Friday, February 1, 2013

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

I was genuinely excited for last night's Columbus Blue Jackets-St. Louis Blues game.

It was supposed to be one of those nights.  The type of game that, in a lengthy season, a guy could get excited for.  Morgan covered the topics well in his recap - last night's game was supposed to be a blogger's paradise.  It was, as best as the Blue Jackets can get these days, an honest-to-goodness rivalry game.  Or at least the beginnings of a real rivalry.

Instead, it quickly became one of those nights.  We know them all too well as Blue Jackets fans.  Those nights are the ones where you go in with excitement and optimism only to see your team lay a colossal egg right before your eyes...and often before you can finish your first beverage.  This goes until the other team takes their foot off the gas and allows the Blue Jackets some semblance of a comeback...although we all know the hole is too deep to climb out of in the time remaining.

It was an all-too-familiar - and entirely unwelcome - feeling.  Which meant, of course, that Steve Mason had to have his best outing of the year.

I'll keep the improving Mason, but you can take the rest.

Happier times for Brandon Dubinsky
Speaking of all-too-familiar, Brandon Dubinsky went off after the loss:
We didn’t come out and play hard enough." ... “That’s been the theme the whole year so far. [Emphasis added]  We’ve got to come out with some fire, some passion. We didn’t do it again tonight.” ... “(The Blues have) some good players, no doubt about it, but they’re not good enough to make us look the way we did in the first period, I can tell you that much.” ... “We’ve got to come here tomorrow ready to work and find a way to get that passion and play the game you see in the last 30 minutes of these games. (That’s) the way we’re capable of playing. It’s got to be a start-to-finish effort though, that’s the only way we’re going to win hockey games.”
Sounds remarkably like another veteran, one with a little sense of winning hockey propping him up, who came to town and wasn't thrilled with what he saw:
“For us to be getting out of this, it’s a matter of putting more pride in ourselves going to the net, creating screens, getting on loose pucks,” Prospal said. “But I would say the biggest thing is it starts in practice. It’s the way you practice that becomes the habits you take into the game." ... "This is what the young guys should be doing, and the older guys should be teaching them to do.” ... "[This has] been going on for six games. The coaches are expressing enough, but ultimately it’s up to each individual, how they approach it. The coaches can do only so much to guide you, show you what to do. Ultimately, it’s on the individual to perform out there. Not try to do it, do it." ... “I wouldn’t want to judge (the franchise) because I haven’t spent much time here. But for right now, for sure, it’s one of the reasons why we are where we are.” (Vinny Prospal, October 2011)
Or does it sound like another veteran, one with his own sense of winning hockey, who came to town and wasn't thrilled with what he saw (taking from "Michael Arace commentary: Changing culture of Jackets is good thing", Columbus Dispatch, August 31, 2007):
In March 2006, Sergei Fedorov, after four months with the Blue Jackets, was asked by a Los Angeles reporter about his linemates at the time, Rick Nash and Zherdev. 
Fedorov answered, "They're strong individually, both of my wingers. I'm not used to playing by myself. I try to connect both of them as a line, but at times it's not, you know, that easy. ... I'd say they would be 50 percent better players if they would dish it off sometimes. ... It has been a lot of fun, and a lot of work. It has been interesting." 
Fedorov went on to say Nash and Zherdev needed to improve their day-to-day work ethic. [Emphasis added]
Another 2007 article added: "Sergei Fedorov stepped up as the vocal leader last season, publicly criticizing the team in an attempt to get the team to play with a chip on their shoulders."  Wish I could find that direct quote.  Lord knows I tried.

I appreciate that John Davidson is new to the job and requires a honeymoon before being judged.  I also appreciate that the "brick by brick" jargon he uses suggests that this version of Rome wasn't built in a day, and his version won't get built quickly, either.  I get that.

At the same time, this is feeling like Groundhog Day.  I mean, seriously - how many clear-eyed veterans have to come in and say that something is rotten in the state of Denmark?  Was three enough, or do you want more?  For surely, more will speak up until something changes.

And when Davidson uses his opening press conference to say that the team will not get outworked - a matter more of personal pride than skill, for I readily acknowledge that working hard will not necessarily lead to wins - only to see yet another vet who understands how life is outside of Nationwide Arena to throw up his arms in frustration before 10 games are out of the way?  No, that's not good at all.

I hoped that dropping the number of Hitchcock holdovers down to its current number of six (Boll, Brassard, Dorsett, Mason, Tyutin, Umberger) would marginalize whatever dysfunctional culture existed within that group.  I am concerned that it has not.  So there's my solution, once again: Move 'em out.  If you're brighter than me and can pinpoint the precise person/people who cause this lethargy to happen, get rid of them first and see what happens.

Speaking of Hitch, let's put the cherry on this sundae.

In his postgame comments, the Blues coach had the opportunity to offer some pleasantries and get his new team out of town.  Instead, he helped the Blue Jackets double down on their state of despair:
"The three goals in the first period came too easy for us," said St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock, who led the Blue Jackets to their only trip to the playoffs in 2008-09. "Then we started making puck decisions that we haven't made all year. We played a good first period and then a sloppy second period."

That's right, the only reason his team played bad at all was that our team was so incredibly terrible as to lull them into a sense of malaise.  Not their fault, nope.  Ours.  (And I use "ours" to mean Columbus and "theirs" to mean St. Louis, to be clear.)

Hitch is trimmer now, but no less imposing.
It gets better.  Taking the only non-Mason moral victory of the night - the fact that we could goon it up on them like they are so wont to do to us - he spun it into a statement about team weakness (fragility?) on Nationwide Boulevard:
"Well, there were fights. But I don't know that it was that physical. ... It wasn't anything like our games with Nashville. There were fights, but I didn't think it was that physical."  (Here and here)
Was that nice?  Of course not.  This is about winning, both now and the four other times that the two teams will meet before this season is done.  Because he know that his team will be playing deep into June if he has anything to say about it, and he wants every standings point he can get.  If he can grab 10 relatively easy points from the Blue Jackets, all the easier.

Thus, Hitch has to get in his old team's grill, and he's doing a wonderful job at it.  He knows the Blue Jackets' weaknesses and is exploiting them like a master.  He plays chess while the rest of us are struggling with checkers.

So where does that leave us?  Eight games in, is it time to call it a season (playoffs-wise, I mean)?  I honestly don't know.  The balance of this six-game home stand will likely tell us whether the Blue Jackets will be tying up the skate laces in June...or teeing off.

But there's always the enjoy this nugget and dream of what might be with three first round picks:


  1. Tom:

    Terrific write up! As for changing the culture, I absolutely agree that the 6 or so holdouts from the Hitch era need to go.

    Remember when Claude Noel called out this team on their lack of physical conditioning when he was interim coach? And, what was the team's response? A near mutiny led by Umberger. Unfortunately, the front office saw this as a weakness in Noel and ran him out of town. So, you can add even a Coach or two that has tried to straighten out this team but to no avail.

    Doktor Z

    1. Great point on Noel - and on Umberger.

      Speaking of, I have serious reservations about whether Umberger was in game shape at the beginning of the season, as he only now is even showing sparks of energy. Way too much standing, too much coasting.

      Claude would be ticked.

  2. Umberger looks like he's ready to turn in his AARP card. SLOW!!!! That being said, he played much better against Detroit last night.


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