Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Building From the Back Forward

Ryan Murray and David Savard
A big part of this blog is my personal journey to understand what is happening in front of me when I am watching Blue Jackets hockey.  This upcoming season will be my tenth as a season ticket holder, probably evidence that is admissible in any hearing on my sanity.  But nonetheless, that journey continues.

And of course, this is a time for grasping for understanding if ever there was that time, because few of us, including the 'pundits' expected to be here.  So for maximum understanding I think it is important to ignore the Blue Jackets for the moment.   I will circle back to that at the end.

My basic premise, the wisdom from the old General Managers such as Craig Patrick, is that when you are building a franchise, you build it from the back forward, rather than from the front back.  As evidence I submit the Nashville Predators and the Minnesota Wild as the basic premise, and the Edmonton Oilers and the Atlantapeg Thrashers/Jets as the opposite of that premise.

Realistically, it will be better to summarily deal with the second premise first.  Edmonton has won 3 of the last 5 draft lotteries, and has selected exclusively forwards as the best talent which was pretty much true.  Atlantapeg has traded away or lost to free agency more top line talent than any franchise and their best defenseman is a converted forward, albeit a beast at the defensive slot (Byfuglien).  Between the two of them since the Jackets got serious in the league (post lockout, 2006) the Thrashers and the Jets share zero playoff series wins.  None of the three teams (including the Blue Jackets) have won a playoff series, yet Nashville and Minnesota have won several.  Both teams are in the hunt in the West, yet none of the former (Columbus, Edmonton, and Winnipeg) are sniffing the playoffs this year.

A more graphic validation of the concept could not be found.  Build from the back forward, goal tending and defense, and you have some playoff series to your credit. If you build from the front back, as have Edmonton, Atlantapeg,and Columbus, you don't.  So at some point as a franchise, you eventually have to cross that bridge of defensive priority if you want to be successful.  The Jackets did it this year, trading a sublime center talent for a sublime defenseman.  At some point you have to make the change to defense.

And in this context, the Dalton Prout contract makes ultimate sense.  You can't commit to building from the back unless you have waves of talent coming through.  The Prout contract serves as a bar for making the team for the minor league players.  If you want to make the big dance, you have to outplay Prout, and I don't think Tortorella is done optimizing his game.  With Prout you are trying to sign a young Brooks Orpik type player that will give you that physical presence.  He doesn't play like Orpik, who is now a veteran, instead of a young defenseman.  Orpik had a +/- of -36 in one of his early years.  It takes time.

The David Savard contract makes sense in this way as well.  He didn't have the year he wanted, as did so many Blue Jackets, but he is still a good young defenseman.  In the proper role, he will be a good defensive player with a developmental upside as he continues to gain experience for many years to come.

The Blue Jackets had to make this choice at some point in their history, and Jarmo and JD have opted to tackle that strategic goal now.  From now on, we'll try to slot with those that build from the back forward, and to stake ourselves in that game we'll trade top end 'front building' talent for top end 'back building' talent.  The change hurts us in the short term, but will likely play long term benefits.  Since we screwed up early by losing 8 straight, this is a good time to make the change from 'building from the front' and focus on building the defensive corps.

The Jackets took another step forward in that arena today, signing Zach Werenski to an Entry Level Contract (ELC).  This was craftily done by Werenski's agent and Jarmo, as he signed an amateur tryout contract and reported to Lake Erie as his first step of turning pro.  That places him at Lake Erie, saves a year of his ELC (3 year length by the CBA), and likely helps to shield him from an expansion draft.  Lake Erie is gearing up for a playoff run, and the Jackets are not.  You want him in Lake Erie taking his first steps at learning the pro game.  Following the initial move, they promptly inked the ELC.  This is a good faith showing on all sides.

So now we have Ryan Murray, Seth Jones, and Werenski as top defensive prospects all under the age of 22.  This is a dramatic transformation of the back end for the Blue Jackets, and we will continue to pay the price to build this way, as these guys won't really start to peak until they are 25 or 26 years old.  But they could be really scary by then.

The Blue Jackets have finally committed to building the back end to a level that could potentially compete in a playoff situation.  To do so, they sacrificed that rarest of commodities, a true Number 1 center.  To get to the Cup, you probably need that piece, and we don't have it any more.  To lay the basics for a Cup, which is regular trips to the dance, you need that back end.  Don't be surprised if that trip to the dance isn't next year.   But I think it is coming.

GO JACKETS!!

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