Wednesday, May 2, 2012

What a Long Strange Trip It's Been: Part III


Scott Arniel

When last we left this strange and terrible saga, I had just surrendered a substantial pile of my hard earned coin to the federal government, I still had major work to do on the golf league handicapping spreadsheet, and a strange level of angst had crept over me.  I’ve been fighting this angst on and off since the trade deadline, and the weight of the depressing 2011-12 season overcame my natural glass half-full optimism. 

I feel that angst lifting somewhat now; have a few rounds of golf under my belt; and have started to think about mixing and matching player combinations for next year, a futile but entertaining pastime.  We will get to that soon, but first some unfinished business.

When part II of this series ended, Scott Arniel was using a four day schedule break as a mini-camp to totally change the defensive approach of the team, which heretofore had been nonexistent.  The endless parade of odd-man rushes which had shattered the season, as well as the confidence and health of the goal tending corps had to be stopped.  This was to be done by substituting a 1 man forecheck for the previous 2 man forecheck, thus keeping an extra forward up high in the offensive zone to help slow down counter-attacks.  This philosophical change resulted in a mild run of sort of successful hockey.  My personal belief regarding this run is that it was a switch to a system that the players could at least partially believe in, and felt had some chances of winning.  Yet the NHL competition is adept at adjusting, and soon Arniel’s peculiar personnel decisions reasserted themselves, and losing hockey ensued once again.  The first span of hockey is embodied in DBJ’s recap of games 21-30.  Once the NHL had a moment to adjust, you got games 31-40, and a 2-7-1 record.  

Arniel's tenure was nearly done.


During the waning days of Arniel’s coaching stint, we were treated to such strategy gems as ‘That Nash sure can play on the penalty kill can’t he?  But I only want him playing 17 minutes a game’.  Okee-dokee coach.  Arniel’s steadfast refusal to put his best players on the ice during critical moments, led to the resumption of the death spiral in games 31-40, finally resulting in his dismissal.

It is interesting to note that Arniel’s dismissal came during Craig Patrick’s first road trip with the team.  Perhaps Patrick was shocked at the level of dysfunction on the team.  Perhaps the vile stew of the season had at last come to a boil.  After an increasingly belligerent stance with the local pundits, particularly the more knowledgeable ones, Arniel was fired at the half way point of the season.  

I will wait for awhile to try to fit the Arniel coaching era into the stream of CBJ consciousness.  It will be important to know who gets the full time gig going forward in order to provide the proper perspective on his long term impact.  For the nonce, let's just say the CBJ are mired in the transition from a defense first mentality to a puck possession, offensively minded mentality, exactly like our expansion brethren the Minnesota Wild.  Who says talent makes a difference?

Todd Richards in his first practice as Head Coach
Games 41-50, featuring the firing of Scott Arniel, and the assumption of the coaching reins by Todd Richards resulted in a 2-7-1 record, indicative of the level of dysfunction that Scott Arniel left behind.  Almost any NHL team experiences a small boost for 5-10 games after a coaching change.  The lack of this bump shows just how far from winning the 2011-12 team was at this point.  Regardless of who gets the permanent coaching position, Todd Richards did a great job of getting this train wreck back on the track by the end of the season.  

This stretch of games will loom large in CBJ history, no matter how it all ends up.  And the timing of this is very important to keep in mind going forward, especially as things play out with Rick Nash.  The head coach is fired.  The team is so screwed up that such an earth shaking event doesn't even register on the win-loss scale.  A week later, ownership meets, welcoming the Nationwide Insurance Group as a minority owner for the first time, and 're-shaping' of the team is the new watchword.  The team stands 13-31-6, staring the worst record in franchise history square in the face.  That this team did not finish the season in that spot is a HUGE credit to Todd Richards.  At this point, Nash mentions to ownership that 'y'all might get some assets if you put me on the market' (I'm paraphrasing here).

This all blew up after the trade deadline.  But the events of the trade deadline should always be considered in the context of this moment.  'Worst team in franchise history' and 'reshaping' and 'new coach in off season' were the primary context.  Is it any wonder that Nash took a hard look at the situation.

And for the first time, in a theme that will be developed later, I will suggest to you, our fearless readers, that Nash's view of the situation now, and his view at this point in the season, are not necessarily the same.  Never forget that Nash has a no-trade clause, and finished the season well in the context of this team.  He doesn't leave until he decides to leave.  And there are real reasons now why he might not choose to leave (such as the Wisniewski-Johnson defensive pairing).

But for the purposes of this post, it is time to look at the run up to the trade deadline.  Games 51-60 as reported by DBJ sport a 4-5-1 record on the run up to the trade deadline.  Even with Nash being actively marketed, and Carter moved out of town, the good ship CBJ is slowly changing course.  Enter Jack Johnson, and games 61-70.  Even with the level of disruption provided by the trade deadline, they managed to maintain the pace of the previous games, slightly below .500 (Not good enough, I realize), which proved to be a foundation for future improvement.

And finally, the last twelve games of a shattering season, Games 71-82, in which the CBJ finished a strong 7-5-0, many nights going up against playoff teams looking for standings points.  

