Obi-Wan Kenobi’s words to young Skywalker never rang more true. Our beloved Columbus Blue Jackets wade into cesspool of fan entitlement, storied franchises, and some pretty darn good hockey players as they begin play in the Eastern Conference in the 2013-14 NHL season. Forged in the crucible of the Central Division of the Western Conference, the CBJ now come into the Metropolitan Division of the Eastern Conference, also affectionately known as the PatrickPlus. The Metro Division consists of the old Patrick Division, which ran from 1982-93, plus the Blue Jackets and the former Hartford Whalers in the guise of the Carolina Hurricanes.
If ever there was a team flying below the radar, it is the CBJ this year. With no cross over play between the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference in the strike shortened 2012-13 season, our Metro Division foes simply don’t know what to expect from the CBJ. And frankly, even though a devout fan of the team, I am not far behind them. As a fan I am extraordinarily pleased by the teams determined run at the playoffs at the end of the 2012-13 season, and I feel Bobrovsky’s Vezina Trophy was well deserved. But the magic of that run is not automatically recreated, and must be formed anew this year. The lack of proven scoring is a huge concern until Nathan Horton returns around Christmas.
On the other hand, this team was formed on the fly, and had no opportunity to gel, much less get to know each other, in the one week training camp of last season. This year, with a full training camp and the experience of playing together they may well get a much better start. And they have the confidence that they can win under duress, based on a franchise record road winning streak to end the season. While Bobrovsky is unlikely to win the Vezina again this year, if his play does not regress significantly all will be well. Plus, the back-up goal tender situation is already settled, with McElhinney clawing his way back to the NHL based on a full season of winning play at the AHL level after significant surgery. If CMac can spell Bob with solid play, the team’s chances this year are much better. In addition, there are key players throughout the lineup who already have significant Eastern Conference play under their belts, so they are no stranger to the new environs we will experience as fans.
The other factor in this team’s favor is the fact that they earned a taste of the electric atmosphere that Nationwide Arena can be when the circumstances are right. I honestly think the players were a bit surprised by how good it was, and likely they will hunger for more. If they can put together a solid season this year they will be rewarded with good loud crowds. They will also need to learn to defend our barn, by laying a beating on the visitors when we get invaded from Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Detroit. This team, not greatly changed from last year, has shown an ability to rise to challenges. They will need to be even better at rising to challenges this year. But if they can, they will be rewarded.
As we enter play in the PatrickPlus; Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, NY Rangers, NY Islanders, New Jersey, Washington, the old Patrick Division, plus the CBJ and Carolina, the rivalries seem more natural. As a fan, I’ve already got a simmering hatred for Pittsburgh, Philly, and New Jersey. I’m not really sure why, but it feels good. Pittsburgh, until punched in the nose anyhow, looks like the class of the Division. It will be interesting to see how they rebound from getting swept out of the playoffs, without ever holding a lead, by the Bruins. The Pens are a highly talented team with a subtle amount of grit throughout the lineup, and sometimes they are a better team without Crosby in the lineup. Goal tending seems a confusing mess for the Pens.
I always thought Philly was a steaming hot mess, as they were over the new lower salary cap the whole summer, and for every dollar they shed through buyouts, they seemed to pick up two more in signing other buyouts. But the boys over at Puck Daddy pointed out that Pronger will go right on to the long term injured reserve list, thus providing about $5 million in cap relief. Of course Philly’s goal tending situation is completely locked up, as has been their tradition for many years (<=sarcasm).
The Islanders are a team that scares me some. They seem like they finally have their feet under them, and they seem like a team very similar to the CBJ, underrated but able to sting you if you are not careful. In recent history they have seemed to play pretty soft, but I don’t think that is a reasonable expectation for this season. Taveres seems like the real deal.
The Rangers are an interesting, immediate rivalry. The trading action between the two teams, predicated on being in different conferences, much less the same division, has seen a lot of movement between the two teams. It was interesting to see that they hired Scott Arniel as an assistant over the summer. Seems like a common sense move since it worked out so well with the same players here (<= sarcasm) Nonetheless, the games should have a high level of peripheral snark to them. I already have them circled.
It seems like this is a down year for New Jersey. A fairly persistent talent drain over the last several years should knock them back for a bit. But I was sure hoping for long, drawn out, ownership agony, but it was not to be. New Jersey has historically been good at circling the wagons though, and have pulled off some unlikely runs at the Cup in the past. They will probably pull together a decent season. Marty Brodeur is in the twilight of a magnificent career, but with Cory Schneider as the heir apparent, their goal tending situation is actually in pretty good shape.
