Saturday, August 20, 2016

Part XIII: The Dark Blue Jacket's Definitive History of the CBJ; The Tortorella Tenure Begins

Brandon Saad
When I last left this space I had gone to my happy place, the All-Star Game.  It's time now to return to the harsh reality of the 2015-16 season.  A defensive corps that was adequate for the preseason suddenly showed up as deficient once the regular season started, and a CBJ squad that had high hopes suddenly found itself the proud possessors of an NHL record, and a new coach.  The NHL record, of course, is the worst start for any team except a Rangers team that had all of its players in the military fro WWII.  For the Blue Jackets, this represented an 0 for 8 debacle that killed the season before it ever got started.  Enter John Tortorella, a stark change from the soft spoken Todd Richards. 

I confess to a degree of trepidation when Tortorella was first named.  He had seemed to become increasingly volatile in his transition from the Rangers to the Canucks, culminating in a legendary foray into the opponents locker area between periods, a stunt that got him suspended.  Tortorella seems to have gotten the message from the league, and while still brutally honest in his assessments, has stayed away from anything too colorful.  I maintain that this is a really important assignment for John, and if he flames out with the CBJ, it will really hurt his coaching career.  On the other hand, there is a body of evidence that suggests that he is precisely the correct choice for this franchise at this time. 

Make no mistake, John has his sights set on returning to the promised land, and the 2016-17 season will likely only be a step in that direction.  But I think Torts has the perspective to see where he stands across the league, and coach his team accordingly.  Keep in mind he is the winningest US coach.  This is not an accident, and Columbus is a good place for this guy to return to the heights.  But this is the perspective of the season past, not the burning pain of watching our beloved CBJ cash in a season before Halloween.  I had thought that had gone out of style with Scott Arniel.  But those die were cast before Tortorella's arrival.

When Tortorella parachuted into the hostile territory of the CBJ in early October the team was already sporting an 0-7 record.  Once Torts started, they finished the month with 2 wins, 3 losses, and 0 overtime losses (2-3-0), to finish the month of October, 2015 with a record of 2-10-0 and a whopping 4 points in the standings to show for 12 games.  To redress a deficit like that, the team would have to pull off a serious winning streak, but they seemed incapable of stringing together the serious streaks that they had shown in previous years.  The defense and the goal tending were simply not up to the task.

November was better, and the team turned in an 8-5-0 record.  Good if you did it every month but not enough to allow you to be making any kind of a serious challenge to playoff position.  Problematically, a 4-7-3 December essentially drove a stake in the heart of any nascent thoughts of a comeback to the playoffs.  As 2015 turned to 2016, the CBJ were not yet mathematically eliminated, but we're pretty much done for the year in terms of the playoffs.  The rest of the way they went 20-18-5 (January to April), essentially a .500 record when you needed a much higher winning percentage if you wanted to climb back into the playoffs.

At this point, it was going to get a little bit hard to write about this season.  This isn't the first season I sat in the stands to watch the Jackets play out the string from January through April.  For me, it is still entertainment, in spite of the mind numbing frustration.  However, once 2015 came to a close, a series of events started to make 2016 much more interesting in spite of the known lack of playoff position. 

Ryan Johansen
On January 6, 2016, the CBJ world changed dramatically when the news broke that the Jackets had traded center Ryan Johansen to Nashville for defenseman Seth Jones.  I am one of those that view this trade as a pure hockey trade.  Quality for quality.  It is true that Nashville was dealing from a position of strength, but the needs of the two organizations overlapped nicely.  Jarmo had expressed confidence in his defense at the beginning of 2015-16, and was let down horribly by the inadequacies of the group, in scoring and in defense.  So he set about making dramatic changes.  Capitalizing on the hope brought on by the drafting of Zach Werenski the previous year, Jarmo added a young defenseman with a considerable upside in exchange for our best potential first line center.  This is a trade that CBJ fans will dissect for years to come, but at present I think it will help both clubs and both players.  That makes it a good hockey trade.

This trade, however, did not rocket the Jackets higher the standings.  A 5-5-2 record in January ensured that mediocrity was the best they could hope for this year, but a funny thing was happening for the team.  Bobrovsky had gone down with a groin injury in December, attempted to return in January, hurt himself again, and didn't return until March.  In the meantime, at the beginning of January, Curtis McElhinney was injured as well.  This left the team with two call ups from the AHL, Anton Forsberg and Joonas Korpisalo in the goal.  Forsberg did not fare well in the NHL in this call up, saving a story book ending for later in the season with the Lake Erie Monsters (now Cleveland Monsters).  In the meantime, Joonas Korpisalo began to gather himself as an NHL goal tender and helped stake the team to a 7-3-3 record in February. 

The return of Bobrovsky to health pushed Anton Forsberg down to the AHL affiliate Monsters, where he began to put together a streak of fine goal tending that will be described on another day.  Don't give up on this kid as an NHL goal tender.  Korpisalo, on the other hand, started to string together some very good games for a young netminder, and played some very solid hockey, even pushing Bobrovsky to the bench on occaision. 

March was a disappointment, as the team went 4-9-0 in March, to solidify a strong drafting position.  Unfortunately, in a maddening fashion unique to the Blue Jackets, with a generational player available in the first draft slot, the CBJ went 4-1-0 down the stretch in April against some teams in full on tank mode, but finishing with a win against defending Cup Champions, and at that time favorite to repeat, Chicago. 

