Sunday, December 4, 2016

Adjusting to a New CBJ Reality?

McElhinney shone in OT for the win.
These last two games the Blue Jackets have looked like itinerant tool grinders getting paid by the piece, as they furiously ground away at their opponents in the third period of road games in which they trailed on the scoreboard.  The have kept at it with admirable steadiness, and have been able to shrug off adversity.

If they can sustain these qualities as the season moves forward you have a chance to be pretty good, because you are never out of a game.  And after basically having their way with Tampa, I was curious to see how they would respond to adversity.  And I have to confess they did much better than I expected them to do, and I am very pleased with their performance.  The cool thing is that steadiness is something that they have control over, so it is a foundation piece that will serve them well over the season.

This team plays pretty good defense, with a young mobile bunch of defensemen that are forging an experience of effectiveness together.  It helps that Werenski is truly a really good player, and that Seth Jones is an absolute stud.  What a player!  With those two seizing the top pairing, they have forced some pretty good players down in the line up, with the result that we have 3 pairings that are very solid.  Marcus Nutivaara is a revelation, as well as a 7th round pick making good.  As the sixth defenseman, its hard to say he is the weakest link in the unit.  This is a solid foundation thing, that is likely to pay dividends over time.  And you notice that I did not even mention Murray.  This group is strong.

Before the 2015-16 season Jarmo was on record as believing in the defensive corps, and it really didn't work out that well, as we know.  But the defense of today is a far cry from that unit, which is a reason that one can think this change is of a long term nature, particularly as it has a foundation based on speed and mobility.  Zach Werenski and Seth Jones now fill the spot occupied by Ryan Murray and Jack Johnson, and they occupy that spot at a very high level, despite the pairing getting younger by the switch.  It is going to be very enjoyable watching those two develop.  The height of their ceiling has yet to be determined, but it could potentially be lofty.  The injection of speed is palpable.

Likewise the forwards got a healthy dose of speed when Josh Anderson and Lukas Sedlak made the lineup out of training camp.  Josh Anderson has been excellent, and Sedlak has played his normal defensively oriented game, in spite of his goal outburst in the AHL playoffs last year.  He has yet to find the net, but he keeps getting opportunities.  A guy who can resonate an F-bomb through a cavernous Colorado Avalanche arena so loud that the TV mics can pick it up, after hitting the post with an open net, is going to get there at some point.   We definitely know there is a lot of pent up energy behind the quest for that first goal.

Regardless of Sedlak's vocal prowess, the speed and defensive reliability he brings pushed veteran Gregory Campbell out of the line up.  And the whole team got faster.  Josh Anderson pushed several veterans out of the lineup as well, and brought an explosive speed that the team hasn't seen since Jason Chimera was here, though Josh does seem to use his speed to greater purpose.

The increase in team speed is a strong foundation.  You don't coach speed, but you can use it wisely, as I believe Coach Tortorella has done.   It is interesting to wonder if the Coach is a foundation piece.   I think he coaching this team very well.  He basically forced the team to learn to play his system with nothing left in their legs in training camp.  But they learned how to play the way they need to play when they had nothing left in the tank back in training camp. The third period of a game is a lot easier than that.

I thought Tortorella's commentary after last night's game was great.  He liberated the players from a pretty stinky second period to go out and win the game.  Having that turn into a winning experience is a well you will be able to return to in the future.

My point is that there is something solid in their winning ways right now.  They will encounter adversity.  Every team does, every season.  And Tortorella's approach takes this into account, and the team looks well positioned to deal with adversity.  However, adversity is relative.  Try punting your season in 8 games.  That's adversity.  A few losses in a competitive season isn't really adversity compared to that.  And except for the youthful infusion of speed, all of these players experienced that last year.  So to me, there is no real reason to expect this team to fold right now, as they have done in Decembers past (see re: 2009-10).

It is a very nice thing to have a competitive team.  I am finding this season quite enjoyable for a couple of reasons.  Foremost, we are in the hunt.  The games mean something.  Last year wasn't too fun.  But that was last year, not this year, and I am looking forward to watching some really good hockey this winter.  CBJ hockey is pretty fun to watch now.

Maybe this will not turn out well.  This is the NHL, and its the best hockey in the world, and if you have a weakness, teams will exploit it if they can.  On the other hand, this year looks like it could be a pretty wild journey.  And I am looking forward to that extremely.

So I guess I am saying that I am letting go of the baggage of last year, and embracing this group for who they are.  And I think I am going to get rewarded for that.  The Jackets are going for their 500th win tomorrow night, according to the scribes at the Dispatch.  That should be some fun.  I am already getting stoked.  It's been awhile since that happened, but its good to feel it again!


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