Wednesday, September 11, 2013

DBJ Season Preview 2013: One goal - Playoffs


Here we are Blue Jackets fans, standing before the chasm of a new season.  Remember how good the end of last season felt?  The team was regularly competitive and had a chance until the very end to make the playoffs.  Every game mattered.  That should forever be your minimum threshold of expectations for this team.  You shouldn’t turn into insta-trolls if the team doesn’t make the playoffs, but the very minimum you should expect from this team is that all 82 games matter.  The time of treating the team like a bunch of mini-mites stomping around the ice in their Timbits jerseys is done, it's over.  Being regularly competitive has been my expectation for this team since day one.  And more times than not it has been a constant disappointment since 2005.  Too many times have April (and March) Blue Jackets games been meaningless.  However, there is hope.  There is so much hope that I comfortably have the Jackets making the playoffs by virtue of an Eastern Conference Wild Card. 

And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep, No more...
No longer is the Blue Jackets farm system the fourth line.  I won’t have to see first round draft picks spending their first season playing against men languishing on the fourth line.  I won’t have to watch a player sit in the doghouse because a coach must try to turn a player into something he’s not because the front office is too inept to go out and find that missing piece the team needs.  But it’s not all good times and noodle salad for the inhabitants of the Blue Jackets Commonwealth just yet.  There is much work to be done.  The Jackets can’t afford anything less than the herculean effort put forth last season.  What must the Blue Jackets do if they wish to push their spring tee times back 6 or 8 weeks?  Well, leave your thin skin at home and pull up a chair, because ima drop some knowledge on ya.  Good times, noodle salad.

Will beats skill, unless they are both strong willed, then skill wins

Heart, hard-work, effort – all those clichés for things that beat skill are one thing – TEAM CONCEPTS.  If teams put forth equal effort, the team that EXECUTES better usually wins the game.  The team that we will all measure the Blue Jackets by in the Metro will obviously be the Penguins.  They are the top dog in the conference.  If effort was measurable, and measured equally between the Jackets and the Penguins, the Penguins would win most games between the two teams.  Unless Fleury is in net…  The Jackets must learn to strike quickly and strike early when playing teams of greater skill.  Because if both teams work just as hard as each other, skill beats will every single time.  Hopefully the voice-over in this season's marketing campaign is "We will never be out worked, and we're going to try and score some more goals."  Hard work is great, score some goals though.

Factor of X

X-factors are always fun to get conversation going with the 1 or 2 other people in your office that know about the Blue Jackets.  For me, the biggest X-factor for this year’s team is Sergei Bobrovsky.  He needs to double his number of Vezina performances from last year in order to maintain the status quo of being on the playoff cusp. If he’s 90 percent as good as he was last season, the Jackets likely need to increase their scoring by 25% over last season TO MAINTAIN their hopes of clawing and scratching their way into the playoffs.   I hope that Goalie Bob does not turn into Jim Carey.  You know, that goalie that washed out of PROFESSIONAL hockey within 3 years of winning the Vezina trophy in 1996.  Then again, this team has had such good luck with young Russians and second season goalies that I have nothing to worry about, right?  But in all seriousness, I feel Bob will provide a consistent level of play this season – no worries there.  I don’t know that it will be able to meet the same level of excellence as last year, because how can you possibly repeat that again?  If Bob is only 90 percent as good as he was last year, still making him a top 6 or 7 goalie in this league, the Blue Jackets forward corps has a lot of ground to make up.  "Hint Hint"

Team Play wins the day, and the game, and gets you in the playoffs...
Johnny Five on the Jackson 5

The blue jackets will have to find a way to play 5-on-5 so that Bobrovsky doesn’t need to have Vezina caliber stats in order to have a shot at the playoffs.  They need to find a way to keep Metrosexual division opponents honest in their own end.  All an opposing defenseman has to worry about is getting beat to the puck.  Getting outmatched because of offensive potency is not something that enters the minds of opposing dmen too often.   There are more dudes at a Comic Con who can undress people better than Blue Jackets forwards.  I'm not trolling here, I'm just alluding to the fact that raw offensive skill is in short supply in the Blue Jackets dressing room.  The Blue Jackets don’t seem to capitalize on turnovers as much as other teams do.  I, for one, would like to see an aggressive 1-2-2 fore check employed a little more consistently by Coach Richards, but that does open up the neutral zone if the opposing team can get past the first layer of the 1-2-2.  Crap, throw a "Balls so hard" line out there every other shift or something.  The Blue Jackets don't make teams pay very often for making mistakes 5 on 5.  It's the give and take with clogging up the neutral zone. 

