Tuesday, July 23, 2013

There is preseason hype,but is there October hope?

There's nothing offensive about this picture, is there?
It’s July in Columbus, Ohio and it means one thing – that Blue Jackets fans must suffer increasing coverage of the Ohio State Buckeyes men's football team in print, TV, and digital media coverage.  As Bobby Boucher's foozeball season approaches, the small, but loyal core of CBJ fans here in Columbus band together and look forward to Cannonfest, then the start of CBJ training camp, followed by lame pre-season games, and then finally - the start of the NHL season in early October.   Not uncommon, there is the usual excitement surrounding the team this season with player acquisitions/retention  - and an added unfamiliar feeling of credibility as the team heads into its first full season with a legitimate front office.  As an early adopter to the CBJ, I remain cautiously optimistic.

Richards to be Olympic Assistant

USA Olympic Assistant Todd Richards
The Blue Jackets are reporting that Todd Richards has been named to Dan Bylsma's USA Olympic coaching staff, joining Peter Laviolette and Tony Granato.  Hopefully Richards' Olympic coaching experience has a different outcome than the CBJ's last Olympic Assistant, Ken Hitchcock, who was dismissed as Coach prior to the Olympics that year (2009-10).  That, if you recall, was the first boulder in a landslide of misfortune and ineptitude that finally culminated in a last place finish in 2011-12, and a complete restructuring of hockey operations for the CBJ.  The similarities are frightening, coming off a good end to the season, an award winning goalie, and an Olympic Assistant for a coach.  Good thing I'm one of those glass half full kinda guys, otherwise....

Doom and gloom aside, this can also be seen as a continuation of the strength and league wide recognition of the improvement in the hockey operations department, led by John Davidson.  This summer seems like its less wishful thinking than the summer prior to 2009-10 and more grounded in reality.  I'm glad for Todd, and again, this is great exposure to other coaches and their coaching philosophies, and a real resume builder for him.  Oh, by the way, making a deep run in the Eastern Conference playoffs this year would be really good for your resume Todd, in case you had forgotten.  Just sayin'...


Sunday, July 21, 2013

Metro Mania

The 2013-14 schedule is out, now that an Olympic agreement has been reached.  The NHL players will play in the Olympics, and the schedule will be compressed to allow the time for an Olympic break.  All of this is covered pretty well by @OhioHockeyDog over on the Union Blue, and it would be foolish of me to try to recreate such a good synopsis of the schedule.  Its a good read, check it out.  And of course, @RockmanHalo has been ranking all the Eastern Conference match ups over on Full Mental Jackets from a bit of a different perspective.

I was anxiously awaiting the schedule and the new division name, and I have to confess that it didn't 'Wow' me when I first heard it.  The "Metropolitan Division" to me seems to come out of left field.  But then one of my relatives asked me who was in the Division.  So I started reeling off the names - New York Rangers, New York Islanders, New Jersey Devils, Washington Capitals, Philadelphia Flyers .... and at that point I started to realize there might be something to the name.  Throw in Columbus, Pittsburgh, and the Raleigh area as a group of 'lesser Metropoli' (Metropolises?) and you have the Division.  So I can see the sense in it, but it doesn't sing to me.  And I know I'm always gonna call it the Metro Division anyway.  Metropolitan is too big a mouthful, so why name a division something that is going to be shortened?

But, there it is, and I'm sure I'll get used to it.  And I'm already looking forward to the Divisional competition.  There was something sweet about seeing New Jersey self-destructing with the whole Kovalchuk thing.  I think it was the notion of a powerful divisional foe shooting themselves in the foot, and thus weakening themselves.  The Devils will recover, and they are sorting out their goal tending issues, and likely we can look for a series of 1-0 games against them, but I don't want to try to predict which way that will go.

There are already story lines developing for the upcoming year, and I look forward to it getting started.  Philadelphia looks like a wreck, sitting $2 million over the cap (thanks CapGeek).  But they will get it down, and once the puck drops they will start playing some good hockey.  We will get to see how the old Blue Jackets would have been if they would have had some defense and goal tending when the Rangers come to town.  You can bet Brass will have one of his best games of the year.  Of course, maybe Arniel will bench him, so we got that going for us.