So there we were, another season out of the playoffs.  The CBJ finished 34-40-8, so ~6 games below .500, when you started out 0-8.  Let's face it, if you start 0-8, and have plan C in the goal for an extended stretch of the season, as an NHL team you are in deep trouble, no matter how well plan C plays.  The flame out of plans A and B are going to cost you dearly.  For success going forward, the Jackets need to see a better performance in goal. 

That is not to say that this disastrous season lies only at Bob's knee pads.  The under performance was pretty wide spread, with a few exceptions.  Boone Jenner scored more than 30 goals, recovering from an injury filled sophomore campaign.  Brandon Saad, a surprise acquisition in the off season, set a personal best in goals and scoring, a very nice performance in the unfamiliar role of playing for a loser.  Cam Atkinson continued to grow his goal scoring totals.  But other than these players, most of the group had underwhelming seasons. 

Cam Atkinson and Brandon Saad finished tied for the team lead in scoring in 2015-16, with 53 points each.  Saad scored more goals, finishing with 31 goals and 22 assists for his 53 points, while Cam went 27-26-53.  These point totals are a sharp drop and a sharp contrast from the 73 and 71 points scored by Nick Foligno and Ryan Johansen respectively in the 2014-15 season.  The only commonality between the two seasons was that Scott Hartnell finished third in scoring, with 49 points (23-26-49) in 2015-16 vs 60 points in 2014-15.  Surprisingly, Boone Jenner finished 30-19-49 for a personal best season in the NHL, which got him rewarded with a new contract.  I don't know if this is a realistic expectation for Boone going forward, but if he repeats these numbers a couple of times it could be real trouble for the rest of the NHL.

Dubinsky finished a distant 5th in goals with 17, but added 31 assists for 48 points to finish 5th in scoring.  Alexander Wennberg finished 6th, and Nick Foligno finished 7th in scoring with 37 points, just about half of the points he scored the previous year.  To call it a tough year for Nick would be a massive understatement. 

Joonas Korpisalo
Highlighting a huge problem for the Blue Jackets in 2015-16, Joonas Korpisalo, a rookie, lead the goal tenders in wins (16), save percentage (.920) and goals against average (2.60) in 31 games.  Joonas was plan C (or D) coming into the season, and illustrates the collapse of the organization's plan for the goal tenders.  Sergei Bobrovsky only played 37 games, and Curtis McElhinney played in 12.  The performance by the first two does not meet expectations, even taking injury into account.  This position MUST have a better result in 2016-17.  

Not that the goal tenders got any help from the defensive corps, especially early on in the losing streak.  They seemed to be unable to take away time and space from other players.  For the most part, if you give any NHL forward the kind of space the Jackets were giving up early on, they have a real good chance of scoring, and a lot of them did.  This is just my personal observation, and perhaps subject to dispute, but there is no disputing that they started the season unable to play defense.  Jarmo Kekalainen, when asked about his defense before the season had expressed confidence.  That confidence was misplaced, and before the year was half over Jarmo was spending his most valuable asset in an attempt to shore up the defense.

Jack Johnson, Fedor Tyutin, Ryan Murray, David Savard, Justin Falk, Dalton Prout, Cody Goloubef all started slow.  At least Murray had the excuse of not having played for a year.  Tyutin and Falk are now gone, Tyutin having been bought out in the off season, and Falk signing a contract with another organization.  The overall impact of the poor play of this ground is that it will look substantially different when the 2016-17 season starts.  Seth Jones has come in from the Johansen trade, Zach Werenski has finished his college career and had a good start with excellent AHL experience (to be covered in a later post), and Ryan Murray seems to have shaken off the rust of the early part of he 2015-16 season.  Instead of Johnson and Savard as the top pairing, now we are looking at Seth Jones and Ryan Murray.  Zach Werenski will add slick puck moving and a hard shot that finds the net to another pair.  He will also learn some hard lessons at the hands of NHL veterans, the same process every rookie goes through. 

Organizationally, things look good in the future, as the pipeline of young talent seems to be producing, and a high draft position results in another wave of young talent coming into the development system.  The exploits of these youngsters at the Lake Erie, now Cleveland, Monsters will be discussed later, as I said. 

The 2015-16 season for the Columbus Blue Jackets could be summed up by saying expectations were shattered.  In what has been called their most disappointing season, they set an NHL record for futility, got their coach fired, and were out of the playoffs by Halloween.  Finishing with 76 points, a very underwhelming number, they have real work to do in 2016-17 to sniff the playoffs.  The pressure from the youngsters below is a real reason to think things might incrementally improve.

I find it rather ironic that this is Part XIII of this history.  The 2015-16 NHL season was a forgettable year for the Columbus Blue Jackets, and they certainly didn't have, or make much luck.  Some people thing 13 is a lucky number, some people don't.  It is hoped that the results of last year simmers in the guts of the players the way it does for Jarmo Kekalainen, and that they show a response in the upcoming year.  I think we all believed they were a better team than the result of last year.  Fortunately, we do not have long to wait for the new season, and a fresh beginning.  Thus, we can thankfully close the book on the 2015-16 season.



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