Monday, April 11, 2011

Out of Time: DBJ's 2010-2011 Columbus Blue Jackets review

"What have you guys been doing for 10 years?"
- Columbus Blue Jackets head coach Scott Arniel
after coaching the CBJ to their first-ever regulation win in San Jose
November 21, 2010

That's a very, very good question.  Sadly, the answer is: One brief playoff appearance.

I observed way back at the beginning of the season that general manager Scott Howson cleared out so many able veterans from that 2009 Blue Jackets playoff team to make room on the CBJ roster for his vaunted young core.  This team has had 82 games to prove their worthiness as an NHL-caliber roster.  Here's what we got:
  • They gave new head coach Scott Arniel an incredible 20-game honeymoon with a 14-6-0 record.  Who can forget perhaps one of the greatest CBJ games ever, the 8-1 shellacking of the St. Louis Blues in Game 14 on November 10th?  This team was challenging for first place in the Western Conference over Thanksgiving weekend.  
  • They then fell flat on their faces from Thanksgiving through mid-January with a 6-14-3 record.
  • Howson made roster improvements by subtraction in sending $3.75 million veteran defenseman Mike Commodore down to AHL Springfield, but the subsequent rebound (11-4-3) only could take the team to the trade deadline.  
  • The team maxxed out, and the wheels flew off throughout March and April, highlighted by a 3-11-7 record (and 1-6-3 at home!) to close out the season.
That, my friends, was the second-best season in team's ten-year history.  Wow.

I said back on December 23 that "I am now convinced that this roster, as currently composed, cannot be expected to beat any good National Hockey League team with any regularity this season."  If anything, those feelings have been further cemented by what I've seen since Christmas.  Their impressive second half rebound was built on a foundation of poorly-playing opposition.  Their post-trade deadline collapse coincided with a marked improvement in the caliber of the teams that they faced.  It was that second collapse - perhaps more epic than the first, when you consider things like the shutouts that we've endured and the ineptitude on home ice - that pushed me over the edge.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I've been writing this post (and, it ends up, elements of future posts) in bits and pieces over the last couple weeks of the season.  This has given me time to go back and look at quite a bit of video from this past season.  It's been an opportunity to relive some individual moments of incredible play - the St. Louis game chief among them but also the Calvert hat trick and the magical early season West Coast road trip that prompted Arniel to ask the question at the top of this post - and way, way, way too much of a team that crumbled at the first whiff of adversity.  I saw CBJ defensemen out of position when not getting blown away by bigger/faster forwards, CBJ forwards playing target practice with the opposition goalie's sweater logo and CBJ goalies whose minds had to have been elsewhere.  On balance, the good didn't overcome the bad.  The good was OK, but the bad was just dismal.

(Mull this over: How many leads - or even ties - were quickly surrendered this season?  Dare we start counting?)

Taking the whole season as the sum of its very distinct parts, only the rosiest of optimists can suggest that this was in any way a successful season for all but a scant few individual members of the Blue Jackets.  Over the next few days, I'll offer pithy thoughts on the forwards, the defensemen, the goaltenders, the coaches and the front office.  But, for now, it's fair to say that this version of the Columbus Blue Jackets has run its course.  They haven't gotten it done, and I don't believe that they are capable of getting it done.  Not this crew, not as currently composed.

So after careful consideration, I say this strongly and without reservation:

It's time to blow this roster up.  

I'm sick of moral victories.  Enough of the ribbons for effort.  Everyone is not necessarily a winner.  I want to see our forwards put pucks in the backs of nets.  I want to see defensemen who make it hard for the opposing forwards to get shots off.  I want to see goalies whose dominance demoralizes the other team.

By blowing the roster up, I mean that I will be disappointed if no fewer than seven new, quality roster contributors are on the 2011-2012 CBJ roster.  (Side note: This is something I wrote a while back and thought it was outlandish...but then Marc Methot, in a postgame interview in the last week of the season, suggested 6-8 players would be gone.  Hmmm...)  I'd really like to see half the team turn over but don't believe such an ambitious rebuild would be possible given contractual and salary cap considerations in Columbus and around the league.  As the many wise owls out there love to remind us, it takes two to tango.

Such a shakeup does not mean that CBJ fans should resign themselves to a lost season in 2011-2012, though.  Far from it in today's NHL!  There are other ways to engineer a roster than by placing your faith, trust and money in the hands of young players who largely have proven themselves unable to deliver on their promise.  One only need look at the once-woeful Phoenix Coyotes, where general manager Don Maloney shipped the many "promising" yet underachieving young players from Phoenix to AHL San Antonio in the 2009 offseason and backfilled with free agent veterans on short-term contracts.  That group of retreads only took a moribund franchise to the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs and a thrilling seven-game series with the Detroit Red Wings last season; with many of the same players plus a couple youngsters who actually matured in the AHL, Phoenix is sitting in the 5th seed this season - while spending $2 million less in payroll than Columbus this season.  Phoenix is just one example of an alternate approach, but it's one that warrants careful consideration.  After all, it's very similar to the approach that helped the Blue Jackets (along with a wunderkind goalie run that now could be categorized as an aberration) get to the playoffs in 2009.