Boston showed the way for how to beat Pittsburgh in the playoffs this year, and for the nonce they don't look quite so formidable.  But that's playoff hockey, not regular season hockey, and the Pens will likely revert to being the prohibitive cup favorite.  Be that as it may, the next time someone brings up the fact to you that the CBJ got swept out of the playoffs by Detroit, you might want to point out to them that the mighty Penguins duplicated that feat this year, being swept out of the playoffs without ever holding a lead.

Unfortunately, the Islanders young talent seems to be coming of age at an inopportune moment. Those should be some interesting games as they are one of the teams we have not historically played well against.  And it will be interesting to see the match up against 'Team Staal' down in North Carolina.  And somehow, someway, I'm going to have to resurrect that Hitler rant from when we played the Capitals back in 2008-09.  That was an all time classic.  I hope I can find it.

Here's hoping that the first season in the Metro Division goes well for the Blue Jackets.  We aren't part of anyone's rivalry list yet in the Eastern Conference.  We need to beat people to make them pay attention, and we may have the wherewithal this year if we can find the scoring.  It will certainly be entertaining, and I look forward to the season getting started.


Friday, July 19, 2013

Another trip in the DBJ "Way Back Machine"

It's not often that I borrow ideas from my blogging compadres here at DBJ.  But I have bumped into a lovely piece of nostalga that I had to share on the blog - and had to borrow the 'Way back' mantra.  This little gem of a sports section was found in a counterparts desk organizer at work.  A sports section from long ago.  After flipping through it today I wonder how far the team, the media coverage, and fan perception of the team/players has come since the date this paper was printed.  There was no twitter, blogs were in their infancy, and the Jackets enjoyed years of first round picks.  So sit back, relax, enjoy the rich sarcasm, and as in most of my blog pieces, prepare to have your beliefs about the CBJ challanged.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Kovalchuk defects; CBJ dodge 2 bullets

The NHL lockout claimed yet another victim today when forward Ilya Kovalchuk voluntarily retired from the National Hockey League to return home to Russia, presumably in the hopes of returning to play for his lockout team, the Kontinental Hockey League's SKA St. Petersburg franchise.  The SKA part hasn't been worked out yet, but I think it's a formality at this point.

Had there not been a lockout, Kovalchuk wouldn't have had extended exposure to SKA and the KHL.  It stands to reason that the 30-year-old scorer wouldn't have seriously considered walking away from $77 million of New Jersey Devils money over the next 12 years for whatever SKA offered him in terms of money and/or lifestyle.  But there was, and he did.  So I blame the lockout.

That sentiment is from the NHL fan in me.  The Blue Jackets fan in me, however, is downright giddy on two levels.

Fun at Development Camp

Alex Wennberg, Number 41
I got a chance to go down to Development Camp for a bit on Wednesday.  I got a chance to take some photos, which will come in handy throughout the year.  Unfortunately, I was unable to spend enough time or pay enough attention to come away with anything close to a conclusion about anything.  And in a way, this really isn't the place to try to draw conclusions, the tournament at Traverse City will give you more information.  There's some speed in this group, but how that matches up with the rest of the NHL remains to be seen.   But here's a few photos of the guys who will be the 'usual suspects' over the next three years.

Kerby Rychel, Number 52

Marko Dano, Number 56

Oliver Bjorkstrand, Number 65

Dillon Heatherington, Number 64

Ilari Melart, Number 29

Ryan Murray, Number 27

Monday, July 8, 2013

Tune in and/or set your DVR's: 3 hours of CBJ coverage!

I've been tickled to see how FOX Sports Ohio's relatively recent acquisition of SportsTime Ohio has resulted in even greater exposure for the Columbus Blue Jackets.  Specifically, STO's "All Bets Are Off" show, a daily talker discussing all sorts of Ohio sports, has taken a liking to the Blue Jackets of late.

