Thursday, September 15, 2011

Part IV: The Dark Blue Jacket's Definitive History of the CBJ

The Hitchcock Restoration

A Columbus Blue Jackets Civil War Logo
Ken Hitchcock was coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets from November 22, 2006 to February 3, 2010.  He is the winningest coach in Blue Jackets history, compiling a record of 285 G, 126W, 123L, and 36OTL.  Depending on how you fall out on your view of the shootout, he is the only coach in CBJ history to have a winning record.

In my last post I made the assertion that although many names had changed, the talent level of the team plateaued at about the 2003-04 level.  As evidence for that, I point to Ken Hitchcock's coaching record.  Prior to coming to Columbus, as a head coach he had never coached a team in the NHL for the entire year and not made the playoffs.  That is, until he coached the 2007-08 CBJ squad.

Don't get me wrong.  I think he was kind of fond of that team, because he believed that the team had maxxed out.  That they had given him everything that they had.  But it wasn't enough, they simply lacked the talent to be a playoff team.  But I am jumping ahead.

Ken Hitchcock's coaching career for the CBJ served as a bridge between two General Managers, Doug MacLean and Scott Howson.  As such, Coach Hitchcock holds a very important place in CBJ history.

On assuming the coaching reins on November 22, 2006, Hitch coached the team to a 28W-29L-5OTL record.  The 73 points recorded by that team made them the second best team in club history at that time.

After the season, Doug MacLean was fired as the General Manager.  On June 15, 2007, Scott Howson was named as the new General Manager.  Shortly thereafter, he hosted the NHL draft in Columbus, and picked Jakub Voracek with the 7th overall pick in the entry draft.

Soon thereafter, in one of the few free agent moves of the summer, Howson signed defenseman Jan Hjeda to a pretty affordable contract considering the level of service he was about to provide.

The late summer free agent activity was the signing of center Michael Peca, a veteran player who would loom large the following year.  I have always felt that Michael Peca made Manny Malhotra into an elite face off man.  His percentage jumped from 55-56% to 58-59% when he had Peca to practice against.

The new General Manager Howson's hands were largely tied by the large contracts of Sergei Federov and Adam Foote.  This was widely believed at the time, at any rate.  I can remember the dismay I felt at a season ticket holder gathering where Howson and Hitch talked, and they told us we'd be playing with the same guys as last year.  Gulp!

Hitch, Coaching them up!
However, the season started well, as the CBJ achieved their historic production of the first two months of the season in October, by going 7W-3L-1OTL.  November was a little rougher with a 4-7-3 record, but the team rallied back in December with a 7-5-2 record, going into the new year with 42 points.  The team went 7-7-0 in January, and 5-5-3 in February.  While the team was not exactly dominating the Western Conference, it was certainly in the hunt for a playoff spot, but also still had some work to do to get there.

On February 1st, Scott Howson pulled off one of the truly bad trades of his tenure, sending Curtis Glencross to Edmonton for Dick Tarnstrom.  Tarnstrom played well for a few games in the post trade euphoria, but quickly faded to a non-entity.

It was during this time, on an eastern Canadian road swing that consisted of games against Toronto, Montreal, and Ottawa, that Hitch did one of his most interesting coaching ploys.  After a dismal loss to a bad Toronto team, Hitch walked out of the practice the next day, taking all the coaches with him.  In a sense, he demanded that the players take ownership of their performance.  As Captain, Foote lead the practice.  The team turned in a stunning victory in Montreal, as Pazzy pitched a shut out in his first return to his home turf.  They also beat Ottawa the next game.  The team was starting to roll.

It was at this time that an historic betrayal took place.  At the trading deadline, Captain Adam Foote forced a trade to the Colorado Avalanche for a first round pick, and a conditional pick if he signed with them the next year.  He did this by refusing to sign the long term deal Scott Howson was offering him (the money was less, but he signed for less than that in Colorado later), and threatening to be a bad player if he wasn't traded.  A private plane was waiting on the runway as the trade was consummated, and Foote flew to Minnesota that night, where Avalanche gear was already prepared for him to play that night.  Draw your own conclusions.

Sergei Federov was traded to Washington for prospect Theo Ruth, and the bubble was popped.  The team finished 4-6-3 in March, and 0-3-0 in April.  Rick Nash stepped up to be Captain.

This team finished 34W-36L-12OTL and a total of 80 points.  In spite of the controversy, and the terrible finish, this team was now the best team in franchise history.

One of Hitch's significant accomplishments as a coach was the rehabilitation of Nickolay Zherdev.  During the 2006-07 season, Nicky played 71Games (Gm) and went 10Goals-22Assists-32Points and -19 +/-.  At that time he was worth, 2, maybe 3 bags of pucks.  By playing Nicky in 2007-08 and putting up with his defensive indifference, Nicky nearly doubled the previous year's totals and went 82Gm-26G-35A-61P and -9 +/-.  This is soon to be very important (foreshadowing!).

By virtue of finishing 4th in the Central Division, and 13th in the Western Conference, the team drafted 6th overall, selecting Nikita Filatov in the 2008 entry draft.

Earlier in this history, I referred to Doug MacLean's tenure with the CBJ as the MacLeanian Epoch.  If the hiring of Scott Howson was the beginning of the Howsonian Era, then I would call the 2007-08 season the Early Stagnation Period.  The Early Stagnation Period ended abruptly at on June 20, 2008 at the entry draft, and became the Early Reformation Period of the Howsonian Era.  Using the first round pick obtained from Colorado in the trade for Adam Foote, Scott Howson was able to trade with the Flyers for tOSU product, R.J Umberger.

