Friday, December 10, 2010

Who stays? Who Goes? Part III: Is youth being served?

This once-humorous graphic is no longer funny.
The CBJ have too many "Junior Woodchucks."
[Note: I started writing this on Friday morning, well before the announcement of Nikita Filatov's assignment to Springfield.  While Filatov's circumstances impact elements of this post, I think it's still worth considering the larger picture.  Hopefully you agree.]

Considering the growing body of evidence that something is truly wrong with the Columbus Blue Jackets, combined with the team's notice to Kyle Wilson and Derek Mackenzie that they should "get a place" (read: likely to stick around Columbus for the balance of the season) and Scott Howson's past December trade history (Chimera for Clark/Jurcina), it seems like the the time is right for personnel changes to take place.

The challenge in this post-lockout National Hockey League is that the salary cap and the intricacies of the collective bargaining agreement make it much harder to make such changes mid-season.  I'll borrow a line from Light The Lamp's most recent post: "I'll say it yet again.... the time to upgrade your team is in the offseason in this cap system." Can't argue with that.  So let's be honest with ourselves...anything that Howson is able to do at this point will be relatively minor - the proverbial band-aid fix.  (Really, was a mid-season "leadership" injection of Chris Clark supposed to turn that locker room around?  Really?)

So I'm going to look past the here and now on the presumption that nothing huge will happen and instead try to take a broader view of the roster.

First, I think there's the core identity issue.  I was inspired to do this in part through a Tweet that some NHL media type wrote, saying something like, "If you have speed, the Colorado Avalanche will find a place for you."  Very interesting, so let's go further: With the Penguins, it's "All paths lead through Crosby."  With the Capitals, it's an Ovechkin-heavy, opportunistic system that R.J. Umberger so famously called playing the "wrong way."  Guy Boucher's Tampa Bay Lightning are becoming known for applying relentless pressure while scoring a bunch and sometimes giving up even more.  Under Ken Hitchcock, there was an emerging identity of a defensive brick wall (in every sense of the phrase - both size and mobility!).  I've got some notions on Detroit, but those will come out later in the post.

While Howson and Arniel make oblique references to a "puck possession" system in the post-Hitch era in Columbus, I can't make out exactly what their roster vision is.  Of course, I've never had the opportunity to ask them directly, but it sure would be an outstanding series of open-ended questions to ask either of them: "What exactly IS your vision?"  "What's you philosophy on what an ideal team should be - roster, style of play, etc.?"  "Which pieces are in place that fulfill that philosophy?"  "What needs to be done to complete the transformation to a [Howson/Arniel] type of team?"  Until I get that innate understanding, I'm forced to read tea leaves like the rest of the CBJ fan base.

Because we can't project forward, let's look at what we have and try to figure this team out. To do so, I'm going to compare the CBJ (15-11-1, 31 pts. in 27 games), line by line, against three of the top teams in the NHL (if you want to be the best, compare yourself against the best, right?) - the Red Wings(17-6-3, 39 pts. in 26 games), the Penguins (20-8-2, 42 pts. in 30 games) and the Capitals (18-9-3, 39 pts. in 30 games).  For line combinations, I'm using Matt Wagner's line projections for last night's St. Louis game and The Hockey News' December 20 line combinations for the other three teams.  Age numbers come from the respective teams' websites, and salary cap numbers come from the aforementioned edition of The Hockey News.

I'm not looking at this issue in terms of personal performance but instead in terms of overall group performance (wins and losses), so I will be tracking two factors across the board: Combined salary cap hits of the given line/pair combinations and average age of the same.  As you'll see, I think that there are some telling statements by how much a team pays a given line (on the sometimes-correct notion that money equals productivity) and the maturity level of the lines.