Now, on the eve of CBJ development camp, I get this press release from the home office:


All Bets Are Off With Bruce Drennan to air LIVE from Columbus
Tuesday, July 9, 2013

CLEVELAND, OH – SportsTime Ohio’s All Bets Are Off With Bruce Drennan will air LIVE from the west plaza outside Columbus Blue Jackets’ Nationwide Arena tomorrow, Tuesday, July 9 from 3:30pm – 6:30pm.


Jarmo strengthens scouting
Today Columbus Blue Jackets General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen continued his remake of the scouting department of the CBJ by hiring former co-worker Ville Siren, formerly of the St. Louis Blues.  Siren will hold the position of head amateur scout working under Paul Castron, the head of amateur scouting.  My interpretation of this is that the scouts will be responsible to Ville, while Ville will be responsible to Castron.  I know Porty and Arace are going to love this move because Ville Siren is a former Hartford Whaler.  I think that hits them where they live.

This move will strengthen our scouting staff, which is always welcome news.  And, these scouts will be doing it Jarmo's way, because that's what Ville Siren is here to do, because Jarmo's got bigger fish to fry.  So this is a good thing, no doubt.  And we hope a job that get's tougher, cause we hope to be moving down in the draft order as a consequence of finishing higher in the Atlantic Division of the Eastern Conference (dang I love saying that).

In addition to the hiring of Siren, hired former NHLer Josef Boumedienne as the European Scout.  Wait, what?  We have one of those?  Well, maybe not before, but we have one now.  Once again, this is a good addition to our scouting staff.

Jarmo should get a chance to hire his guys.  The biggest difference between the guys Jarmo hires and those that GMSH hired is that Jarmo's guys all have previous experience.  And that's a good thing.


Saturday, July 6, 2013

There's Nowhere to Go But Up; the Strategic Position

The Blue Jackets are once again a Cap Team.  According to CapGeek.com the CBJ have $2.691 million left under the cap.  The Vezina Trophy winner is signed.  Our prized free agent, Nathan Horton is signed.  We have our backbone, and we have upgraded the top six in the scoring department, well, at least after Christmas.  So where do we stand?

The last time we were a cap team we finished thirtieth, dead last in the league. So in that regard, there is nowhere to go but up.  But the other thing is that at this point, we don't really even have the team that we had next year.  Nathan Horton will return after Christmas, and bring a welcome addition for the stretch run, giving the CBJ an ability to elevate their play in the second half of the season.  But there is that pesky first half of the season, the same one that scuttled all of our hopes before Halloween the last time we were a cap team.  And, we still have not signed our top scorer from last year, Vinny Prospal.  If you are a reader of this space, you know that Tom and I have been agitating for Vinny's return, almost to an embarrassing degree.  But since I have no shame, I'll say that it was refreshing to see Jarmo's words on the Blue Jackets web site yesterday that they were strongly considering all that Vinny brought to the team, and how that was going to work with the cap (couldn't find the link, sorry).

From a personal standpoint, I think Vinny is a critical piece for the team going forward.  We can't afford to lose the scoring he will bring, especially in the first half of the season.  Actually, its almost ideal, as Vinny's aging body starts to betray his indomitable will, Horton will come off IR, and take the pressure off Vinny. We certainly can't afford to give up the leadership he brings, the ability to show the young players how to balance fun and hard work.  That's irreplaceable. The real problem is that if you add his salary from last year ($2.5 million I believe) to this year's payroll then we have roughly $100k in cap space left.  Not enough if you run into injuries and need to bring people up from the AHL.  That is really tight, and not at all workable.

However, the good folks at CapGeek also have Ryan Murray included in that total, at a $3.49 million cap hit.  If Murray starts the year in the AHL, that's not on the books.  And honestly, there is no reason to rush Murray.  Defensemen take a while to get their feet under them, and he didn't get to play the second half of last year.  So from a developmental standpoint, I'd much rather see him start the year in the AHL.  Then if injuries occur, and they need to bring him up that's fine.  But I would rather see him in the good hands of Brad Larson down in Springfield to start the year.  Plus there is a huge cap benefit.