Washington is a bit of a mystery to me. Ovechkin can pull together stretches where he is the best player in hockey. But I just don’t know what to think of this team. Throw the dice, see what you get. I think this is a team that is going to try to outscore you, whereas the CBJ may come in and try to out defend you. So these are all swing games in my mind, they could go either way. If the CBJ are able to find some scoring….
While I am grateful to North Carolina for their awesome beaches and BBQ, I’m not sure what to think of the hockey team. As the Staal Family Hockey Enterprises (aka Hurricanes) breaks camp this year, the whole situation will be more settled than it was last year. As long as the goal tending holds out they have a chance to make some noise. But I really don’t know this team that well, and it will be interesting to get to know them this year.
And last, but not least, Columbus. Perhaps of all the teams mentioned so far, the CBJ benefit the most from the stability of a non-lockout season, and a normal approach to training camp. I think the lockout, and the subsequent rush to play affected preparation for the season, particularly for R.J. Umberger. Coming into this year, it’s not just a collection of NHL players thrown on the ice. It is a team with significant accomplishments behind it (19-5-5 is good anytime, anywhere). While the team will not automatically hit the ground where it was after its stirring playoff run, they have that as a foundation for this year. The goal tending is solid, and the defense is a good as it’s ever been in CBJ land. There is a lot of room for internal growth at the forward position, and if that can occur at a reasonable pace, there is good reason to think the team can stay in the hunt until Nathan Horton is ready to join the club after off-season surgery. After that, who knows?
So what pre-season preview would be complete without giving me a chance to make an idiot of myself by predicting who makes the playoffs. So in true stream of consciousness blather, here we go…
I figure the Pens are going to make the top four of the Metro for sure, especially if Fleury has any kind of bounce-back year. Vokoun is not the answer in goal, so any goat tending stability and they are in. The Rangers? Hmmm. Risky pick. Goal tending is solid, but they’ll be a team of head cases, with Brassard flinching every time he looks at the bench and sees Arniel. I think their D is solid, and Johnny Moore comes into his own as a great all round NHL defender. Secondary scoring will be the concern all year. Yeah, ok, they’ll make it. Pens, Rangers, who else?
Philly, hmm, lot of change there, in some ways. Defense is still suspect. Goal tending is a coin flip. I think it is likely to be streaky, at best, so it depends on when whom gets hot. Jake is coming into his own, which is good to see, except that he’s wearing orange and black. All in all, I’m saying they don’t make it. I might easily be wrong on this one, but what is the heart of this team?
Pens, Rangers in, Philly out. What about the Islanders? I don’t know this team real well, but like the CBJ, they were coming hard at the end of the year. If they get the goal tending that they need, I think they’ll make it. Scientifically based on my sensing of the ether at this moment in time, I say they make it. Crap, 3 teams in already.
Pens, Rangers, Islanders in, Philly out. Who’s next? New Jersey, I guess. I think the long term talent drain from the last several years will be born out this year, and I think NJ has a down year. They are out.
Pens, Rangers, Islanders in, Philly and NJ are out. Washington? A head case team, like their captain. Ovechkin’s late heroics are not enough. Washington doesn’t make it.
Pens, Rangers, Islanders in, Philly, NJ, and Washington, out. Carolina? Skinner suffers his third concussion in three years, the goal tending falters, and they barely miss.
Pens, Rangers, Islanders in, Philly, NJ, Washington and Carolina out. That leaves ….. the CBJ! Bob regresses some, but still does a fine job in goal. In a contract year, Gaborik goes nuts, scoring 40 goals, and the forward corps supplies steady secondary scoring from many players. Horton joins the picture at Christmas, and goes on a tear after the Olympic break. The CBJ are in the playoffs, for the second time in franchise history.
In the playoffs, the CBJ lose the tie breaker to the Islanders, and face off against the Pens, while the Islanders are playing the Rangers in a New York grudge match. Taking a page from the Bruins playbook, the CBJ punch the Pens out of the playoffs, while the Islanders grind out the win against the Rangers. The improbable ending shows the CBJ facing off against the Islanders for the first Metropolitan Division championship, with the winner going on to face the Bruins for the Eastern Conference championship. And I think the CBJ wins this one cause Bob goes nuts in the playoffs. I won’t predict the outcome of the Bruins matchup. I wouldn’t want to jinx them.
Now drop the puck so I can awaken from this dream sequence!