Monday, April 16, 2012

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

*Lyrics from the Grateful Dead Song Truckin'

A Rainbow with its end at Nationwide Arena,
A Promise that The Flood Will Not Come Again?
When we last considered the Columbus Blue Jackets 2011-12 NHL season, training camp was winding down to a close.  The teams of mostly rookies had played well in the last couple of pre-season games.  James Wisniewski was under an inexplicably long suspension, which would become more ludicrous as the season progressed.  Nonetheless, hope, anticipation, and confidence ran high.  The addition of Jeff Carter promised to spring Rick Nash on a career year.  The loss of Mark Dekanich for the season, and an early injury to Curtis Sanford meant the goal tending position was thin, but Steve Mason had played well down the stretch in the pre-season.  Like the inexorable doom of a Greek Tragedy, the season opener approached.  Youngsters Cam Atkinson and Matt Calvert made the team, and the promise of three scoring lines, primed to decimate the NHL was anticipated.

The puck finally drops in Nationwide Arena for the 2011-12 season, and in the first game, the Nashville Predators  would jump up on the CBJ 3-1 early, and although the Jackets closed to 3-2 in the third period, they were unable to solve Pekka Rinne, and lost the opener 3-2.  It would be 8 games later until the CBJ finally won a game, digging a hole so deep out of the gate that the 2011-12 season was effectively ended as far as playoff competition before November even started.  Scott Arniel's failure to integrate the new veterans into the team in training camp lead to a situation that rapidly spun out of control.  By the fifth game, Jeff Carter had been sidelined with a broken foot.  By the sixth game, the goal tending situation was so bad due to injuries that Mathieu Corbeil was recalled from the St. John's Seadogs on an emergency recall, and Wiz still had two games to serve on his suspension.  An 0-7-1 start and the balloon was popped.  The CBJ finished the month of October 2-9-1.

The wheels came off in a November 5, 2011 game against Philadelphia that the CBJ lost 9-2.  The score is somewhat deceiving, in that the game was not really that close.  With a record of 2-11-1, Scott Arniel used a 5 day break to attempt to establish some sort of ability to play defense.  Arniel's up tempo offensive system was in a shambles, and they made plans to operate with another forward up high to help the beleaguered defensemen counter the endless odd man rushes that Arniel's system was allowing.  In the first 16 games, Arniel's defensive system gave up a staggering 60 goals against.  Meanwhile, his up tempo offensive system was seldom ever able to score two goals, and scored a mere 36 in that same interval.  A 24 goal differential over 16 games.  The CBJ finished 4-11-1 over that stretch of games.

There are some interesting things about these numbers.  If memory serves me correctly, the 2007-08 CBJ squat set a record for being shut out the most times in the NHL.  Only 4 years removed form that the Jackets are scoring two goals with regularity, with only 1 game in the aforementioned 16 games in which they scored only 1 goal.  Unfortunately, they were only able to hold the opposition to 1 goal three times in that stretch.  In addition, the CBJ established themselves as a team unable to close out a game, losing late in games several times in the first half of the season, many of which are too agonizing to even re-hash (cough, Ottawa, cough).

One of the marked issues early in this season was the utter failure of any veteran player on the CBJ to play well in this season.  In fact, it is safe to say that none of them played well at all until well into the season, and Scott Arniel was long gone.  I believe there are a couple of things going on here.  First of all, most of these players had played for Ken Hitchcock.  The had spent years being told that 'dangling' the puck was bad, and random stupid shots were not a good thing, that you needed to get the puck deep, make the other teams  defense turn around and face the boards and play defense as a way to limit offensive breakouts.

In Arniel's system, any shot was a good shot.  And early in the season, the CBJ struggled with puck possession, because they never made the other team play D.  It was not unusual at all for a player to come down the wing, pop a shot at the goal tender from above the face off circle, along the boards (yes, I'm talking to you Antoine Vermette).  This was often the first player down the ice.  The opposing goal tender, with a clear view of the shot would deflect it to the corner to his defenseman, who would promptly pass it up ice just as the rest of the CBJ forwards were getting to the offensive blue line.  A total run and gun offense.  The analogy in college basketball is coming down the court leading a break, and pulling up and popping the the three point jump shot (from behind the pro arc of course).  No offensive possession is established, and the other team takes off with the puck or the ball, depending on which sport you are talking about.  The action is the same.  Its also lazy.  No need to go into the hard areas near the crease, just launch the puck from outside.

In my opinion, the players steeped in Hitchcock's work ethic, and constant harping on his system simply did not believe in Arniel's system.  I think they felt that they needed to attempt to play the system, but they new in their heart that it would not win at the NHL.  And Arniel certainly had no clue about how to coach defense at the NHL level.  And everyone knows that defense wins in the NHL.  Exhibit 1 was the teams inability to win close games.  Arniel persisted in putting the wrong people on the ice at the end of the game for the wrong reasons.  And the rest of the NHL, having done their homework, was not fooled.  We will develop the theme of how Arniel's strategies prevented success in our next segment.  I think he also did a lot of things to prevent 'the Captain', Rick Nash, from being able to lead.  More on that later.

It's early November, and the CBJ are functionally out of the playoffs.  The phrase 'Fail for Nail' has already been used in the blogosphere.  But there is much more to come in the strange and twisted saga of the 2011-12 season, which we will pick up later, after I have watched some playoff hockey, and done my golf handicapping duties.  It is that time of year.


1 comment:

  1. Arniel's system never struck me as up-tempo. They had an aggressive, two-forward forecheck, but it was a very boring offense. Very puck-control oriented, very dull stuff. He can call it up-tempo all he likes, but all Arniels offense consisted of was dump-and-chase hockey. Endless, unproductive cycling with intermittent puck battles and lots of low percentage shots.


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