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.

GO JACKETS!!

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.

GO JACKETS!!

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.

GO JACKETS!!

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.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Pipeline Primed

Today the Columbus Blue Jackets completed the priming of the pipeline by adding a draft full of prospects to their development pipeline.  These guys all need more development time, but are a good complement to those already in the pipeline.  3 forwards, 3 defensemen and a goalie.  The writers over on Puck Rakers give a good break down.

First round pick, Frank "Sonny" Milano is a forward, with sick puck handling skills.  Search up the YouTube video from the 2014 draft combine.  The lad has a feel for the puck.  He is currently committed to Boston College in the NCAA, which is a more than adequate path.  He will develop there facing good competition.  Plymouth owns his rights in Canadian Major Junior, and Jarmo has indicated that they would sit down with the family and review his options.  To me, if you think he will be NHL ready after a year of junior, then that is the route to take.  If it is any longer than that, I'd prefer he go to BC, as I think it will aid his physical development.  We'll see what the family and the CBJ come up with as the best path.

Our second round pick is 6-foot-5 defenseman Ryan Collins.  Another Collins, and another Ryan.  Hmm, this could get challenging in a few years for the inebriated fan.  At any rate, this stay at home defenseman is committed to University of Minnesota.  Like Sonny Milano, Collins hails from the US Development team.  This is a solid defensive depth pick.

Our third round pick is goaltender Elvis Merzlikens, from Latvia.  Elvis has played a lot in Switzerland, and according to the Puck Rakers story is a good puck moving goalie.

Our 2nd third round pick, taken one pick after Elvis is defenseman Blake Siebenaler, who appears to be a pretty good puck moving defenseman with some speed.

Our fourth round pick is Left Wing Julien Pelletier, who looks like he will be playing for Cape Breton in the Quebec Major Junior league next year.

Our fifth round pick is right wing Tyler Bird, who will play for Brown University next year.

Our seventh round, and final pick, was defenseman Olivier LeBlanc, who plays for St. John in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

All of these players need development time, and can develop at their own pace.  This is a solid, if unspectacular draft, and we should expect to see players starting to emerge from it about 3 years from now.  I'm feeling good about the way this went down.

GO JACKETS!!!

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Draft Eve, Big 43

Draft Eve.  A great two way player, good hands, thinks the game quickly, she's not afraid to mix it up in the corners.  Or, the day before the draft.  You make the call!

On a more serious note, tomorrow night is the first round of the 2014 NHL Entry draft.  With Columbus picking 16th, any player selected is likely to have some development needs.  We are making the transition to a franchise that can afford to give players the proper amount of time to develop, and in my mind this draft is just another shot in the arm to the pipeline.  We have a group of players emerging from juniors and the European leagues converging on Springfield for some AHL development time.  This draft will result in a restock of the players developing in Juniors.  The rule of thumb for all of these players is that you must kick the door down to make it to the big club, because all seats are occupied.

Its possible that a trade could emerge, but I kind of doubt it.  And I am happy with the notion that we use the picks we have, and take advantage of the group of scouts that Jarmo has assembled.  I like the notion of back pressure in the pipeline.  It's very healthy for the franchise.

The other thing that emerged today is that Scott Hartnell has decided to wear number 43.  I think that is interesting, as the players who have worn this number before are a group of unremarkable tweeners (between the AHL and the NHL).  Hartnell has an opportunity to make that number magical in CBJ lore, and his charity #Hartnelldown already has shirts for sale with the number.

Speaking of that, the Dispatch writers on their Cannonfodder podcast revealed that Hartnell's charity has already paid for 10 AAA Blue Jackets to attend an elite hockey camp this summer.  The guy is already investing in youth hockey in this City, which is a great thing to see.  Kudos there Hartsy.  Well done.  I also loved the quote that Jarmo tossed to Porty.  We'll see if he uses it in his write-up on Saturday.  Yes, I know I am doing 'things that make Morgan mad' by using those nicknames, but I'm too lazy to write it all out, and the prose becomes too stilted anyway.  So deal with it.

The offseason has picked up pace lately, and is becoming more entertaining.  We get a lot more to think about in the next two days, and then free agency hits.  Gonna be a fun week.