Which gets me back to my fixation with Vinny.  I think he is the catalyst for the mental toughness the team displayed down the stretch in 2012-13, something that they will need in spades their first year in the Atlantic Division of the Eastern Conference.  (I'm done with Division D, it lacks class)

Jarmo wanted to wait for this point before he signed Vinny.  I understand that, it makes sense.  But its time to get him in the fold.  Get this one done Jarmo, its time to negotiate a contract with Vinny that works.  It's a big one.


Friday, July 5, 2013

A note of caution to the CBJ as free agency looms

First, I'll just come out and say it: I am in the tank for Vinny Prospal.  

That said, let me offer the word of caution that I referenced in the title to this post:


Let's now discuss why I say that.

Horton Visit, Free Agency Looms

Puck Rakers is reporting that Nathan Horton, forward from the Boston Bruins used the early visitation period for Free Agents to visit Columbus and take in Red, White, and Boomer.  The scuttlebutt on Twitter is that the visit went well, and I expect that the CBJ will make this guy an offer at noon today.  Horton is reported to have a shoulder injury from the playoffs that will need surgery, so he won't be ready by training camp.  All that said, if you can get him for reasonable free agent money (which is more than is reasonable, but that's a different issue), he's a solid addition to the top six, a true power forward, a right hand shot true right winger, that has always been a rare commodity on the CBJ.

So this all sounds good, but problematically, it looks like Vinny Prospal is getting squeezed out by a numbers game.  He was our second leading scorer last year, and brought a lot to the team in a lot of different ways.  It may be that once things have settled after free agency that he will be signed again.  He may well play in Europe to be ready to represent his country in the Olympics if another NHL team doesn't pick him up.  I hope JD and Jarmo remember that they now have a vacancy in the organization.  Having Vinny in town is just a good thing for Columbus.  I hope something breaks in Vinny's favor here, but he's another year older and every player must face this at some time.  It's hard to have the courage to go out on top, but maybe its that time for Vinny.

It should be a dynamic day for the CBJ.  We'll find out if we are selling better to the free agenty market.  It could be, it could be.


Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The CBJ housecleaning continues in the most obvious place

Let's play pretend.  The Dark Blue Kiddo plays pretend a lot, so I've got a little practice at this (although I'm not a member of the "Cars 2" community, granted).

You're starting off as a brand new NHL general manager.  Your team is not good, and - worse yet - your talent development cupboard is darned close to bare.  You start drafting a little better (or perhaps I should say not as badly as the last guy), and - two weeks into your new job - you assign a relatively recent NHL retiree to serve as a player development coach across the entire organization.  

Time moves along, and your team peaks for a brief moment on the backs of a handful of veteran players.  You make the decision that those old goats don't have gas in the tank, so you jettison them and start promoting the kids.  But the kids can't live up to their considerable hype, so that doesn't go well...like not well at all.  The knives come out, and the ones not directed straight at you are directed at the one place you haven't meaningfully addressed since coming to town - the scouting staff.  

You start purging the scouting staff, but now you need a top amateur scout.  


If you're Scott Howson, you promote the player development coach - the same guy who's been largely ineffectual in helping develop the talent you have on hand - Tyler Wright.  

I'm not saying that Wright was good at his job as the CBJ's director of amateur scouting, nor am I saying that he was bad.  But I will say that Wright jumped from offering tips and pointers (and hopefully offering the kids a shoulder to cry on every now and then) to helping strategically determine the long-term future of the Blue Jackets franchise.  That's insane.  I don't care what anyone says about Wright, that's insane.  

For a team that could not draft to save its life (and one that has a woeful record in developing the kids that it drafts), you just don't do that.  You go out to the market, you find a top NHL amateur scout, and you give him an offer he can't refuse.  You lure him with the promise of titles, responsibilities and money.  And you secure your drafting future for the next decade in the process.  