  • Line 1
    • Columbus: Nash, Vermette, Voracek - $12.8MM cap hit, average age of 25.0
    • Detroit: Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Holmstrom - $14.7MM, 33.0
    • Pittsburgh: Kunitz, Crosby, Dupuis - $13.8MM, 28.3
    • Washington: Ovechkin, Backstrom, Semin - $22.2MM, 24.7
    • THOUGHTS: Columbus has the cheapest, and the second-youngest (by a hair) top line of the four.  Look at Detroit's average age - 33 years old!  These guys have seen everything.  And Detroit is willing to pay to put two bona fide superstars on their top line....Washington, too.
  • Line 2
    • Columbus: Wilson, Umberger, Filatov - $6.53MM, 24.3
    • Detroit: Franzen, Filppula, Bertuzzi - $8.9MM, 30.3
    • Pittsburgh: Cooke, Malkin, Talbot - $11.5MM, 27.3
    • Washington: [was Fleischmann, who has been traded], Laich, Fehr - prorated to $6.45MM, 30.0
    • THOUGHTS: Had Fleischmann's numbers been included, Columbus would again have the cheapest line - and they again have the youngest.  
  • Line 3
    • Columbus: Dorsett, Pahlsson, Clark - $5.862MM, 29.7
    • Detroit: Abdelkader, Modano, Cleary - $5.287MM, 31.3
    • Pittsburgh: Conner, Letestu, Kennedy - $1.75MM, 25.0
    • Washington: Chimera, Johansson, Bradley - $3.8MM, 27.7
    • THOUGHTS: This is where it gets curious to me.  Sure, a third line is the shutdown line and you want veterans in place to take that role.  Thus, Columbus has the second-oldest 3rd line.  However, it's the highest paid of the four - and almost as well-compensated as the CBJ 2nd!  Might Columbus really have two "tweener" lines and not a legit 2nd or 3rd - and is that a good thing?
  • Line 4
    • Columbus: Brassard, Boll, Moreau - $5.925MM, 26.1
    • Detroit: Miller, Helm, Eaves - $2.312MM, 25.0
    • Pittsburgh: Rupp, Adams, Asham - $2.075MM, 31.7
    • Washington: Hendricks, Steckel, Gordon - $2.475MM, 28.0
    • THOUGHTS: At first glance, this is insane.  I know that the Columbus number is highest because Brassard got demoted and Moreau probably is still rehabbing his broken hand (hence the lower minutes that a 4th line placement would afford), but the fourth line is the place for the young scrappers or the vets who are hanging on for a chance to play with the team of their choice.  Columbus' 4th line cannot be justified on either front.  (And keeping in mind that the average age on the CBJ roster is 27, note that all but this forward line for Detroit is significantly older...)
  • Pair 1
    • Columbus: Hejda, Stralman - $3.95MM, 28.0
    • Detroit: Lidstrom, Stuart - $9.9MM, 35.5
    • Pittsburgh: Orpik, Letang -  $7.2MM, 26.5
    • Washington: Schultz, Green - $8.1MM, 24.5
    • THOUGHTS: Good lord, our top pair comes cheaply.  If you want a top-flight pair (Pittsburgh and Detroit with their shutdown pairings, Washington with its puck moving/scoring pair), you need to pay for it.  Does Columbus get what it pays for?
  • Pair 2
    • Columbus: Klesla, Methot - $4.0MM, 26.5
    • Detroit: Ericsson, Rafalski - $6.9MM, 31.5
    • Pittsburgh: Martin, Michalek - $9.0MM, 28.0
    • Washington: Alzner, Carlson - $2.55MM, 21.0
    • THOUGHTS: Again, Columbus is cheap. Washington is REALLY cheap on defense after that first pair, but Columbus is cheap.
  • Pair 3
    • Columbus: Commodore, Russell - $5.1MM, 27.0
    • Detroit: Kronwall, Salei - $4.1MM, 32.5
    • Pittsburgh: Goligoski, Engelland - $2.3MM, 26.5
    • Washington: Erskine, Sloan - $2.0MM, 29.5
    • THOUGHTS: I do not understand the Columbus pairing at all.  It's overpriced for a 3rd pair yet underpriced for a 1st pair.  
  • Columbus: Mason, Garon - $2.3MM, 27.0
  • Detroit: Howard, MacDonald - $1.27MM, 28.0
  • Pittsburgh: Johnson, Fleury - $5.6M, 29.5
  • Washington: Varlamov, Neuvirth (per the team's website) - $1.64MM, 22.0
  • THOUGHTS: At least Columbus doesn't have Marc-Andre Fleury on its payroll.  But is it not baffling that Detroit and Washington can be as high in the standings with so little money in net?  
I'm going to suggest that while Washington probably is a more talented team, top to bottom, than Columbus, their relative youth in comparison to the Detroits and Pittsburghs is an obvious indicator why they have crumbled in the playoffs like the CBJ crumble in December.  The Caps are a young team that probably lacks the group maturity to handle the adversity that comes from playoff hockey.  (Whereas the Blue Jackets are a young team that lacks the group maturity to handle the adversity of battling for a top playoff slot.)