GO JACKETS!!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Reflections on the Hartnell for Umberger Trade

Today it was announced the the Columbus Blue Jackets traded RJ Umberger and a fourth round pick to the Philadelphia Flyers for Scott Hartnell.  This to me is looking like a pure hockey trade, one team has a 32 year old guy who wants out, the other has a 32 year old guy who they want gone.  The money is about the same, the CBJ take on two extra years of term for a player who has tended to score the way we always thought RJ would score.  Ironically, both teams say they got faster.  Jarmo did indicate that he thought Hartnell 'thought' the game quickly, which sometimes seemed a frustrating aspect of RJ's game.  Hartnell seems a better fit for the brand of hockey the CBJ are playing now.

There is a part of me that wants to be cautious about this because of the Carter trade.  But this looks and feels a bit different.  So I think what you see is what you get, but the CBJ just got an edge to them like they have never had before.  And we certainly need someone who is really comfortable on the left wing.  It's the weirdest thing, in the MacLean era all we had was left wings.  Now we have centers and right wings.  Heck, we even switched Nash to right wing for goodness sake.  But especially when Gaborik was here, everything was on the right.  So this actually adds some balance to our top six.

Don't get me wrong, I've had a long time simmering dislike for Hartnell, that goes back to his days with the Predators.  But it never bloomed into an outright hatred, cause its hard to argue with results.  So now he's on our team.  I'll still be looking for the results, but Hartnell brings an edge that is going to look really good in a Blue Jackets uniform.  The other positive benefit is that the games with the Penguins just took on a new tone, which I gotta love.

So I view this as a good hockey trade, that helps both clubs, and both players.

GO JACKETS!!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Liking Me Some Larsen

Brad Larsen at 2013-14 Training Camp
A few days ago the news broke that Brad Larsen, the Head Coach of the Springfield Falcons would come up to the parent club and assume the Assistant Coach spot vacated by Dan Hinote.  This is a really good thing for the Hockey Club.  

First and foremost, let me say that Dan Hinote was always a positive asset to this organization.  Hinote left, citing private, family reasons, for his departure.  I wish him well in all aspects of his family and personal life, as well as his professional life.  But with the news that Craig Hartsburg was getting extended along with Head Coach Todd Richards (HCTR), it was clear that there would be little mobility within the Blue Jackets organization.  Hinote is at a point in his coaching career where he needs head coaching experience.  Ideally, the organization could have swapped Hinote and Larsen to give him that chance, but that has the unavoidable appearance of a demotion.  It was time for Hinote to step away, and he will re-enter the game in another organization with more opportunity for head coaching spots in their system.  Personally, I'd recommend Vancouver, because they just asked the Rangers for permission to talk to Scott Arniel, and we all know how that's going to end up.  So there are likely to be head coaching opportunities in the future in that organization.  Just sayin'.  I wish you well, Dan Hinote, in all things personal and professional.  You served our organization well.  Best of luck.

With that out of the way, I really like this addition to our coaching staff.  Keith Acton filled a very large role in the coaching staff in the abbreviated 2012-13 season.  Following the near play-off position of that year, Acton left to take a promotion in the Flames organization.  Hinote appeared to fill in well, based on the results, but his resume is totally unlike Acton's.  Brad Larsen fills that gap a little more solidly, having coached the Falcons into the playoffs in the last two years.  In 2012-13, with the lockout pushing NHL talent down to the AHL, Larsen proved he could use that talent.  In 2013-14, he had none of that talent to use, but made the playoffs anyway.  That was a hell of a coaching job.  Players coming up from the AHL routinely fit seamlessly with the parent club, and contributed significantly in the injury riddled early days of the 2013-14 season.  They were ready to play.  And Larsen is responsible for that.

So I think this move adds great depth to the coaching staff.  I like this move a lot.  I think it bodes well for the 2014-15 season.

So I'm liking me some Larsen.

Monday, June 16, 2014

So What Was Jarmo's Role in the Stanley Cup Final?

Jarmo Meets Fans at Cannonfest
Perhaps more than any one single General Manager, Jarmo Kekalainen arranged for no less than 4 players to take part in the Stanley Cup final over the last year and a half (dating to the trade deadline of 2012-13).  All of these personnel moves for the Jackets revolved around the abortive attempt to obtain a game changer in the name of Marian Gaborik.  Now Gaborik has his name on the Cup, and the nature of the free agent pool on July 1 has changed dramatically.

