Sunday, July 31, 2016

Part XII: The Dark Blue Jacket's Definitive History of the CBJ, the All-Star Game

Nationwide Arena Looking Good at the All-Star Game
Nestled among the angst of an injury plagued 2014-15 NHL Campaign and a disastrously under-performing 2015-16 season, the Columbus Blue Jackets were a bright star for the NHL over a long weekend in January of 2015 when they hosted the NHL All-Star Game.  During that time Columbus gave the rest of the NHL a glimpse of the potential of the market.  Ironically, there were ripples put in motion that weekend that are still rocking the CBJ lifeboat today, a year and a half later. 

The game itself was a bit of a snoozer, in the third year of the pick-up game format that had the Captains picking their team for the game.  Alex Ovechkin campaigned loud for the last selection, and the car that went with it, as he intended to donate it to a charity.  As one might expect, Honda came through anyway to take care of the charity, so props to the sponsor for being supportive.  They needed to, because no one is dumb enough to pick Ovechkin last in a pick up game, I don't care who you are.  And give the NHL props for recognizing a snoozer when they see one, and changing up the format to a 3 on 3 tournament for the next All-Star Game in Nashville. 

Johansen at Skills Competition
However, the overwhelming theme for the weekend was that it was a really good time, and Columbus showed itself off really well.  The snow slide and the outdoor skating rink were embraced by the citizens of Columbus to such an extent that the outdoor rink returned to McPherson Commons last winter as well, much to the detriment of Coach John Tortorella's ribs, as he was taken out by a sprawling Rene Bourque. 

Given the injury riddled state of the Blue Jackets squad, and their poor record in late 2014, I was concerned that we wouldn't have anyone that the NHL would dare to name to the All-Star squad.  But Ryan Johansen, Nick Foligno and Sergei Bobrovsky were given the homer nod.  In a case of super scary foreshadowing, Bobrovsky got hurt immediately prior to the game and was unable to participate.  And Brian Elliot will always get a soft spot in my heart for climbing off his plane in the Caribbean, and turning around an coming back to Columbus to fill the spot.  I hope things go well for him in his new gig in Calgary.

The Flying-Vee Gets Underway
As things turned out, both Ryan Johansen and Nick Foligno were great ambassadors for our city and hockey club, yet the seeds were planted for future strife during this celebration.  Blue Jackets management was greatly impressed by how Foligno handled himself at this game, and cemented an inclination to make him their new Captain the following summer. Ryan Johansen was the star of the celebration for the home team, especially in the skills competition by wearing an OSU jersey celebrating Braxton Miller, and instigating a 'flying-vee' of movie fame.

Following an acrimonious contract negotiation with the club, the All-Star performance seemed a good result for Johansen, and he went on to have a very good year with the CBJ.  In hindsight we can see that this was the high water mark for Johansen with the organization, and before another year had passed he would be gone in a trade for an elite defenseman, Seth Jones.  In my opinion, the organization's resolve to name a Captain, Foligno, deepened the rift between the organization and Johansen.  During the exit interviews from the injury derailed 2014-15 season, several of the veterans, led by Foligno, called for a Captain to be named, while Johansen emphatically declaimed that there was no need for a Captain, and everything was just fine.  I believe this was the beginning of the end between the CBJ and Johansen.  In the clarity of hindsight it is easy to see that the disastrous start to the 2015-16 season, where Johansen was clearly not ready to perform, just cemented the rift.

And as we sit here, even today, the CBJ are negotiation with a center, Sam Gagner, in attempting to fill the void created by the trading of Johansen.  I know it is a long time since this game happened, and I likely should have tried to write this piece last summer, but it is easier to appreciate the impact of that weekend from this, more distant, perspective.

For a weekend, Columbus was a shining spot in the NHL, and the quality of the event was widely admired.  Yet the choices that flowed from that weekend have altered the course of the Columbus Blue Jackets, for better or worse.  As we sit hopefully anticipating the 2016-17 season, we anticipate that a young mobile defensive corps built around draft picks (Murray, Werenski, Goloubef) and the Johansen trade (Seth Jones) will take the ice.  This group will be much different from the defense that started the 2015-16 campaign in such record setting fashion (ugh!).  And in 2016-17, Bourque will be spelled Bjork, as Oliver Bjorkstrand should join the NHL club this year, with his game winning goal in the Calder Cup Championship in tow.

The 'let's see what these guys can do when they are healthy' approach for 2015-16 survived the preseason.  The record setting 'not so good' message was received prior to Halloween, and the team that takes the ice in 2016-17 should be quite different.  That should be entertaining.

The All-Star weekend was a really amazing, fun event, and we showcased our City and Team at that event.  But the flow of the history of the game has left that bright spot behind, and now we look to the future with hopeful eyes.  It should be interesting to see what it brings.


Saturday, July 9, 2016

Musing on Hartnell

These next few years, the discussion will often return to Scott Hartnell, the length of his contract, and his production will dictate that trend.  While Hartnell's speed will continue to be a concern as he ages, I go to my oft-repeated evaluation that speed was never a big part of his game.  He hasn't gotten dramatically slower since he scored 28 goals 2 years ago, and his goal production of 23 last year did not represent a dramatic fall off on an underperforming team.

Yet in this year's free agent frenzy, I saw a free agent given a contract of equivalent money and term as Hartnell has remaining merely because he was considered fast.  However, that player's carreer point total does not even add up to Hartnell's production since he has been with the CBJ.  Yes, that player is 27, and Hartnell is 34.  But if Hartsy was going to lose a step, he probably did it when he was 30, and yet he remains a productive winger.

To phrase my argument a different way, Scott Hartnell has plenty of speed to chase down the mouth of the goal, the place where he does most of his scoring.  Even if he loses another step between now and age 37, when his contract ends, he's still going to be able to outrun the goal.  Hartnell does not score his goals on break always and in transition, he does it out of set piece offensive possession when getting someone to the net to disrupt things is very important.  Getting into and out of transition, and into a set piece of offensive possession has a lot more to do with our young defensive corps than an aging left winger.  And there is certainly hope on the former for the upcoming year, particularly if Zach Werenski continues to develop on the pace he has shown.

At the end of the day, you need goals to win.  When people look at moving Hartnell, I always ask, where are you going to get the goals to replace Hartnell's production?  I think it is fair to think that Oliver Bjorkstrand will contribute some goals in this upcoming year, but no one on the free agent market that got huge term and huge money is even close to Hartnell's point production over the last 2 years.  His contract and cap hit look pretty good compared to some of the contracts that were handed out July 1.

If Hartnell's production falls off dramatically, than that changes things.  However, he put up goals on last year's dysfunctional team, and has had some time to adjust to Tortorella.  I do wish Torts would ease up on the penalty thing.  Scott Hartnell and dumb penalties are things that go hand in hand, and it allows him to play with an edge.  He is not as effective without that edge.  Perhaps they will be able to strike a balance in the upcoming years.

The buy out of Tyutin and Boll alleviated the cap space crunch that created pressure to move Hartnell, while you could, and while he was producing.  So in all likelihood he will be around this year.   I hope he has a productive year again.

GO MONSTERS (Champs!)!!!