Friday, April 13, 2012

What a Long Strange Trip It's Been*: Part I

Set up, like a bowling pin, knocked down, it gets to wearin’ thin…*

* Lyrics from the Grateful Dead song Truckin'

The end of the 2011-12 NHL regular season is now history.  How to describe the long, unholy experience of the Columbus Blue Jackets fan of this year?  As a season ticket holder, I have to confess that I have seen these guys playing out the string before.  I have seen the false hopes before, and bought into them.  There is something a little different about this version though, while I am jaded by experience, that gives me hope.  But we'll get into that much later.

So I guess I want to accomplish two things here.  I want to do a season recap from my admittedly somewhat twisted perspective.  And, for the sheer fun of it, I am going to adopt something of a contrarian position, that Howson’s vision of an up tempo, Chicago style, attack offense is a goalie and maybe another player away from coming to fruition.  You will see other viewpoints offered on this blog, and I am not interested in doing anything to diminish the credibility of those view points.  Perhaps the hardest thing for a Blue Jackets fan to have at this point is perspective.  So I want to look at things from another viewpoint, as well as recap the season.  Perhaps we will all gain perspective from that.  Worst case scenario, our readers will have a good time taunting me.

As much as it pains me to say it, Scott Howson’s personnel conversion to an up tempo, offensive attack team is nearly complete.  The only real question is, does he get to stay around and see it?  Could Howson be the next Dale Tallon 2 years from now?  As it turns out, the key acquisition was not a center for Nash in Jeff Carter; it was the acquisition of Jack Johnson for Carter and a number one pick.  At this point, in retrospect, we traded Jake Voracek, a 3rd rounder, and about 6 or 8 slots in draft order for Jack Johnson (JMFJ).  Really?  The thought of JMFJ and Wiz patrolling the blue line as number one pair has an upside so high you need a ladder to get it in view.  They have the potential to be a dominant pair next year.

The offseason

However, for a good recap, we need to start at the beginning.  Which is about this time last year, when the CBJ, due to their tailspin down the stretch, and of course, failing to win the draft lottery <facepalm>, were sitting in the 8th slot in the first round of the 2011 entry draft.  Shortly before the draft, Scott Howson pulled off what appeared to be a consummate theft by trade, by trading Jake Voracek, our number one pick (turned into Couterier [ouch]) and a 3rd round pick to Philadelphia for perennial 30 goal scorer Jeff Carter.  This looked to be an amazingly outstanding trade for about 24 hours, when its luster was diminished by Philadelphia sending Mike Richards to the Kings, and by Carter’s going into seclusion following the trade.  Now all of a sudden our great trade looks to be a house cleaning by Philadelphia, and we end up sending a 'trade' mission out to the east coast to try to talk Carter into getting his arms around the trade.  It worked a little bit.

The next great piece of news in the off season was the signing of James Wisniewski to a free agent contract.  By trading a 6th round pick to Montreal for the rights to talk to Wiz, Howson got the job done in signing the offensively minded defenseman to a long term, albeit hefty, contract.  I think we will find moving forward that this will be a key acquisition for the CBJ.  Plugging vastly upgraded talent into two gaping holes in the roster in the offseason, things looked bright as the CBJ started preparing to head into training camp with expectations of improving on the previous year’s disappointing season (Please note the use of the literary tool ‘foreshadowing’ where impending doom is disguised by a rosy outlook.  We am literary geniuses on this here blog).

Perhaps the cracks in the hull of the good ship CBJ that burgeoned into gushing leaks during the 2011-12 NHL regular season should have been there for all to see.  The lifeless swoon at the end of the 2010-11 regular season, the fact that Bob Boughner got out of town like a rat off a sinking ship (an apt analogy, I’ll give him credit for seeing where this was going), and the talk going into training camp with 3 offensive lines, when it is well known that you win in almost any sport with good defense.  But, being a glass half full kind of guy, I couldn’t see these things, along with many of our fan base.  I looked forward to an enjoyable season, and was anxious for training camp to start.

Let’s pause here for a moment, while we try to place these events in the history of the franchise.  We are getting ready to enter into the second full year of Scott Howson’s attempt to transform the CBJ into the Chicago Blackhawks south, an attack style team playing a puck possession offensive style.  He has managed to jettison many of the holdovers from the Hitchcock ‘defense first’ style of roster, by getting rid of Commodore, Klesla, and ‘Weighty’ Murray.  He did not re-sign Stralman because he didn’t live up to his offensive billing, and couldn’t play defense (please note the difference good coaching makes at the NYR).  For an expansion franchise, a lack of talent is always the main issue until you have been in the league for a goodly period of time.  Our expansion brethren Minnesota and Nashville adopted defense first strategies, coupled with consistency of purpose in the latter case (Minnesota is in the third year of a conversion of its roster to a puck possession attack style offense, and is having similar results as the CBJ in terms of playoff appearances).  In retrospect, this is the way to start an expansion franchise.