Who would have thought back in 2012 that Derek Dorsett would play in a Stanley Cup final?  Much less Derrick Brassard, who was eaten alive in the face off circle in the final.  John Moore on the other hand, seemed to hold up well to the pace of a Cup final, and is the piece I most regret sending to the Rangers for Gaborik.  He will end up being a very solid defenseman for the Rangers.

And Gaborik?  The 14 goals scored in a Cup Run is sure to haunt the dreams of some General Manager, who plops down the long term, huge money contract in July, for years to come.  There is a slight possibility that the Columbus Blue Jackets role in Marian Gaborik's career was to send him to the right doctor to finally fix that wonky groin.  On the other hand, he may remain injury prone, and an unproductive drain on the cap space of some unlucky team in the future.

So what did the Blue Jackets get in return for all of these Stanley Cup players?  Coming out of the 2010-11 season, the Blue Jackets needs were clear.  We needed to upgrade the defense, and we needed to get stronger up the middle, especially at the center position.  By the end of the 2011-12 season, both Jack Johnson and James Wisniewski had been acquired, as well as Brandon Dubinski and Artem Anisimov.  As Mike Arace mentioned in his column in today's Dispatch, the latter two players are the difference between a Cup and second place for the Rangers.  Do you think Jeff Carter has a great series against Dubi?  He sure did against Brass.  But, at the end of the day, with all that player movement, the CBJ has addressed two glaring needs, strength up the middle, and defense.  We have other needs now, which is a normal course of events for all hockey teams.

More importantly, the CBJ have shown that they are a playoff caliber team 'as is', and they have a year of playing together, which they didn't have before.  Stability is important right now for this team, and I think that's what we'll see in this off season.

If you want to win a Stanley Cup, you need to have a little luck.  The Kings got the longest injury free and most productive runs out of Gaborik that he has had in the last three years.  It is unlikely that he can reproduce a sustained level of play like that, projecting the past forward.  On the other hand, he did have a couple of 40 goal years for the Rangers.  If he can stay healthy, he could reproduce that.  But that 'if' is the 900 pound gorilla in the room.

We got two draft picks that bring a cumulative 10% chance that they will produce an NHL player that plays 400 games, and an AHL player.  We gave up two former number one picks, and one of the aforementioned 10% chance players to get that.  By any measure, Jarmo got schooled on the trades.  However, we also still have that 10% chance, and an AHL player with 'a great shot', whereas if we had hung on to Gaborik, we would have zero (0), because we won't pay him what he is going to want, and probably get.

At the end of the day, we addressed our needs to make the CBJ strong in the future.  LA and NYR addressed their needs for the present.  The next few years should make for some interesting 'story lines' for the future.

So was Jarmo the most influential GM in this year's Stanley Cup?

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Confessions of a Doe Eyed Fan Boy, Reflecting on 2013-14

Nash and Umby in 2011
During the McConnell Cup Playoff
As I was reading over on the incomparable Puck Daddy last week, either Leahy or Lambert made some comment about 'doe eyed fan boys' who couldn't believe their team actually lost.  The line cracked me up, because in my history as a Blue Jackets fan it's safe to say I've chugged a few gallons of Doug MacLean's Kool-Aid, which definitely makes me qualified for the moniker.

However, throw in a few good hockey learning experiences (see Hitchcock, Ken) and a few bitter hockey learning experiences (see Arniel, Scott), and I'm creeping towards some sense of perspective regarding the home town Blue Jackets.  Since taking the plunge on season tickets right before the 2004-05 lockout, I've seen a lot of hockey down at Nationwide Arena.  Some of it was down right ugly.

We've had teams that couldn't seem to connect a pass (a tape to boot pass, rather than a tape to tape pass), and have spent more than a few occasions urging the CBJ coaches to 'decline the penalty', as our power play was more of a scoring opportunity for the opposition.  Pressure to the points on our historic power play, and you had a good chance for a short-handed goal.

A lot of that changed with the 2013-14 team, which turned in an extremely entertaining year of hockey for the fans.  There were ups, and there were downs, but there was sustained progress after several years of sustained regression following the 2008-09 playoff season.  All of that has contributed to making it very difficult to provide content during this early summer, because the reservoir of bile and frustration that I usually draw on is absent this year.

It has been a summer of contentment for this 'doe eyed fan boy', so now seems a good time to look back a bit at the 2013-14 season, the most successful season in franchise history <blissful sigh>.