Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Summer Time Dreaming

It's Summer Time! Hockey is at its nadir, and there is nothing much in the way of content.  So I thought I would leave you with this picture of Anton Forsberg and Alexander Wennberg mixing it up in 2014 Development Camp.  Ease back in the summer heat, and dream of CBJ future .....

Sunday, July 20, 2014

No Longer At Loggerheads

It's not often that you get a member of the media to serve you a real softball for a blog title, but today was one of those days.  This afternoon, Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch tweeted "If there is a better phrase than 'at loggerheads' I've not heard it". Follow Aaron at @Aportzline for an informative twitter feed.  And, you may get a softball someday, you never know.

For the record, Lori Schmidt (@LoriSchmidt) was the one piling on, Arniel was the one serving up softball quotes that time.

The use of the phrase was a reference to the status of the negotiations between Ryan Johansen and the Columbus Blue Jackets.  And they were definitely 'at loggerheads' with no real movement or activity towards an agreement being reported.  However, just prior to that quote, Porty broke the news over on Puck Rakers that there had been progress on the Ryan Johansen contract talks.  This is good.

Things were no where near panic stage yet, but it is darn good to see progress on this front.  Apparently there is a sense of agreement on a bridge contract, which is of shorter duration.  That is real progress in the negotiation, and sets the stage for getting something done.  The money was probably 'I've got a Stanley Cup ring on my finger' large, because of the concession on term.  Which is the way you do it in a negotiation, and likely it is something they will come off of, and a number that Jarmo and Zito will come up towards to get the money worked out.

So good news on a lot of fronts.  I was racking my brain for something that could be considered close to content for a blog post.  Porty obliged on a quite summer Sunday.  Thanks man, it's a long summer.  I'll try to get you back with an adult beverage of your choice if I can.

If this can get done fairly soon, then the momentum towards the season can start to gather.


Monday, July 14, 2014

Can the Fourth Line Still Drive Possession?

Mark Letestu in 2012-13 Training Camp
 (Not Gaborik)
Seeing as the Columbus Blue Jackets finished pretty much in the middle of the pack in the NHL, there are plenty of teams out there that are a real handful for our squad.  Our team battled hard in lots of those games, but there were times when the ice was tilted against us, due to the talent and effort of our opponents.  Often times, in such a situation, Head Coach Todd Richards (HCTR) would dump his fourth line out on the ice.  Lead by the indomitable Derek MacKenzie, the fourth line would gain possession, get it into the offensive zone, and start to cycle the puck along the boards.  There were times when the opposing team simply could not regain possession, and HCTR would actually get another line out on the ice before possession was lost.

Now, to be sure, this type of possession is difficult to measure with Fenwick or Corsi statistics, because those statistics have a foundation on a puck getting directed to the net at some point, and I'm not saying our fourth line last year did a ton of that.  So it would be interesting to see those types of statistics for the times when Derek MacKenzie, Blake Comeau, and Corey Tropp were on the ice as our fourth line.  But there were games when HCTR used that line to shift the momentum, and that is a real credit to the effort level of those players.

Corey Tropp is the sole remaining player of that group, and it is thought that Mark Letestu will take over centering that line, with Tropp and Jared Boll as his linemates.  Challenges will be coming from below by D'Amigo, or from higher in the lineup if young talent from the AHL starts to assert itself.  Boll can be a wrecking ball, and as one of the remaining enforcers in the game, if he keeps his mitts on, and concentrates on winning board battles rather than on big hits, then the fourth line will be able to play the same role without Boll sacrificing his deterrence factor.

Mark Letestu is an extremely steady player, but I sometimes wonder if he will be able to replace the fire that MacKenzie brought to the job.  But, Letestu often finds a way to get the job done, time after time, so it is to be hoped that he can lead the fourth line into outplaying the competition.  To me, this is one of the very big questions coming into the 2014-15 season.  It should be interesting, and entertaining to watch it play out.


Saturday, July 12, 2014

More on the Craig Patrick Legacy - Dubinsky

Yesterday Brandon Dubinsky signed a 6 year contract extension with the Columbus Blue Jackets.  The details of the contract are largely irrelevant,  at least in this space, whereas his desire to remain in Columbus for an extended period of time is hugely important.  The core of this team has been formed, and will remain in place so long as they continue to find success.  The nature of the core of players for the Columbus Blue Jackets is simple.  They badly want to win.  They think they can.  They know the road to winning is paved with hard work.

Contrast this with the core of the future team that was in place following the franchises initial playoff appearance.  Going into 2009-10, the core of the franchise was Rick Nash, Derrick Brassard, RJ Umberger, and Steve Mason.  Before he was fired later that year, during the awful December swoon following a fast start, Ken Hitchcock opined that 'these guys had to learn to hate losing more than anything' before they would return to the playoffs.  That didn't happen with that group, and ultimately, Craig Patrick was brought in to help Scott Howson with the transition during the 2011-12 debacle.  As a reminder, Patrick enunciated his value system during a season ticket holder meet and greet, when he said that he valued character over talent.  Craig Patrick has since moved on because John Davidson and Jarmo Kekalainen live and breath the same value system.  Patrick was the driver in the Nash trade where we traded a 30-40 goal scorer for a 15-20 goal scorer (along with Arty Anisimov, another 15-20 goal guy, Tim Erixon and Kerby Rychal).  Talent went one way, character came back this way, and now is the core of the Blue Jackets team.  Scott Howson deserves ultimate credit for listening to Patrick.  Jarmo and JD deserve credit for recognizing what they have, and locking it up.