But no, that's not what Howson did.  He gave the gig to Wright, a guy who had never worked as an actual scout, and one whose work product results from his prior CBJ job could be called "spotty" by only the most optimistic of observers.  

And yesterday, it was announced that Jarmo Kekalainen, a guy with actual scouting and talent evaluation ability, greased the wheels for Wright to leave the Columbus Blue Jackets.  Jarmo now can install his own person as director of amateur scouting and, presumably, redesign the scouting department to better meet the needs of a genuine NHL club.

Thank God.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Filling the Cupboard, And Bob

Vezina Trophy Winner Sergei Bobrovsky inks a 2 year deal.
Last in the title of this post, but first in our hearts, is the news that Sergei Bobrovsky is confirmed to have signed a 2 year deal to remain the goal tender for the Columbus Blue Jackets.  Bob will be substantially richer, making just under $6 million per year, but he will also be a Restricted Free Agent (RFA) at the end of this deal.  So he has 2 years to establish a level of consistency on a par with other franchise goal tenders, and the hockey club is protected if that doesn't quite pan out.

This is a big day for the CBJ, because you don't want to let the winner of the second major piece of hardware in franchise history walk out the door in a contract dispute.  The Vezina Trophy is a major accomplishment for Bob (thus the money).  Yes I know Flyers goal tender Steve Mason won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, also a significant achievement.  But Mase only had to beat out the rest of the rookies, Bob had to beat out a whole league full of goal tenders.  The Vezina also looms large as he did not share it with anyone, while Nash's Rocket Richard Trophy was shared with two others.  So it was a significant moment in franchise history.  Well done Bob!

As we move into the East, and look to field a competitive team our first year in the conference, the goal tending is one less headache to worry about.  And, as I pointed out in this post its time to get Vinny Prospal back in the fold.  As I move into the rest of this post, Vinny's leadership will loom large.  The biggest mistake that CBJ management made after 2008-09 was letting Michael Peca walk.  The leadership void haunted the team for years.  (Peca's wheels were shot, no doubt, but we needed him more than anyone).  With an infusion of young talent available, having Vinny around to ease them into their pro careers is crucial.

And now, finally, I get to the draft.  Personally, I am quite pleased with how it turned out.  I felt the talent cupboard was a little bare, and Jarmo set about restocking it in a big way.  Forwards and a defensive defenseman actually fills the talent gaps in our development system very well.  My fear was that we would move one of the picks for 'immediate help' but that it would end up being for someone who wouldn't turn out to be an impact player.  My fear was unnecessary because every GM in this draft wanted the players on the board for the most part.

The biggest post-draft thing I am excited about is development camp.  Coming up soon, development camp looks like it will be very entertaining.  Lots of young players we haven't seen in the mix, and it will be the first time to see a lot of these picks skating together, and a chance to judge relative talent.  Pretty cool.

I will not be disappointed if none of these young players make the team this year.  These are mid to late first round picks, and it is an unrealistic expectation to see them make the big club.  We should see the first rounders in another year or two, when their off season workouts allow them to keep up with Jarmo.  Seriously dude.  I'm glad I can walk, much less do a hockey player fitness regime.  Wowza.

Young talent will also function to push existing talent over the next couple of years.  The guy this will put the most pressure on is Ryan Johansen, and it will help him to push his development to the next step.  So far it is going well, but he still needs to be pushed some.  Fortunately, that never happens to any other young players in the league Tyler *cough* Seguin.  It's too early to fret unduly about Joey.

Alexander Wennberg brings speed and skill, Kerby Rychel brings goal scoring ability and a truly awesome cat, Marko Dano has already played in the KHL, and we can look for the roars of 'Book 'em Dano' after he scores in Nationwide Arena in the future.  Keep in mind that for Rychel and Dano I'm usually trying to sell optimism about second and a third round pick in a typical year.  We have those too this year!  The cupboard is stocked once again, and it should be interesting to see how this plays out.