Thursday, January 3, 2013

Part VII: The Dark Blue Jacket's Definitive History of the CBJ, Turning the Page

James Wisniewski - Moving the CBJ into the Future?
As we sit, the 2012-13 NHL Season hangs in the balance.  Negotiations between the league and the NHLPA continue in an effort to save a shortened season.  This is a good time to pause and reflect on our beloved Columbus Blue Jackets, where they are, and where they may be going.  In looking back through this series, I last discussed the history of this NHL franchise in the context of recently departed coach Ken Hitchcock.  Since then, Hitch has gone on and won the Jack Adams Coach of the Year award he so richly deserves.

On the home front, so much has happened that it seems an eternity since Hitch left.  And thus it seems appropriate to start 2013 with an update to  this series and the multitude of things that have happened since the end of the 2010-11 season.

2011-12 A New Hope

The off-season between 2010-11 and 2011-12 was seemingly a stunning success for the CBJ.  For a period of 24 hours in the period prior to the 2011 NHL Entry Draft it looked as if Scott Howson had pulled off the trade of the decade when he sent Jake Voracek and a number 1 pick to Philadelphia for former All-Star center Jeff Carter.  During this euphoric day, it seemed as if the CBJ had upgraded it's number 1 center position immensely, and had given Captain Rick Nash the skilled running mate that would unleash his amazing potential.  Then in a shocking 'Wait.....What????' moment, the Flyers traded Carter's compadre Mike Richards to the LA Kings, and Carter reacted to news of the trade by going into hiding, leaving fans wondering how well Howson had kicked the tires on this sports car.  Ultimately, a hastily assembled diplomatic mission by Howson and Nash got Carter to come out of his hole for a bit, but the cynics who saw this as foreshadowing of bad things were dead on right with their reasoning.

In rapid succession, immediately prior to the deadline for the beginning of Free Agency, the CBJ traded for the rights to James Wisniewski, by far the best puck moving defenseman (and right shot!!) on the market.  This trade gave the CBJ a period of time to attempt to reach a contract agreement with Wiz.  That effort was successful, and James became a Blue Jacket, thus hugely upgrading the offensive potential of our defensive corps.



Scott Arniel busy wasting his second training camp
Later in the summer came the news that winger Kristian Huselius had torn a pectoral muscle in pre-season training.  In an attempt to replace the lost scoring, the CBJ signed veteran free agent winger Vinny Prospal for the season, a joyous soul, and an important veteran addition to the squad.

With the new talent additions, CBJ fans were anxiously awaiting the beginning of training camp.  Pre-season ticket sales were going well, bolstered by the Carter and Wisniewski additions, and fans were excited.  Training camp opened to a packed Ice Haus and fans anxiously awaited signs of chemistry between Carter and Nash. The over hopeful fans (myself included) thought they saw flashes of chemistry, others cautioned that chemistry takes time.  Which indeed may be true, but with the Blue Jackets being a cap team for the first time in their history, there was a need to show results too.  Nonetheless, there was all of training camp to get it together.

As preseason games started, Columbus had the honor of participating in the first new NHL hockey played in Winnipeg, as in the off-season the Atlanta Thrashers had become the Winnipeg Jets.  Scheduled as a split squad, 3 round bout, er, sorry, I mean scheduled as a split squad pre-season hockey game, the Jets apparently needed to prove to their fans that they were rough and tumble.  In the home split squad, a Jet ran goal tender Mark Dekanich (@dexshow) during the first period, thus ending his season.  Up in Winnipeg, in Arniel's triumphant return to his old AHL stomping grounds, Dustin Byfuglien, the largest man on the ice, jumped Matt Calvert, the smallest man on the ice, off the opening face off.  This apparently did nothing to take the shine off Arniel's day, but it was a setback to young Matt Calvert from which he has yet to recover. It was incidents like this that I believe helped to deepen the divide between Arniel and his players.

Curiously, in spite of the fact that Arniel had two new highly talented veterans, Carter and Wisniewski to integrate into his team, he seemed focused on using training camp to determine which AHL players were going to make the roster and thus constitute his third scoring line, a foolish waste of time and an experiment that didn't last two weeks in the regular season.  The final shoe dropped in a highly dysfunctional training camp that did nothing to prepare the team for the regular season when Wiz popped 'Floppin' Cal' Clutterbuck with an elbow to the kisser after a preseason game in Minnesota.  Clutterbuck preformed a Fosbury Flop with accomplished ease, and went laughing to the bench.  This drew the ire of Brendan Shanahan, wearing the shiny tin star of a new discipline czar, who promptly issued a criminally inept 12 game suspension to Wisniewski.  Although appealed to the Bettman kangaroo court, the suspension was upheld, so one of our new talented players was going to be out of the line up for a good chunk of the start of the season.  Wiz took the suspension like a man, but by the time he returned to the lineup, the season was effectively done.