But beyond throwing Washington on the couch (however, don't lose sight of what I said - it'll come back later), let me suggest this: From what I can see, 1) You still get what you pay for and 2) Experience still pays off in the NHL.

The (well-compensated and) veteran Red Wings are simply incredible right now, and they have the poise and confidence that comes from playing so much more hockey over their respective lives.  Even their farm team call-ups are reasonably veteran.  Remember, the Wings are the team that put a 25-year-old Jimmy Howard up for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.  They've had Howard percolating in the minors almost as long as Rick Nash has been in Columbus.  Now, the Red Wings could hit a bump in the years to come as all of these grizzly veterans start the downward slopes of their careers, but they are currently loaded for bear.  

The Blue Jackets, on the other hand, lack experience in all sorts of ways.  They have not achieved meaningful success (with the exception of one playoff run in '09).  Their overwhelmingly young core has only seen failure in some form or fashion at the NHL level, and it surely informs their attitudes and behaviors on the ice.  When all you know is losing, you learn how to lose quietly and get out of the building quickly.  In addition, they have precious little experience in big games and retreat into their shell at the sign of one (see the home opener against Chicago or the sellout against Pittsburgh).  

I keep going back to the playoff roster of 2009 and think about all of the veterans that have left since that point.  Sure, they maxxed out as a group with a first-round sweep at the hands of Detroit, but it was a much more mature group that could at least handle the pressure of playing in big games.  As currently composed, Columbus has a young captain surrounded by a host of young players who are being relied upon to produce beyond their years.  It's not a recipe for success.

Brassard, Voracek and Filatov should, by a roster comparison with Detroit, be the top line in Springfield and tearing up the AHL.  Mason should be their goalie.  Russell should be just now establishing himself on the NHL roster.  Instead, we've thrown all of them into the fire against teams like Detroit where the opposition is 10 years older than they are.  They don't stand a chance.  

That's not to say that ALL young players can't make it in the NHL.  Crosby (who has coddled and nurtured by Mario Lemieux since he was drafted to ensure that he would have a greater likelihood of success) and Ovechkin stand out as examples of young players who succeeded fairly quickly in the NHL.  But the 23-year-old Crosby now is surrounded by two players over the age of 30, and the 25-year-old Ovechkin -- well, he's scored a lot of goals but what championships has he won so far?  And, of course, Rick Nash succeeded at an individual level where Gilbert Brule, Alex Picard and so many other top CBJ prospects have not.  

Despite those individual cases of greatness, I'm growing convinced that the Blue Jackets simply have too many really young players on the roster.  A more veteran team can handle one or two sets of growing pains, but a gaggle of young players - each with their own issues - can overwhelm a locker room when things aren't going perfectly.

To that end, I'm thinking that the Blue Jackets need to pare back the number of young players on the roster and backfill with older players.  Internally, Kristian Huselius should be back one of these days.  Moreau just got back.  Something has to break - I'm thinking that the Blue Jackets are getting very close to having too many players in camp.

Externally, Jason Williams is back on the market after recovering from injury, and many CBJ fans would be happy by his return.  But that's a free agency pickup, which functionally could be seen in the same way as a return from injury.  You're only adding, not subtracting.