Dzone Coverage - it's just not for defensemen anymore

Some of them are looking in the wong direction, but they're in the right spots
Most folks hear that the Jacket’s play a solid defensive system and think they are strong in their own end.  The Jackets have very athletic defensemen.  In fact, there’s not a slug of a space heater anywhere on the blue line.  But, the Jackets too often run around in their own end and get away with it because of Bob.  Yes, the Jackets make it tough for other teams to ADVANCE the puck through the neutral zone, but the Blue Jackets play ‘bend but don’t break’ in their own end way too often.  They stave off disaster long enough for Bob to freeze the puck, then call upon Johansen or Dubinsky to bail them out winning a critical d-zone draw.  Johansen has 15 key faceoff wins on a random Tuesday in March?  Yeesh…  Bob shouldn’t have to routinely make the 3rd and 4th save look easy.  In fact, once the goalie makes the second save on the same play, you’re playing with house money.  Running around in your own end isn't the defencemen's fault.  The center has to know when to help out down low and the wingers have to know when to abandon the point and collapse to the red zone.  There were still some Keystone Cops moments the last 20 games of the season.  Every team has those moments, but hows about helping Bob out by playing a little sharper in Dzone coverage.

*****UPDATE 9/12***************************************************

Looks like Coach Richards read my post!


The Pow-Pow-Power play. 
Power play Power makes it go!  This is where the Jackets have the most room for improvement in execution.  I have beaten this horse into the ground all summer.  (wait wut?)  We’re in a division with 4 of last season’s top  10 GPG teams (NYI, PIT, WSH, PHI).  We’re also in a division with last year’s  1st, 2nd, and 3rd most productive power play units.  However, the Power Play needs to improve by nature of its execution because…  the Metrosexual division is not adept at Penalty Killing.  Except for Philadelphia and Columbus, there isn’t a team in the metro that was higher than 15th in the league in PK% last season.  So if the CBJ can develop a power play strategy that is tough to defend with two defensemen down low, they could actually score more goals.  If I understand advanced stats correctly, means a higher probability of the Blue Jackets winning games.  The power play needs to get set up a little quicker (fans need to stop yelling SHOOT IT! every 4 seconds) and we can't send three guys down low all the time.  Yes you want to out number the defense, but putting three guys down low in an easily defendable set-up while Jack and Wiz carve their initials in the glass behind the goal is not always effective.  Move the puck, confuse the kill, and be a little more consistent in hitting ye olde net from the points. 
 Maximum Effort with Maximum Efficiency
He is the most efficient man in the world,
"I don't always use a hip throw, but when I do..."
Double the duration of the awesome play from last year.  Sounds easy.  This is true of the whole team, not just Bob.  See, the lockout shortened, and more importantly CONDENSED season removed the some of the ugly parts of an 82 game hockey season.   Last year’s season was short, sweet, fast, and furious.  Players didn’t have to wait long to erase the feeling of a tough loss or a half-assed effort.  Usually within 48 hours they were back on the ice for a game.  Practices?  Most players were spared the dronings of their coach during practice because there were so few of those last year.  Now, with a full 82 game season, there is more of a chance for a soft spoken coach to lose a young impressionable mind at practice sometime in February.  The IceHaus has some of the worst acoustics in the history of the universe, and deep down inside I believe that jaded players find it harder to hear their coaches during practices there, both literally and figuratively.  Lots of the formalities of the NHL season were lost last season.  The season felt like a 3 month long weekend tournament, not the long, drawn-out 7 month regular season campaign. 
Let’s not forget the Winter Olympics hosted in the land of homophobic Russia.  That’s a long layoff in February, the ultimate momentum killer for a team that will need to rely on its intensity and tenacity to be competitive.  Intensity and tenacity are mental attributes.  It is very touch to maintain high emotional and mental drive when you have a 2 week layoff.  The Jackets can't afford to rely on getting hot in January.  Febtober is a long month and it will be impossible to carry momentum through the break.  With a little more steady pacing with a regular season, a more of the "at work, my job, the routine" creeps back into the players mind.  Last season you just played, this season you have more time to think, replay, regret, resent...
And like their ability to score goals early in a game, the Jackets need a solid start to the season.  This is a no brainer, and in no way should my writing it constitute in-depth hockey knowledge.  But a strong October and November for the Blue Jackets has typically been the exception.  Seeing so many players coming to Columbus early and trying to get their sea-legs before camp starts is definitely a good start and encouraging sign to this season.  If we assume Nathan Horton to be a game changer, .500 hockey is a requirement until he is part of the regular line up.

The Blue Jackets played awesome hockey for 20 games at the end of last season, they will need to do it for at least 60 games this season.  How strong of a start the Blue Jackets have will determine how close in proximity those 60 games will need to be to each other.  Strong start and consistent play is needed. 