To give perspective to the nature and character of this ending, I offer a few thoughts.  I bought season tickets for the first time when Nickolai Zherdev was still roaming the Nationwide Arena ice.  I well remember that David Vyborny could never find his stride till the pressure was off.  I remember what that looks like.  What we saw down the stretch from the 2011-12 CBJ was different from previous CBJ teams playing out the string, in my opinion.  

To support that thought I offer a bit of commentary I wrote, but never published following the CBJ victory  over St. Louis in Game 79:
In the past, when the Captain was a non-factor, we lost.  In this version, in hopeless games against playoff contenders, we win.  Beating St. Louis wasn’t something that happened because the pressure was off.  Beating St. Louis was about not allowing them to goon us off the ice.  No one can get their goon on like St. Louis when they are feeling cranky, and as a CBJ fan I have become accustomed to the boys in Union Blue folding their tent when St. Louis gets the goon on.  In this case, they stood their ground, fought back in the best way possible by sticking the puck in the net, and continuing to stand their ground when St. Louis lost their composure.  Hitch has more work to do with his troops.  I know we didn’t cover this in our game recap, because the blog editor refused to let me in.  I watched this game.  A test of character that the CBJ passed in flying colors.  

My final thought, that I want to leave you with concerning the 2011-12 season, is about something that occurred twice in the last two games, against Colorado and against the Islanders.  In both of those victories, the CBJ had 5 on 3 opportunities.  I have watched many a squandered 5 on 3 opportunity in the 2011-12 season, but in these two games, with James Wisniewski and Jack Johnson manning the points of the power play, the CBJ made their opponents look hapless.  The WizJack pairing is one of the primary reasons to look forward to the 2012-13 season with a level of optimism.  And is such that may influence Rick Nash's ultimate decision. 

What a year.  What a long strange trip its been (stick tap to the Grateful Dead).  As my buddy Bill always says, 'no matter what you think at the draft, the season always turns out differently'.  Having reached rock bottom, there's nowhere else but up.  Maybe.  ?Probably?

GO JACKETS!!!


6 comments:

  1. Thanks for the recap! Question for you regarding Nash....do you think it's at all possible that upper management (after some Craig Patrick analysis) approached him and said something along the lines of, "Hey Rick, this just isn't working out. I think it might be best for both parties if we just part ways. We can even make it sound like you were the one who requested a trade. You've been very loyal to this team and we don't want to publicly embarrass you by taking away the "C", but it's time for a change." Do you think this scenario could have played out?

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    1. I will respond later this evening. Wanted to let you know. Gallos

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    2. Sorry for the delay in responding. I took myself off the grid for the most part today through operator error. I think there is no benefit to Nash to say he asked out. It isn't 'less embarrassing' for him to ask out. I think it is rather the opposite. If it is anything other than what was advertised in the comments at the time, then it was a strategy to drive up Jeff Carter's trade value. From Nash's perspective, and certainly his agent's, it's better to portray the organization as the evil empire and Nash the innocent player.

      If you want to go the conspiracy route, here's how that would play out. Patrick (have to assume the Foghorn Leghorn voice here): Listen to me boy, when I'm talkin' to you. You wanna be in management after your career is over. Watch the maestro show you how it works. We're gonna run you out there and demand the world so we can get a decent return on Carter, otherwise we are gonna take a bath. Its a tough business son. Now if you want to put a down payment on your entry fee to management, you say you asked out. That will get us off the hook...

      I'm not saying it happened that way. I'm saying it happened the way it played out in the media. But ....

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  2. Cool, thanks - interested to hear your thoughts...

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  3. "For the nonce"? Wonder when that phrase last appeared in anything written relating to hockey? Love it, Gallos! As for the review, I agree that the wins down the stretch were not like previous yearend spurts of competence - the teams beaten, this time had much to lose and yet they couldn't get it done vs. the Jackets. That said, too much can be made of the effect Todd Richards had on that success. I think any serious change in attitude and direction for this team must start with the hiring of a known, successful, experienced coach. Who? No idea, but there are some out there already, and more that figure to become available as teams drop out of the playoffs or reevaluate their past season. Since its clear that Howson will remain, the hiring of a strong coach becomes the most important offseason task facing the Jackets, even ahead of the draft pick or the trade of Nash.

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    1. Honestly, I don't think too much can be said about the role Richards had on the success, but that doesn't invalidate the rest of your point, that the hiring of a known, successful, experienced coach is really needed. And I agree totally about the importance of this off season move. Even though they made the playoffs, I think you can draw a circle around McClean, Dineen, Noel, and Richards and say they are not really a huge difference in coaching choices. None of them are the coach you describe above, they don't have the experience for it.

      The argument that I would make for Richards is that it is staying the course with a strategic choice you made, and he's obviously better at it than Arniel. And, he wouldn't be that hard to fire if you needed to. The coach you describe above is a multi-year commitment to that direction, whether or not that matches the players we have or not. I think Richards can handle the current group well, with an improvement in the goal tending.

      But that's all for another post later. :-)

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