However, going into 2011-12, the CBJ is sporting as much talent as it has ever had.  Two All-Star players in the top 6, a shiny new defenseman who can move the puck, and things are looking up for this new franchise.  True the goal tending had not been really addressed, and was based on hope, which is not really a strategy, as well documented by Jeff over on Ten Minute Misconduct in his series on goal tending called ‘Tools of Ignorance’.  Just so everyone is clear, we finished the season with Plan E in the goal.  It’s one thing when Plan A doesn’t work.  In the NHL you are in huge, huge trouble when you have Plan D in goal for important games at the end of the year, and Plan C has carried the load for a lot of the year.  But I digress.

Prior to training camp there remained one important issue to be resolved before the 2011-12 season could really kick off.  Kristian Huselius tore a pectoral muscle while lifting weights in the off season, putting him out of action for at least half of the year.  To overcome this loss, Howson signed Valcav ‘Vinny’ Prospal as a free agent.  We will wait for retrospect to try to measure the complete impact of this move, but as of this writing, it stands to have a very large impact on the organization as a whole.

In another move that ends up looming large in the offseason, the CBJ hire former Minnesota Wild Coach Todd Richardson to replace the departed Bob Boughner.  It is a good move, as Richardson shares the same offensive philosophies as then Head Coach Scott Arniel, with the added benefit of being a much better coach.  But , again, we’ll get into that later.  

Training Camp

Ahhh.  The start of training camp.  There is just about nothing better for a hockey starved fan after a long and boring August broken only by CannonFest.  Training camp opens to a packed Ice Haus, with everyone looking forward to their first looks at Jeff Carter, James Wisniewski, and Cam Atkinson.  It’s an exciting time, and the owner’s tournament provides another day of entertainment for the packed house of hockey starved fans.  Then Head Coach Scott Arniel is talking about the offensive capability of the team, and the possibility of running three scoring lines, while further neglecting defensive responsibility, er, uh, using one checking line.

Now that the formalities of getting training camp under way, the long wait for the season opener starts.  But, that wait is slated to be broken some by the pre-season games.  And the first game is an historic game, a split squad matchup between the newly moved Winnipeg Jets and the CBJ, inaugurating a new era of hockey in Winnipeg.  The Jets celebrated this event by getting their goon on early.  In Winnipeg, the mammoth Dustin Byfuglien drops the gloves off the opening faceoff with none other than the diminutive Matt Calvert.  Ok then.  That proves, what?  Here in Columbus, the Winnipeg goon fest gets going early in the first period, when a Jet runs the goal tender, Mark Dekanich, giving him a high ankle sprain that ultimately required surgery.  One period of pre-season is all that came of @dexshow’s one way NHL contract.  Howson’s plan B in goal has now been erased, one period into the preseason.

The preseason continues, with Arniel playing squads that are heavy with young players destined to spend the season in the AHL with the Springfield Falcons, and doing little to integrate the new veterans, Carter and Wisniewski into the team structure.  And then, September 29, a fateful day in CBJ history, when James Wisniewski throws an elbow at laughing Cal Clutterbuck after the preseason game, and the new discipline czar Brendan Shanhan hands down a 12 game suspension, 4 preseason games and 8 regular season games for the act.  This suspension became more ludicrous and laughable as the year went on and we watched other much more severe actions given much lesser punishment.  The fact that the CBJ took this suspension without complaint should leave Wiz with about a 6 game credit in Shanaban land.  This suspension also contributed mightily to the face plant the CBJ took out of the gate, when Wiz’s character in the locker room was sorely missed.  The season was effectively over before Wiz was even able to get back into the lineup.

I can clearly remember following the CBJ’s last two preseason games, how Minnesota brought a ‘veteran laden’ lineup and how Carolina played a ‘veteran laden’ lineup against the lineup of young players we put on the ice.  The last two preseason games the CBJ played very young lineups of AHL players battling to make the roster, and they performed well against the ‘veteran laden’ lineups of Minnesota and Carolina.  I can remember in my naiveté being pleased by these results.  In some ways it bodes well for our future, though neither Carolina nor Minnesota made the playoffs.  What I did not recognize, is that by bringing ‘veteran laden’ lineups in those last preseason games, those organizations were getting their veterans ready for the new season.  Arniel did almost nothing to get his veterans ready to play, with tragic results.  As a coach, this is a huge failing on Arniel’s part, and is one of the reasons he should have been fired sooner, for totally wasting his training camp on youngsters who were sent down in the first two weeks of the season.  Before the dust had settled from this mistake, the 2011-12 NHL season was a matter of record, as the CBJ stumbled to the worst start in franchise history.  

Again, from the perspective of Scott Howson, all is well.  We are coming out of training camp with a fairly dynamic group of young players, and heck, we haven't even played the veterans!  The thought of a third scoring line is talked about a great deal.  This is certain to cause match up problems for other teams!  The CBJ puck possession juggernaut is about to be unleashed on the NHL!! 

On this happy note, I will finish this post.  Things look bright in CBJ land!  No more of this dull, winning, Hitch hockey!  We're moving the puck darn it!  And while the CBJ ended up moving the puck well, and being a fairly dynamic offensive team (the last team in the NHL to suffer a shut out in 2011-12), the team had no coherent defensive scheme.  This turned out to be problematic once the puck dropped on the regular season, events which I will pick up in Part II (once I have finished the taxes).


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