Arniel finished the preseason by sending teams made largely of prospects to play 'veteran laden' teams in the last two preseason games, apparently assuming his veteran squad was a finely tuned machine based on the results from the previous year (6th pick overall traded for Carter). With such solid evidence in front of him, Arniel was thus shocked with the team stumbled out of the gate, and the 2011-12 season was done by Halloween.

The CBJ opened the season narrowly losing a 3-2 to the Predators at home in a well played game.  Arniel's veterans roared out of the gate to an 0-7-1 start, with Steve Mason taking all 8 losses.  In the fifth game, against Dallas, Jeff Carter re-injured his foot, and was out until mid-November.  Finally, on October 25, the CBJ broke into the win column.  On a night when Jimmy Howard's wife was named the first star, for having a baby and keeping him out of the game, the CBJ beat Detroit 5-2 with Ty Conklin in net for Detroit.  This win was followed by two road losses, and a win at home against a struggling Anaheim team.  At the end of October, the CBJ stood 2-9-1, with a whopping 5 points.  All of the prospects from preseason had been sent to the AHL, and the team was struggling.  It is worth noting that the goal tending situation was far from settled.  Mark Dekanich had been brought in to challenge Mason for the number 1 spot.  He never played a full game due to injury.  By the end of October, rookie Allen York had even taken a turn in the net.  Coming into the season, York was plan D at Goal Tender, slated to be a back up in Springfield.  I submit to you that any NHL team that is playing their plan D in goal in the regular season is in deep trouble.

Vinning
It is an old saying in hockey that you can't win a season at the start, but you can lose one.  At this point the CBJ were not done for sure.  For example, the Boston Bruins had nearly as bad a start as the CBJ, and they came back from it.  However, that is where the comparison ends, as the CBJ had neither the coaching nor the players of the Bruins.  One thing that did emerge in this difficult time was the leadership of Vinny Prospal.  Vinny was the only veteran who seemed on his game, and he provided valuable scoring early in the season when no one else seemed to be playing well.  He also publicly called out his teammates practice habits in the face of the losing, something that was invaluable as the season proceeded.

November rolled along, as did the losing.  The CBJ started the month 1-4-1 to compile a brutal 3-13-2 record by November 18, a mere 8 points.  A .500 record at this point would have been 18 points, but that represents 5 more wins than they have.  They would not get 5 more wins from this point until December 6.

The low point of the beginning of the season was a November 5 game at Philadelphia.  The CBJ just didn't show up, and the Flyers blew them out in a convincing 9-2 win.  This was the final straw for Arniel's 'up-tempo', throw the puck at the net, all you need is offense, system.  This system, that we brought in to replace Hitch's 'boring' system that took us to the playoffs, had lasted 1 season and slightly over a month.  With 5 days off before the next game Arniel declared that they would have a mini-training camp.  The end result of this camp was that instead of having 3 forwards go tearing in after the puck so that the other team could get good breakaway chances, they decided that maybe keeping one of those forwards up high in the offensive zone to play defense in case things didn't go as planned was a good idea.  I believe this was a change that the players felt at least had some chance of winning compared to the system the coach had been telling them to play, and I don't think it is a coincidence that many of the veteran's games picked up after this point.

At this unlikely time in the season, one of the bright spots of the year emerged.  On November 18, the downtrodden CBJ loaded up for a road game to Nashville to face the Predators.  However, they came to town packing heat, in the form of 3 busloads of fans organized by the Jacket Backers.  This rowdy bunch of fans was treated to the first road win in Nashville in 17 tries, when James Wisniewski scored his first goal as a Blue Jacket with the overtime winner.  The sight of the Columbus fans celebrating long and loud in Nashville's arena is a sight I won't soon forget, and hopefully see more often.

Curtis Sanford - The Sand Man
By this time both Carter and Wisniewski are back in the line up, all the preseason experiments are over, and the veterans have finally had some sort of training camp.  Following the Nashville win, the CBJ finished out the month of November 2-2-1.  A big part of the improved play was the fact that Steve Mason had an injury and surrendered the net to Curtis Sanford, who proceeded to put together a pretty strong run of play.  Sanford was originally brought in as Plan C, a veteran goal tender presence in Springfield to mentor the young talent, and as an emergency backup if Mason or Dekanich faltered.  As it was, he ended up being the best goal tender all year long, though he missed several stretches of play with injuries.  The CBJ rallied from a 1-4-1 start to November to finish the month 4-6-2, and an overall record of 6-15-3, good for 15 points.  A .500 team would have 24 points.

