Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Regular Season: I'm Happy and Sad!

Training Camp has begun for the Columbus Blue Jackets.  For fans it means the NHL regular season is right around the corner.  Most players are excited to return to the rink and begin the 2014-15 campaign.  Everyone that is, except for a few players.  Unless you spent the better part of a couple of weeks away from all forms of CBJ social media, it’s likely you’ve heard that both Ryan Johansen and Nathan Horton will miss the start of training camp.  While there is joy and excitement about the start of the 2014-15 season, this September is not without it's feeling of worry and concern.  Ryan Johansen’s absence is due to contract negotiations and Nathan Horton has a previously undisclosed back injury.  Now we hear about Boone Jenner's broken hand.  The timing of these developments doesn't help the cause as the 2014-2015 season may be the most important season in the brief history of the Columbus Blue Jackets.  While the absence of these players doesn’t necessarily mean doom and gloom for the franchise, they certainly don't do the fan base any favors chasing away apprehension that typically comes along with the first few weeks of the NHL regular season.

Yeah.  I know...

Last season was a really exciting time for Blue Jackets fans and the city of Columbus.  CBJ fans got a chance, as Greg Wyshynski put it, “to live and die with the Blue Jackets” in the post season.  The loyal core fan base was thusly rewarded for their long time loyalty.  Even after all that, season ticket sales are still below target levels as the casual fans, the ones that packed Nationwide Arena to the roof a decade ago, still seem timid to invest thousands of discretionary dollars into the team.  But that can all change quickly if the Blue Jackets are able to have another very competitive year and find themselves with a playoff schedule in April instead of tee times.

I contend this season is the most import season in the history of the Columbus Blue Jacket’s existence from a standpoint of solidifying their foothold in the hearts and minds of both the local fan base and national media.  Right now the city is theirs for the taking.  Last year was awesome as a long time Blue Jackets fan.  There was a tangible reward for being a Jacket’s fan last season that didn’t require a hyperlink to rationalize.  But in the grand scheme of things, the team has only been relevant since March of 2013.  However, to the delight of many long suffering Blue Jackets fan the team is almost unrecognizable in its character and appearance since the 2011-2012 season.  I still can’t say enough good things about the changes made to the CBJ.  But to fans outside the small core of loyal die-hard fans, the team hasn’t accounted to much more than last season’s feel good story.  Dare I say it, to this point they were nothing more than the flavor of the week in the NHL last season?
It is unfair as an informed observer to compare the upcoming 2014-15 CBJ roster to those of seasons past.   Just because they traditionally start slow doesn’t mean they’ll start slow this year.  Equally, just because they finished strong at the end of last season doesn’t mean they’ll break down the door the first 15 games of this season.  It’s the trepidation of “how will they start the season” that is lingering in the minds of many fans.  Everyone is likely thinking it, most won't say it out loud. The news about Johansen and Horton won’t be substantial until the start of the regular season.  Right now most fans are happy that the NHL is back.
Being a fan of the Blue Jackets or any sports team requires an investment of your money and discretionary time.  Going to an NHL game is not cheap and like any bit of investment, you expect a return on the emotional, physical, and financial investment you make into your hockey team.  Do fair weather fans diminish the devotion you’ve put into the team after years of constant treachery on twitter?  Depending on how seriously you take your discretionary time, possibly.  There is nothing bad that can come from a growing casual fan base.  Once those casual fans are regularly exposed to how awesome the NHL really is, the greater chance they will stick with the team and better chance the sport of hockey will grow in the community.
After a great playoff series last season, the Jackets are poised to receive the most attention they’ve ever got at the start of a season.  Local juggernaut, OSU Football, will have to struggle through the season without its star player.  The Jackets made significant waves in the off season with the acquisition of Scott Hartnell. The CBJ excitement machine has been hard at work all summer promoting the Jackets and getting the city excited for this season.  The NHL All Star game is coming to Columbus and cries of an NHL game played at Ohio Stadium grow louder with each announcement of an outdoor game.  With all the caution that goes with getting what you ask for, all eyes will be upon the Jackets this season. 

But if the team starts slow, when should you push the panic button?  Even if Johansen signs tomorrow and Horton receives a miracle cure, the team still has to play decent hockey in October and November.  Personally I don’t think this team will come out flat.  They’ve made too many of the right moves for that to happen.  But, it’s not unreasonable to have apprehension at the start of the Blue Jackets regular season.  Could they stumble out of the gate?  Possibly.  But how can you tell when the team has stumbled or is flat out sucking?  Well, here are five things to look for to determine if the Jackets are battling through a slump or have fallen flat on their face. 

The following points are derived from the book “5 dysfunctions of a team” written by Patrick Lencioni. 