Beyond that, I'm thinking to move at least one of the three young forwards.  Midseason, the challenge in getting adequate value is huge...but teams like Ottawa, Toronto and Calgary might be willing to play if the deal was right for both sides. It seems vogue to suggest that Nikita Filatov needs to go back down to Springfield for more seasoning and confidence building, but I'm thinking that a trade of one of the three for a legitimate veteran threat would be more useful at this point - especially considering the team's desire to win now and address the eroding attendance base.

Let's be clear, this is not a call for "leadership" in the mode of bringing in yet another former team captain.  This is a call for adult maturity and experience.  

We need veterans - winners - to step in and keep this train on the right track...because our young guns haven't yet figured out how.


  1. DBJ -
    An excellent post. Very well thought out. And while I agree with your choice to 'compare yourself to the best' at some level, I'm not sure its fair to our young franchise. Again, maybe we could compare ourselves to Detroit, Pittsburgh and Washington when those franchises were at the 10 year mark.

    As a loyal CBJ fan, I hate the Redwings with a passion, having endured many a 'walk of shame' out of Nationwide (and some truly fun victorious jaunts!), but my attitude about them is changing some because I respect Babcock, and because they work hard instead of trying to get by on their talent. But the real point is Lidstrom. My personal catch phrase for dealing with the angst they engender is "its good to have a hall of fame defenseman". To summarize, I don't think its fair to compare the CBJ to a team with a certified, lock down, first ballot hall of famer on defense. Think how good Mase would look playing behind him.

    So I think in comparing us to top teams, you ought to be able to project some of our young D in Springfild forward. Or, I think, more importantly, compare us with who we need to beat to make it to the playoffs this year. That would be a big success for this team, no matter how quickly they are out.

    We don't need to beat Detroit, or Chicago, or Vancouver. We need to beat St. Louis, Nashville, Calgary, Edmonton, Anaheim and Dallas. For a 'this year comparison' those second tier teams (based on our good start I will include us in that) that are jockeying for positions 4 through 8 are the most pertinent comparisons to assess where we stand now, this year.

    For instance, I get a slight headache every time I think of not drafting Cam Fowler.

    Sorry for the long winded comment. A very good post for sure.

  2. When I have seen the CBJ play well this season it's always obvious because of their willingness to hit and shoot. I really think you could describe our playing style as "hardcore hockey" whether it's simply a marketing alliteration or a well thought out statement. They'll check the opponents brains out, block shots, active sticks, and shoot any time they get a look. This is how I've seen the Blue Jackets succeed this season.

  3. For a "peanut-gallery" view of the team, you always seem to be spot-on. It seems to be difficult for this large a group of young players to recognize how their success occurs. So, the infuriating up and down levels of performance continue. With so many roster players on N H L only contracts, it would appear that a trade of some type is imminent. I would go as far as to say it will be a 2 or 3 for one deal, again because of the numbers. My problem is, I just don't see Mr. Howson giving up on any of his high draft choices, and that only leaves the grinders and energy guys. You know, the ones that skate their brains out and hit anything in the wrong colors when our top lines are taking another game off. It is an interesting little situation that will need to resolve itself rather soon, or else. As I've said before, somethings got to give.

  4. Thanks to everyone for the comments. It's somewhat tough to write material like this (because I'd like to be all sunshine and roses, talking about our GREAT hockey club), but we have what we have.

    JFJ - I think that the Filatov demotion lowered the roster pressure significantly, but I still wouldn't be surprised at a trade not of the bottom 6 grinders but of one of the first rounder "young core" forwards plus a defenseman (one who has a crazy contract or perhaps would be a UFA this offseason) for a legit older veteran threat and another d-man.

    A top-tier older veteran would be ready to cycle off the roster at the same time as our AHL young guns are ready to make the move to the NHL. That's my ideal scenario: A top talent in their early 30's, mid-late 20's (Nash) and early 20's (take your pick). Right now, we don't have the old guy. Just keep cycling that group through, and you'd have a fantastic long-term plan.


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