Yet another graphic I hoped to never have to use again...
Columbus' "Junior Woodchucks"
Now just as a "Major League" NHL roster (Greetings, Hockey Jobu!) can fail, a youth-infused NHL roster can succeed.  Ask Toronto, who rode their kids (and their wunderkind goalie) to a pretty impressive playoff charge in the back half of the season.  I'm willing to grant that it's possible in the abstract, but the youth on this Columbus roster has shown minimal improvement at the best...and regressed at the worst.
  • I've been told to wait to see Kris Russell develop as a top-flight NHL defenseman ever since I started really watching the CBJ.  Has he developed yet?  (On the bright side, he's paid "only" $1.3 million per season, or 35 percent lower than an average player salary on a team that is spending to the salary cap.  So maybe we're getting our money's worth on him, and he was just nothing but hype.)
  • What about the post-teenage headcase that is Steve Mason?  Was his professional development really served by keeping him in Columbus - and then signing him to a one-way, starter-level contract before the season?  
  • I'll grant that Derick Brassard, when not engaging in stupidly reckless on-ice behavior that results in injuries, has improved...but is he REALLY a $3 million NHL center right now?  
  • And Jake Voracek: Why are we still wondering when his game is going to take off?
THIS is the young core that Howson made room for?  (And I won't even start on Jared Boll, Andrew Murray and Derek Dorsett - other than to howl at the moon over why Howson did not sign them to two-way contracts.)

And then we have Scott Arniel, the new coach, and his staff.  Among the big questions I asked back in January (questions still worth reflecting upon, I suggest), I wondered if the coaches were in over their heads.  I will suggest that the double-dip back into standings purgatory indicates that they were...with this squad.  But heck, so was Ken Hitchcock - a future Hall of Fame coach - with this crowd.  I'm not ready to give up on the new coaches, not yet, but it's clear that they need a more consistent, capable and willing roster if they're going to have a chance to succeed.  

I'm a fan of the Columbus Blue Jackets.  To differing degrees, I'm a fan of the players, the coaching staff, the front office and the ownership.  But let's be clear, I'm a fan of the franchise first and foremost.  I'm loyal to the logo on the front, not the names on the back (or the names on the deskplates).  I was at that 2009 playoff game four and had the time of my life.  It was great for the community, great for the long-suffering fans and - yeah - great for me as well.  I want to see that experience of Stanley Cup playoff hockey back in Columbus in the worst way - heck, it's a main reason that I write this blog!  And I honestly don't care who's on the ice to make that happen...but I'm pretty certain it won't be the 2010-2011 Blue Jackets roster.  They have demonstrated that point by dropping into a torrential slump not just once but twice in this season.

2010-2011 was this roster's Time to Step Up, and they blew it.  They're now Out of Time.

Make the moves needed for the Blue Jackets to become winners, Mr. Howson.  PLEASE, if only so we don't need to be asking the "What have you guys been doing for 10 years?" question ever again.

There will be more to come.  Seeing as the CBJ aren't in the playoffs again, I've got plenty of time to review the current roster.  This final quarter at school is turning out to be a bear, so I'm probably going to need all the time I can get.  My aspirations to develop a statistical database for this season fell short (curse that education thing), and I probably will devote some effort on that front before adding too much more to the 2010-2011 postmortem.

Keep in mind, this post reflects my opinion and mine alone.  I gather that Gallos and Campbell could  offer their own season recapping thoughts (and, in the case of Campbell's "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" series, thoughts on the current roster vis a vis the 2011-2012 season), so please come back and see what we all think.  Should be interesting.

Surely, the Blue Jackets have given us a lot to chew over...perhaps too much.  Wouldn't it have been easier to talk about exciting, upcoming playoff games?


  1. Better than a lot of the overly-optimistic stuff I see here usually. I'll have very little attention for as many things CBJ next season. They just haven't managed or played their way to deserving it anymore. Attention means dollars and, unfortunately, they've played their way out of mine. Perhaps they'll find a way to get it back. History does not provide much hope that they will.

  2. Geez, and here I thought that this blog was one of the more pessimistic (although I like to think realistic) in the CBJ blogosphere.

    If it's any consolation, this is my opinion...yet I still upgraded my ticket package from a 6 to a 10-game plan. So I'm still on the bandwagon. Even moreso than this past season.


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