The roaring tide that was the Early Reformation Period of the Howsonian Era, July 1st and Free Agency came around.  Early in the free agency period the team made two important signings.  After losing the Brian Campbell sweepstakes to Chicago, and having Wade Redden refuse to consider Columbus in lieu of the New York Rangers, Howson signed Mike Commodore to shore up the defense.  Then, on July second, Howson traded Nickolay Zherdev and Parma, Ohio native Dan Fritsche  to the New York Rangers for Fedor Tyutin and Christian Backman, two defensemen.  Hitch's rehabilitation of Nicky had paid off.  In addition, on July 1, Howson traded Gilbert Brule to Edmonton for Raffi Torres a rugged winger coming off a serious knee injury.

In order to make up for the play making and scoring lost by the departure of Zherdev, Howson then signed free agent Kristian Huselius (aka Juice) a left winger.  It was easy to see that Howson had significantly improved the CBJ in a short time.

In a further departure from the early years of the franchise, David Vyborny, the team leader in assists was not offered a new contract at the end of the year.

The Glory Year

Nationwide Arena before the first ever playoff game.
The 2008-09 season was a great season for the CBJ, culminating in the first ever playoff appearance for the Franchise.  The heck with the foreshadowing!  This was the best year in franchise history!

With a significant roster retooling to work with, Hitch got busy.  The need to get the new parts all familiar with one another was evident, and the team was 4-6-0 in October.  The team then turned in the most consistent five months in franchise history, going 6-4-3 in November, 7-6-1 in December, 7-5-1 in January, 7-4-1 in February, and 9-4-2 to seal the deal in March.  Having clinched a playoff spot at a game in Chicago, the CBJ staggered to a 1-2-2 finish in April, indicative of the fact that they had left it all on the ice.

The playoffs were a bit of a let down, as Detroit swept us from the first round with 4 consecutive wins.  The only game that the CBJ truly competed in was the 4th game, a thunderous experience in which they fought back from behind, only to lose the game late on a bogus too many men on the ice call.  I would refrain from calling it bogus if the referees did not let Pittsburgh play a whole shift with 6 men later on in these same playoffs.  After that, any too many men penalty is bogus.

An interesting fact of this year, was the sowing of the seeds of this sweep.  In the CBJ's last game of the season played at Detroit, the Redwings just didn't show up to play.  The CBJ laid a 9-2 beating on them at the Joe, and Rick Nash equaled a feat that hadn't been done for over 50 years, and only then by the spectacular, Maurice 'Rocket' Richard.  Nash scored an unassisted hat trick.

I credit Mike Babcock with mercilessly whipping his team with this event, and the CBJ never skated close to Detroit for the next few years after that game.  They took one off, but Nash handed a big whip to Babcock with his accomplishment, and I believe that Babcock has made the most of it.

Of more important note, was the awesome spectacle of the game 4 in Nationwide Arena.  The team got down, the crowd got loud, and the team came back.  I have friends who were outside the arena, across Nationwide Boulevard, and when the CBJ scored, the crowd was clearly audible.  Anyone who experienced that game will never forget it.  An important lesson for the year to come, is that the crowd showed a great deal of competitive composure, and rose above the accomplishments of the other team.  We should be aspiring to that in the upcoming season.

Leading the offense in 2008-09 was Rick Nash, with 79 Points.  He also lead in goals with 40, and in assists with 39.  The Captain was huge this year.  Jan Hejda lead in plus/minus at +23, and Jared Boll lead in penalty minutes.  R.J. Umberger lead in power play goals with 9, and Rick Nash lead with a team all time record 5 short-handed goals.  Nash was the complete player in that year.  Raffi Torres lead in game winning goals with 6.

Manny Malhotra lead in face off percentage with 58% wins.  Fedor Tyutin lead in points by defensemen with 34, and goals by defensemen with 9.  Rick Nash had 2 hat tricks, one of them was an unassisted hat trick.

Fedor Tyutin lead all player in ice time with 23:30, and Rick Nash lead the forwards with 21:09 TOI.

The other big story of this year played out in the goal tending ranks, when Steve Mason came out of no where to win the Calder Trophy as the rookie of the year.  He lead the squad in games played at 61, GAA of 2.29, and a save percentage of .916.  Steve Mason also lead the team in wins, with 33, and posted a team record 10 shut outs, surpassing Pascal LeClaire's mark of 9 in 2007-08.

A big story in this season was the play of rookies, Jakub Voracek and Derick Brassard.  Brassard had rookie of the month performances in October and November, before falling to a shoulder injury in a fight against Dallas, where he went to the aid of teammate.   Jakub Voracek had a very good year (9-29-38), and played solid hockey.  Certainly where these two were concerned, the future was bright (foreshadowing!).


It's time to end this post on a positive note.  The 2009-09 season was a great season for the whole organization.  The first ever playoff appearance, the remaking of the roster, and the most successful team in franchise history.

Scott Howson inherited a team that was suited to playing pre-lockout hockey.  Fortunately, he also inherited a coach who may have been one of the best at coaching the game in the pre-lockout style.

Ken Hitchcock coached a partial season that ended up being the second best team in franchise history, the best team in franchise history to date the following year, one that did not make the playoffs.  The next year he coached the best team in franchise history that did make the playoffs, and, as I will discuss in the next post, the following year, the third best team in franchise history, an event his coaching job would not survive.  Greek Tragedy, foreshadowing, and any other literary device you care to name comes in here.

Up Next:  The Howsonian Era, The Later Stagnation


1 comment:

  1. I'm over 60 years old and have been attending sporting events since I was a baby, but I've never experienced a more intense, emotional, and exciting environment than Game 4 vs Detroit! Let's do that again!


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