So the core of this team is now Dubinsky, Horton, Foligno, Hartnell, Wiz, Jack Johnson, and Bobrovsky.  Forming the stiff spine that supports all the character is of course Fedor Tyutin, the remaining player from the first playoff run (I know Jared Boll is in there too, but Tyutin is logging first or second pair defensive minutes).  Behind that core is a cadre of young talent, lead primarily by  Ryan Johansen.  Hopefully Joey will not do something dumb like hold out, as that will set him back enough to compromise future earnings.  I think something will get done. He will certainly get the large raise he deserves.  But he is also surrounded by players of high character, who will demand his best.  And for all the young talent gathering below this core, they will demand the same level of commitment and serve as an example of what it means to be a professional.

The rest of the Eastern Conference has been making moves to try to get better.  The CBJ have largely stood pat, with the exception of the Hartnell for Umberger trade.  It is time for consistency and stability for the franchise, as the last few years have seen lots of change.  Part of the slow starts in the lockout year and last year are players getting familiar with each other.  Their burden to do that is much less this year, and I think will show at the start of the season.

The CBJ finished in the middle of the pack in the NHL last year.  A little movement either way has a big impact on whether they will be in the playoffs or not.  So I don't view the playoffs as a given at all.  They are a distinct possibility, but not a given.  The hedge against slippage is the character factor that Craig Patrick imported to the talent evaluation process in this franchise.  Kudos to JD and Jarmo for quietly getting this team locked up and ready for next year (well except for Joey, but that will get worked out).

It looks like it is going to be a fun year.  I am really looking forward to it.  But first, the doldrums of summer.  So get out and play kids!!  It will be winter soon enough!  Thank the lord for Cannonfest though, I'm not sure I'd make it without it.


Wednesday, July 2, 2014

This is Just a Tribute

Standing in line for my press pass at the media luncheon prior to the 2011-12 NHL season is one of the strongest memories I have of my experience as a hockey writer. Most of the banners on the walls bore the images of players no longer with the team, otherwise Nationwide Arena appeared the same as it does today. The general feeling about the team was optimistic and exciting. General Manager Scott Howson had acquired two big new pieces to play alongside Rick Nash. Free agent defenseman James Wisniewski was a generally unknown player among Blue Jackets fans having spent most of his career in the Eastern Conference. What fans did know is they were now paying him a king's ransom to employ his cannon of a slapshot. The other addition was center Jeff Carter, acquired in a now infamous trade with the Philadelphia Flyers to be the center Rick Nash never had. New Head Coach Scott Arniel was an ex-NHL player who had success as a coach in the AHL. Fans, even the stalwart Howson detractors, seemed to be optimistic that perhaps this team could make it back to the playoffs for only the second time in franchise history. As both a fan and the owner of a brand new press pass I was especially hopeful that I could be covering a team on the rise. I remember sitting at the Q&A session for Howson and Arniel thinking these could be the men responsible for raising the franchise out of also-ran status.

Obviously that did not happen. Fans were quick to look past the fact Carter was a shooter not a playmaker, and that he obviously did not want to be in Columbus. If you have to send a contingent of players to go drag your new acquisition out of hiding that's a truly worrisome sign. Wisniewski is a hell of a power play quarterback, but his defensive lapses have probably left a permanent red mark on some fans foreheads. Scott Arniel's disastrous tenure was highlighted by his implosion at a press conference. Asked a simple question by Lori Schmidt about the team's struggles in 4-on-4 play Arniel seemed flustered and had no answers, instead lashing out at Schmidt and other reporters accusing them of piling on. Scott Howson did yeoman's work fixing the awful state of the roster and organizational depth Doug MacLean had left behind. Unfortunately for every good move Howson made, he made just as many that didn't work out and eventually the bad moves caught up with him.

I spent many nights in the Nationwide Arena dressing room listening to players toe the line and speak in platitudes about playing hard and just not getting breaks. I had never spent time around professional athletes, and after getting over the initial fan reaction it actually became tiresome. Most of the players would answer a couple questions with rote answers then go off to shower, especially after losses. Some players would rarely grace the media with their presence. There were exceptions though. James Wisniewski loved to talk and was a great quote, Cam Atkinson was very approachable and would answer lots of questions. The one player that always stood out to me though, and unfortunately wasn't always available was Derek MacKenzie. I specifically remember after a particularly tough loss. MacKenzie was one of the few players made available for us to speak to. If you've never interviewed a player after a loss, you learn quickly to ask a few questions and let them be on their way. MacKenzie though was different, he would stand there as long as people were asking questions, and he would answer each one thoughtfully and honestly. He would look at you as he spoke to you, and you felt that he cared that you were there. I could tell he was gutted by the loss, you could see it in his face, yet he stood there answering questions for a solid fifteen minutes. It was truly impressive to me as a new reporter to see a player so approachable and accommodating. After speaking to him a few times I started paying more attention to his play on the ice. I quickly began to appreciate MacKenzie's game as much as the person. Tenacious, good defensively, good penalty killer, great hockey sense, and a demon in the faceoff circle. MacKenzie was a fourth liner, but he always seemed to make smart plays and do the little things right in his 11 minutes a night. 

I understand why the Blue Jackets are moving on from MacKenzie. He's on the wrong side of 30 for a professional athlete, probably wanted more term than Jarmo Kekalainen was looking to give out,  and there are prospects hungry for playing time. Perhaps MacKenzie wanted out and the thought of playing in sunny Florida and not paying state taxes was appealing, but I doubt it, MacKenzie won't enjoy the losing. Columbus is not just losing MacKenzie the player, they are losing MacKenzie the professional. His contributions on the ice will be missed but his leadership and professionalism will be missed more. I hope there is another Derek MacKenzie in the glut of prospects filling out in Springfield or juniors, but I doubt it.