The CBJ continue a decent run of play into early December with 3 shoot out wins in the first 6 games of the month for a 3-2-1 record following the game with Vancouver on December 13.  At this point the wheels promptly fall off, and the team goes on a 6 game losing streak.  It starts with a couple of close games, a 2-1 loss to LA and a 3-2 loss to Tampa.  The St. Louis tears them up pretty good, 6-4, and they are back to Nashville.  This is the game where Jeff Carter scores a hat trick in the first period, and Nashville comes back to win the game 6-5.    At this point the team had no confidence, and no heart, and then the scoring dried up.  They finally break through with a win on December 29 against Dallas, but Wiz breaks a bone blocking a shot, and misses the next 17 games.

The Jackets finish December with a 4-8-2 record, and an overall record of 10-23-5, good for 25 points.  A .500 team would have 38 points.  Of greater significance to the overall health of the organization is the addition of Craig Patrick to the front office as an assistant to the General Manager.  Patrick brings experience as a General Manager in several organizations, was Assistant to Herb Brooks in the 1980 US Olympic miracle, and comes from a family with deep hockey roots.  This is a great addition of hockey acumen, and helps to raise the respect level of the front office in the league.  His impact is quickly felt.

The Jackets start the new year going 1-2 in the first 3 games, but on the first trip in which Patrick travels with the team, Arniel's run as head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets thankfully comes to an end.  Patrick has seen enough.  Scott Arniel is removed as head coach on January 9.  Arniel was simply not prepared to be an NHL head coach.  His game plan is too simplistic, and the rest of the NHL knew exactly what it wanted to do against his teams.  Hey coach.  Read my lips!  Defense wins championships.  In any sport.  Thanks for your attention, and good luck.

The Last Man on the Ice for Todd Richards
First Practice
Todd Richards is named the new head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets.  Interestingly enough, while a coaching change will often give a team a short term boost of good hard play, this did not occur with the CBJ.  I think this is a measure of the level of dysfunction that Arniel left behind.  It was also at this time that Nash's frustration seemed to peak.  And I wonder if Craig Patrick looked at the franchise super star, and didn't like what he saw.

For Richards first 4 games the CBJ went 2-2.  Then the team went into a tail spin, and lost the next 6 games, 4 of which were before the All Star break, and which were part of a long road trip.  By the time the dust had settled, the Jackets had gone 3-8-1 in January.  Jeff Carter had sustained an injury the kept him off the ice for much of the month.  Their overall record was 13-31-6, good for 32 points.  A .500 team would have 50 points at this stage.  And big organizational changes were in the works.

In January, all the voting was completed, and the deals signed for Franklin County to take over the ownership of Nationwide Arena.  A stream of money from new casino taxes was earmarked to pay the bills, and Nationwide Insurance signed on as a new minority partner for the Columbus Blue Jackets.  In spite of the excellent work by Mike Priest in getting this arrangement completed, there was a great deal of fan ire raised concerning his role in the hiring of Scott Arniel, and general frustration at the team's direction.  Indeed, in the first meeting of the new ownership group produced an announcement that the team would be re-shaped (not re-built).

Fans Protest Outside Nationwide Arena
Fan frustration culminated in late January, and a fan protest was organized in the off day of the All-Star Break.  Hundreds of passionate Blue Jackets fans gathered in cold weather down town to protest the teams direction, calling for changes at the top of the organization.  The protest succeeded in showcasing fan frustration.  Ironically enough, during the protest the announcement that Columbus had been awarded the 2013 NHL All-Star Game was run during the protest.  I think fans were genuinely happy about that, but concerned as well that our team was not playing well enough to support the notion that it belonged in the company of All-Stars.  Of course, fast forward to today, and there is a lot of irony and foreshadowing in those announcements.
2013 All Star Announcement Downtown


As February came along, the Jackets started to play better hockey.  Whereas they had previously shown a distinct inclination to blow leads in the past, only going 9-6-2 when the had a lead after the second period, the CBJ now started to close out games with a win.  Under Richards the CBJ finished the season a perfect 14-0-0 when leading after two periods. Playing a good stretch of .500 to above .500 hockey for much of the month, the Jackets stumbled a bit at the end of the month to finish 5-7-1 for the month of February, and an overall record of 18-38-7 good for 43 points.  A .500 record would be 63 points.

Richards and Carter enjoy LA!
That is a rather dry recital of a pivotal time in Blue Jackets history.  The reason this time is so pivotal is two fold. The first, emerging out of the ownership meeting, was the news that Jeff Carter was on the trading block.  The reluctant Carter, brilliant in flashes, disinterested in others would be moved.  The other bombshell was that the Captain, Rick Nash, had asked out, and was also on the trading block.  While a deal was not reached by the trade deadline for Nash, Jeff Carter was moved to the LA Kings where he could once more be the Pancho to Mike Richards Cisco Kid.  More importantly, the Carter trade brought big left shot defenseman Jack Johnson, and LA's first round pick in either 2012 or 2013.  Scott Howson lives today because he did not use that pick in the weak 2012 draft, cause I swear I would have crawled through my TV and gone after him if he had used that with the 30th pick in 2012.  We now have that pick for the very deep 2013 draft.