1.       Is there an absence of trust from Coach Richards?  Coach Richards is not afraid to shuffle lines on the fly to create mismatches or to generate a spark in offense.  But early last season he was often changing lines 4 or 5 minutes into a game and the lines would continue to change throughout the game.  Tinkering with lines and having them skate together for a couple shifts is normal experimentation.  Coming out of an intermission with new lines is nothing alarming.  Swapping a couple guys out in the 3rd is normal.  But the constant juggling of lines early in a game is an indication something is wrong.  Press the Panic Button when:  Shuffling lines early and often with no clear objective is an indication the coach is not happy with the player’s results.  He likely doesn’t trust them to work through their issues on their own.   Also, the 4th line getting power play time in anything other than a blowout is an indication the coach doesn’t trust his players and should cause you to drink and/or crap your pants.

2.       Does a fear of conflict prevent individual performance issues from being addressed?  You don’t need advanced stats to tell you when a player is riding the struggle bus.  Certainly advanced stats support the argument when it’s presented on paper.  But when there is a glaring performance issue that the coach is unwilling to address or acknowledge, it’s likely because they want to avoid conflict.  As a coach, you have to address obvious performance issues immediately.  And if the player is tuning you out, you have to employ a good cop / bad cop approach with your assistants to navigate the very different and very strong personalities in the dressing room.  Contrary to the scream-in-your-face culture of contact sports, you have to be nurturing as a coach when the team is struggling and apply pressure when the team is winning, but the expectation must remain constant.  Push the Panic Button When:  The Jackets struggle, there is a glaring performance issues that isn’t acknowledged, and when pressed, Todd Richards’ answer is anything less than concise.

3.       Is there a Lack of Commitment to improve?  At the end of the day, it’s up to the players to ultimately execute.  When times get tough, you have to work hard and stay positive or you’ll never recover.  If you don’t work hard and stay positive, attitudes quickly sour for all involved and players will turn on each other.  With the changes to the locker room over the course of the past two calendar years, this team’s core is resilient and seeing them clock out after a couple of rough games in October or November is almost inconceivable.  But, Push the Panic Button:  when a perceived leader in the locker room throws his hands up in the air and can’t figure what is wrong.  That is a lack of commitment from EVERYBODY, not just the slackers.

4.       Are people avoiding their accountability?  This is a scenario, however unlikely, that could befall this dressing room.  This problem is more prevalent in markets where the media applies enormous amounts of pressure on players.  But if things go bad for five or six games in a row and players are throwing their hands up in the air – the avoidance of accountability is often next.  This manifests itself most often in post-game interviews and go something like this:


Interviewer: “You turned the puck over late in the game that led to a game tying goal for the other team.  Do you feel that is a play you should have made.” 

Player:  “Yeah, but I had two assists before that and helped get the game to the shootout.”


Interviewer: “You were late to today’s practice and left the ice early without an injury, is there something going on?”

Player: “I’ve been on-time to every practice this year and I’m usually the last one off the ice.  Today you want to give me grief for it?”

It’s ok for a player to be frustrated while they or the team is struggling.  But the Panic Button moment is when the excuses flow when asked about poor play or turn simple questions into accusations.


5.       And finally, is there inattention to the results.  At the end of the day, Professional sports is about (making money and) Winning.  The former is easy when the latter is happening.  The time of moral victories is over, that’s what youth sports is for.  There is a minimum threshold of expectation from a pro athlete and a pro sports team.  Celebrating anything less than that expectation is not paying attention to the results.  I don’t care if the Power Play was 3 for 4 when you got beat 6-3 at home to lose your fifth in a row.  Give the players a pat on the butt when good things happen, but don’t let it blind you from fixing what’s broken.  Push the Panic Button when: The coach only wants to talk about the one or two good things that happened in an otherwise uninspired effort.

It’s also worth noting that even a casual fan without a formal training in hockey can tell when a team is competing but loses and when a team is a hot mess and can’t get out of its own way.  Having said all that, there is a silver lining.   There won’t be any more pressure on the 2014-15 Columbus Blue Jackets than what they put on themselves.  They aren’t at the opposite end of this spectrum where they are coming of an underachieving year and fans are calling for blood.  They were everyone’s sweethearts last season and largely the expectation does remain low for this upcoming season.  The question about this year’s team is ‘can they do it again’ and certainly the Metro looks less ferocious than years past.  However, this season is critical to the Blue Jackets re-establishing themselves in their home market and being a little more than ‘the girl next door’ to the national hockey media.  The Blue Jackets have  blue-collar charm and its team chemistry is made of players who want to win – a component that had been lacking from the prior regimes.  The front office philosophy of just going after the available player with the most points and putting them in the locker room is behind us.

I don’t anticipate a slow start to the regular season from this team.  If they do stumble I’ll be sure to review my criteria to see if it is necessary to push the panic button at all.  The importance of a strong season from beginning to end can’t be understated and the team is certainly positioned to build off of last season's success.  Despite the Johansen saga, it’s a very encouraging time to be a Blue Jacket’s fan.  If the team can make another significant footprint on the regular season and make the playoffs this year, (once again) Nationwide Arena will be a rocking place every game for years to come.  I will be watching the start of the Blue Jacket's 2014-2015 regular season with more confidence than I normally do - and that is a good thing indeed.


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