The 2013-2014 NHL season is about a week old. The Blue Jackets season in particular is only two games old, playing their third game Thursday night in Buffalo. To make any long term predictions about the team based on the meaningless preseason and two regular season games is asinine. But looking at the coach, and how he's managed his team in that same time span, does lend itself to the ever-so-subtle eyebrow raise.
There hasn't been any earth shattering roster moves in the off-season. The team from last year is still largely intact. The only new faces of note are Murray and Jenner, while the 30 year-old rookie McElhinney backs up CBJ life blood Sergei Bobrovsky. "Horton hatches a bone graft" is still a couple months away. As a coach, you know the skill set you have on your team early on. You know who is going to work hard, you know who you can trust in each situation, and you know who takes being a professional to heart. You know who can handle speed, you know who can play physical, and you know who doesn't turn the puck over. Most importantly, you know who can do the scoring.
The constant line jumbling with the forwards has piqued my interest. Again, no cause for concern this early in the season, but when you start jumbling the lines so often and so early, it's only for a very few reasons. The Jackets are rolling four second lines. As I write this, they are getting closer to getting back to the comfortable three second lines and one solid fourth line. For me, I am a results oriented coach when it comes to setting up my lines, albeit with PeeWees. A kid might not work hard in practice, might be a jerk in the dressing room, but if in game situation he can score a goal without being a liability when we need it - he's on the ice. This kid does not get to wear a captain's letter, never wins any of the weekly recognition awards, and when we're beating a team 6-0, this kid is sitting on the bench watching his teammates pad their stats. But I would be doing the team as a whole a disservice if, in close games, this kid isn't on the ice trying to win.
I used to be a coach who let the hard working guys on the ice first, regardless of their results. I wanted to be fair and I wanted to teach through rewarding hard work with ice time. But you have to find the right balance as a coach. Too often, we'd drive 4 hours for a weekend of games and lose them all 2-1 or 3-2. The team as a whole started losing their enthusiasm. The kids getting rewarded with all the ice time, because they worked hard in practice, started turning to me and say, "Please put Jerk-Face Johnny on the ice, he can score for us, and he can help us win." It took a second line pee-wee that had no business being on the first line to teach me this.
As a head coach I have two responsibilities - 1) put the team in the best situation to win and 2) fight for my team with the game officials and the league. It's that first part that is complex. First, I have to make sure I have a practice plan together with my coaches that improves the boys individually on the ice as well and make the team better as a whole. Then, I have to make sure the players who can impact positive results for us are on the ice in the best possible situations during games. The second part, fighting for the team, is a little easier. You have to pick your battles with city hall - the officials- at the right time. You can't be yelling and screaming about everything, nor can you be abusing a ref at the end of a close 2-1 game in a tournament.
I find different ways to reward kids who work hard and set the example in practice.. Those kids get to be captain or get to wear their respective world championship wrestling belts for the week. They get to demonstrate drills when the coaches need an extra body, they lead the cheer before we leave the dressing room, or every now and again they skip the skating drill to help warm up the goalie. But now I make sure the players who can impact the outcome of the game the most are on the ice when we need them. The players, coaches, organization (and parents, if applicable) are much better served that way. Above all, I have to be open, honest, and transparent about what I do.
So when I see the constant line juggling of the Blue Jackets two games into the season, I wonder what's going on. Players need a game or two together to understand each other. I'm not sure you blow up lines 7 shifts into the first game of the season, understanding that adjustments need to be made in-game. Has coach Richards given the wrong reward of ice time to players who work hard? Is he trying to play it square so that everybody listens to him - fearful he'll lose another locker room? Is there a level of accountability in the dressing room that was their last year that is suddenly gone this year (read Vinny and Asst Coach Keith Acton)?
If a first line of Gaborik, Umberger, and Anisimov give you the best opportunity in a game, put them out there. If they don't produce after a GAME OR TWO, then break them up. But if it gives you the best chance to win, you have to play them. If Anisimov is dogging it in practice, but gives you the best chance to win games, play him then let him know he can't go swimming in the hotel pool after the game. Don't give him a captaincy. Tell him the team can't stop for slushies after a game until he starts practicing better. When you have a huge lead in the third and he has two goals, keep him on the bench and let him help the back up goalie open the doors on the bench. What I see so far is a coach rewarding players with first or second line ice time only because they have worked hard - not because the put the team in the best situation to win. This is the NHL. Win.
From what I've seen on twitter and through team coverage of the practices since the muck-tacular win against the Islanders, is a shift towards putting 'results oriented' folks on the top line. I'm not totally convinced he's rewarding guys who can impact the game the most on the ice as often as possible. Yes, Gaborik and Dubinky have logged heavy minutes. But is Dubinsky as leathal as Anisimov? Your fourth line guys are getting 10 and 11 minutes a game? Let's be honest, the Jackets were lucky to win that game on Long Island, and it was Mark Letestu to the rescue as yet again. Coaches always have to tweak lines and make adjustments, but throwing a different group of guys out there every shift does make me curious as to "why so?" Again, this is only two games into the season and not really cause for concern. But if another 3 or 4 games go by and Richards has no consistent logic for assigning his lines other than playing the lotto between shifts, then there may be something going on behind the scenes. I will be watching the game tonight and looking to see who comprises each line, and how coach Richards utilizes them. Hopefully if adjustments need to be made, he's giving the remedies more than 120 seconds of ice time to go to work.