Rather than go into hiding with news of the trade, Jack Johnson embraced the trade, thus endearing himself to fans in Columbus.  He then proceeded to munch huge minutes in good play, and solidified the defensive corps, especially when Wiz was injured again.  Wiz and Johnson also treated the fans to the concept of 'instant chemistry' by looking like they had played together forever.  Johnson has the skill to accurately and adequately set up Wiz's shot, so going forward they will both be better.

From that time on, the CBJ played much better hockey, and were looking very strong at the end of the year. they finished March and April 11-8-0, and finished the season 5-1.  This gave them a final record of 29-46-7, good for 65 points.  A .500 team would finish with 82 points.

For 2011-12 Rick Nash once again lead the team in goals, with 30. R.J Umberger was second with 20, and Vinny Prospal was third with 16.  Vinny Prospal lead in Assists with 39, followed by Rick Nash with 29, and Derrick Brassard with 27.  Interestingly enough, Nikita Nikitin had 25 assists from the defensive end.  Rick Nash lead in points with 59, followed by Vinny Prospal with 55 and Derrick Brassard with 41.

Derek MacKenzie lead the team in plus/minus with +4, and Derek Dorsett lead in penalty minutes with 238. Defenseman statistics for this year are skewed quite a bit by Jack Johnson, as they include the time he spent with the LA Kings.  He leads in most categories for defensemen.  The rest have Nikitin and Wisniewski as second and third, with Fedor Tyutin jumping in for a tie in assists with Wiz.  Wiz lead all defensive players in average ice time, Nash lead the forwards.  Jeff Carter had 2 hat tricks, Cam Atkinson and RJ Umberger each had one.

Allen York leads most goal tender statistics, but he played in so few games it is largely immaterial., though he did go 3-1 down the stretch until he got injured.  Steve Mason led all goal tenders in wins with 16.  Curtis Sanford had 10.  Mason's GAA was 3.39 vs Sanford's 2.60.  Sanford's save percentage was .911, and Mason's was .894.

2011-12 Summary

Last place in the NHL just about sums it up.  A disastrous start shut the season down before it got started.  Another coaching change.  It remains to be seen if Richards can continue the good things he started at the end of the season.  CBJ fans have seen that gig go bad many times before.  He laid a solid foundation.

Important organizational strengthening was accomplished by bringing Craig Patrick on board.  The Arena situation was settled, and an important minority partner was acquired.  Columbus was awarded the 2013 All-Star game, albeit only to have it be consumed by a lockout.

2012-13 The Season of Change

The offseason between 2011-12 and 2012-13 was very tumultuous in that the Captain, Rick Nash, was finally traded.  He was sent to the New York Rangers for Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, prospect defenseman Tim Erixon, and the New York first round pick in 2013.  This greatly changes the dynamic of the team.  Scoring leaves, but the players that are coming in all rank highly in character.  We should have a hard working team, which has always sold well in Columbus.  Over the course of the last year, and into 2013 the defensive unit has been transformed.  Once an identified weakness, it has been identified as a strength coming into this season.  There is a certain jaw dropping quotient to that for long time CBJ fans, who can never remember defense being strong.  It should be interesting.  Goal tender Sergei Bobrovsky has been acquired to challenge Mason for the starting goal tender spot.  That should be a good battle to watch.

Of course,the big story of the 2012-13 season so far is the lockout.  No games have been played, and the Winter Classic and All Star Game have been canceled.  As I type the season hangs in the brink, with a 48 game season starting January 19 as a last ditch before another season is lost.

Jeff Rimer, John Davidson, and Todd Richards
But the most important thing to happen during the lockout is the ability to add John Davidson as the President of Hockey Operations.  This is a huge strengthening of the front office, as his hockey resume is impressive, including being in the Hockey Hall of Fame as an announcer.  He brings a front man presence long needed, and has shown he can build a winning organization.

The Blue Jackets have truly turned the page on their beginnings.  They are now well poised to move forward and challenge to become a winning franchise, and to take on the pursuit of the end game, the Stanley Cup.

GO JACKETS!!

3 comments:

  1. Outstanding writing. Almost enough to get me moderatly excited about hockey in Columbus again.

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  2. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And when the lockout is finally over, what do have to look forward to? X years until the next time the owners decide to "negotiate" with a "take it or we'll lock you out" offer.

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  3. After reading this excellent article, I now know why last season hurt so much. The 'pain factory' was working overtime last season.

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