interim /new general manager needs to work closely with the coach to determine exactly what identity this team will have and identify talent that will get the team there.  Personally, I hope that coming from a winning background is given a priority.  I want players for whom, as the saying goes, "it hurts to lose."  The last thing we need it to backfill the roster with players who will accept a losing culture.

It's also important to recognize that there is some talent still in the CBJ development pipeline (perhaps Scott Howson's saving grace is leaving the cupboard not entirely bare).  Yes, the Springfield Falcons are playing close to the bottom of their conference - just like their parent club in Columbus (As I type, Springfield is tied with four other teams for third-worst in the AHL) - but there is talent to be had.  The likes of Cam Atkinson, Matt Calvert and perhaps David Savard immediately come to mind.  These promising youngsters, and others whom I have not identified, need to be allowed to grow in the juniors and minors and come along at a deliberate pace.  Promote them to the big club when they are ready, and not a moment too soon.  Remember, the Red Wings' Jimmy Howard was nearly collecting Social Security when he got the Calder Trophy.  It's OK to be patient.  Who knows, maybe they might even learn how to win in the minors.

Veterans like Robert Lang helped Phoenix take Detroit to the limit in the
Stanley Cup playoffs while letting the team's prospects develop.
So if I'm suggesting a tactical strike on the current roster and not backfilling with young talent, what am I suggesting for the big club's roster?  I've always been a fan of the Phoenix Coyotes approach under Don Maloney.  Upon taking control of the team from Wayne Gretzky for the 2009-10 season in September 2009 (not a lot of time to prepare!), I understand that he shipped his young players en masse off to the AHL for the season.  Maloney then identified hard-working veterans, most likely at the ends of their careers, who still had talent and were healthy.  He patched together a team that worked for a year-plus while the kids grew up professionally.  And whaddya know, that team of rag-tag veterans actually made the playoffs and took the Red Wings to seven games!  Not a bad stop-gap if you ask me.

In my opinion, Columbus would be in much better shape than Phoenix if they tried this approach.  If the new general manager restricted his trade activity to just the players mentioned above, he would start with a team that includes, based upon my scan of the injury list and the most recent game against Tampa:

  • Dane Byers
  • Jeff Carter
  • Grant Clitsome
  • Colton Gillies
  • Ryan Johansen
  • Mark Letestu
  • John Moore
  • James Wisniewski
  • Nikita Nikitin*
  • Ryan Russell*
  • Aaron Johnson**
  • Brett Lebda**
  • Derek Mackenzie**
  • Radek Martinek**
  • Vinny Prospal**
  • Curtis Sanford**
(Players whose contracts expire at the end of this season are indicated by a * for restricted free agents, ** for unrestricted free agents,)

That's a LOT of talent to bring in for one free agency period.
But Florida has proven that it CAN be done.
Now, a capable general manager starts with Carter, Letestu, Wisniewski, Johansen and Moore.  If he brings back a couple of the free agents you see above and is given the flexibility to spend to hit the salary cap floor like Dale Tallon did with the Florida Panthers, he should be able to field a pretty competitive team.

So that's my plan: Extricate the core, protect the kids and backfill with tough veterans who know how to win and can teach the youngsters how to play winning hockey on a day-in, day-out basis.  

In many ways, this is a remodeling job that has the contractors stripping the walls all the way back to the studs and starting over...which I fear is necessary to get this franchise on the right foot for the long haul.

4 comments:

  1. Well DBJ, that's definitely some sort of nuclear strike. Whether its tactical or strategic will leave the Air Force to debate.

    Looking at the big dogs, Nash and Carter, of the two, Nash is the only one you could really get agood return in a trade. If we move Carter now, its a losing proposition. Plus he's much better on the cap hit.

    This would be a not so tactful way of re-constituting the team leadership.

    I just hope people understand that this stuff all leads to more losing hockey. If you think this will bring winning hockey, you are probably wrong. The hope of course is that you get winning hockey emerging from it. I also have noted the Coyotes approach, and it worked well for them. That doesn't necessarily mean it will work well for us, but maybe its worth a shot.

    At the end of the 2008-09 season, Howson said they wanted to make the moves that would routinely take the CBJ deep into the playoffs. Instead, we are dead last, and dead in the water. In that regard, he set his goals, and failed to achieve them. In this business, that should get you fired.

    I don't like this. I didn't like it when Doug MacLean got fired either. But as in Doug's case, I'll probably realize that in retrospect it was necessary.

    Everyone should keep a clear memory that when people were yelling for Hitch's head, that they were saying 'the game has passed him by'. Ya. Good call there. The up tempo, puck possession style was a fad, that has had its day. Defense wins championships. Doesn't matter what sport you are playing, its true.

    The big difference between the CBJ and Nashville is that Nashville was built from the back forward (Goal tending, then defense, then forwards), while the CBJ was built from forward back.

    This reset will result in several more years of losing hockey. Be prepared to support the team during this period if the collective fan base gets its wishes.

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  2. Gallos -

    It is an automatic presumption that such moves will lead to losing hockey - for a single season let alone several more years? Didn't happen in Phoenix in 09-10. And Florida's currently sitting in a playoff position in the East.

    I'm not blind to the fact that drastic changes don't always work, but this team has nary a single playoff win in its history. Does staying the course or tweaking around the edges guarantee winning? No more than the option that I've proposed.

    I don't want people fired. In fact, I wrote a post on that a while back regarding Arniel. What I want, however, is winning, and that isn't happening with a progressively negative trajectory.

    If the team makes smart choices - as suggested by me or otherwise, I'm only one person with a limited perspective - I'll be more than happy to support the changes. If they do nothing, or make cosmetic changes...I just don't know.

    Good points on your part. I'm glad you piped in.

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  3. I'm not really a big fan of the "if you played on Feb 4, 2010, you're out" approach. To me, that's like firing all the employees because a store posted 1Q losses. Surely, there are a few guys who stick out positively, a few gems worth saving, especially if they are still young and improving (Brassard, Dorsett, perhaps Methot). I doubt that Umberger is part of the grand culture problem, although his anomalous production this season sure is .

    That said, if we go with your plan, I'm curious if you'd like to reconsider Aaron Johnson as a "previous regime" player or not. Sure, he wasn't there in 2010, but he sure was wearing a CBJ sweater during a ton of losing before that. I have a hard time believing Ar Jo is fighting the "country club" atmosphere.

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  4. SirChadlyOC - Your first paragraph points out the pitfall that I've acknowledged...that this approach is very, very broad and likely will remove "gems" (I called them "good" players). Yup. It would happen. And if that's the price to pay to excising whatever cultural problem is in the room, I'm OK with that.

    As for Aaron Johnson, I somehow don't think it's a good use of time to discuss how he should be classified. I would be surprised if he's re-signed.

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