Finkle and Einhorn
Horton and Umberger

Let’s be honest, The Blue Jacket don’t have much sizzle in the offensive zone.  They clog the middle in transition, work hard every shift, and have a stud goalie.  When Nathan Horton enters the lineup, he won’t be a cure all.  Horton is a big body who finishes, good for 25 timely goals.  I see a slightly less skilled Rick Nash with lots more grit and loads more personality.   Horton isn’t the Mayor of Dangle town and he’s not going to dropping  ‘coasties’ on opposing defenses for 40 goals.  He’s going to earn his goals and win some hearts.  But he can’t do it alone.  He needs some help.  The obvious place to start is with RJ Umberger.  Umberger has survived the off season and the compliance buyout period for this year which means last season was considered a blip, albeit by a very patient front office.  I expect a lean, mean Umberger of old to score timely goals who will also compliment Horton once he enters the lineup.  We need a little spark from you RJ.  If you're in a slump, start hitting everything that moves.  But not "that" kind of slump, a goal scoring slump.

Marrying Marian

I’m not sure what to think about Gaborik.  I still believe Gaborik was the favor JD did for the Rangers when they took Brassard.  I could probably go on for 500 pages in what I saw of Gaborik in his 12 games with the CBJ last season – but I will sum up.  Playing for the Blue Jackets last year seemed foreign to him.  He seemed like that foster child who has moved from one dysfunctional dressing room to another until one day stumbled into Nationwide Arena to find an absence of ego and a wealth of willing effort.  I think that it was so foreign to him that he didn’t know what to do.  There were times last season Gaborik was found in front of the net a la Tomas Holmstrom.  From a team chemistry standpoint he seemed like a new guy that joined Easy Company in the closing days of the war, missing out on the incredible journey that led to the end of the campaign.  He didn’t know what to do.  There were times when he burst into the zone with the puck expecting to see Rick Nash or Ryan Callahan.  All he got was Mark Letestu…

Snark aside, I’m not sure what to think of Gaborik.  His heart is in his native country of Slovakia.  He funds ice rinks, raises money for youth hockey, and runs camps during the summer in his homeland of Slovakia.  He’s not married and doesn’t golf, so I’m not sure he’s met Columbus with the same level of enthusiasm as Nathan Horton.  Bratislava, Slovakia – host to a KHL team - is 130 KM from his home town of Trencin.  Perhaps a stint in the KHL to closeout his career will pull at his heartstrings while he still has strength is his ailing abdomen.  A healthy Gaborik is certainly a productive one and Columbus needs his goal scoring touch.  And whether or not Gaborik stays beyond the end of this season, we could use 75 games and 35 goals out of him this season.  In the immortal words of the dying Roy Batty, "you can't win if you don't play."  This pretty much sums up what will be needed from Marian.  Anything less and the Jackets are wise looking else where for elite talent in 2014-2015.

All these games will be lost, like tears in rain...

Artem? Damn near killed ‘em!

Ok, stretcher jokes aside, maybe 18 goals and 25 helpers is all anyone will ever get from Anisimov.  I don’t have a problem with those numbers, so long as they are consistent numbers.  Last season, when playing, he did seem to come and go as far as point production.   One-third of his point total last year came in three games against Calgary and Edmonton, but he did have key goals against Detroit and Chicago.  He averaged about 2 SOGs a game last season.  Not enough.  I’d like to see him average between 3 and 4 on net each game.  His line mates need to get him the rock.  That means a little less dangle and a little more North-South from him as well.  This team needs more from Artem this year.  Whether its fair or not to expect that out of him is another blog piece, but the Jackets need him to get up for all games like he does the big games.

Closing thoughts...

I’ve typed all this and where does that leave this Blue Jackets team?  The same place we find the Blue Jackets at the beginning of most seasons: Asking questions about their offensive capabilities.  The good news is the Blue Line is certainly as good as it’s ever been.  The goal tending question this year is not “Where the hell are we going to find a goalie?” but a much more comfortable trouble of “will Bob repeat his Vezina winning effort?”  Yet, the question about scoring remains the same.  Where will they find consistent scoring?  The days of regularly losing games 5-2 and 4-0 are over.  But days of consistently losing 2-1 and 3-2 are not welcome here either.  The low scoring Blue Jackets can win games if they get on the board first.  The team cannot continually play from behind as they did so often last season.  It’s great to know that when the team needs to, it can bounce back from a 2 goal deficit.  But long term growth and sustainability of the ‘new era’ Blue Jackets can’t happen if they continue to have to dig themselves out of holes.  “Digging to China” is how I put it last year.  They can’t play bad hockey early in the season as they’ve done in the past and expect a late season push to get them in the hunt.  Let’s hope the Jackets find ways to start each game and start the season strong because when March rolls around, I want to know that I can comfortably buy playoff tickets and not be afraid it will be a jinx on the team.
Of course, this could all blow up in my face too, like the rant I wrote to PuckDaddy in 2008.  Atkinson and Comeau come out of nowhere to score 40 goals a piece and Bob breaks Tony Esposito's single season shutout record.  It could happen...

Go Jackets!