Archive for December 2009

State of the Team.. Midseason

The overall feel of this post will inevitably be about ten times more optimistic today than it would have been yesterday. Two major rocks broke off the current mountain the Jackets are climbing, including a massive 1-0 win against Detroit in overtime, and a trade that will bring Jurcina and Clark to Columbus.

I should probably start with the negative. Columbus is still knee deep in a slump. With only one win in their last ten games, the Jackets will have to dig deep in an unforgiving, and road trip laden January if they want to bring the team back into the playoff hunt. While the idea of making the playoffs is now wishful thinking, if they can play to their potential, the Jackets could easily go on a couple five game winning streaks. Steve Mason proved last night that he is the defacto number one goalie, and it was only a matter of time for him to return to last years form.
Now, the good. The Jackets welcome two much needed pieces to the puzzle. A hardened vet with heavy leadership experience in Clark, and a right winged, stay at home puck moving defensemen in Jurcina. While neither of these players will be top four or top six players, their talent will benefit the Jackets where they have struggled all year long, in the depth player level. This does make me wonder who gets ousted from the defensive ranks. Obviously with Chimera gone, Clark will fill in a hole in the offense, but where in the lineup he will land is likely going to be based on some line juggling by Hitch.
Looking at the defense, Stralman will likely welcome the idea of having a second right handed shot on the blueline. With Klesla and Methot both out with injury, the Jackets are suddenly well balanced and deep on the back end. Tack that on with the solid play of Roy over the last couple games, and suddenly, the Jackets are going to struggle to decide who sits each game. It seems that either they are hoping to send a message to the current roster, or they are planning something bigger in terms of a trade.
Optimism is what will get our boys through this mess. That, and the appropriate adjustments in team management. I would love to hear what you guys and gals are doing to get through the tough time as a fan. Feel free to comment!
Carry the Flag!

The Streak Ends!

At long last, I can finally return to discussing the Jackets action. After a day full of change, including the Chimera trade, along with not only a win, but an overtime win nonetheless against a division rival, I can finally return thanks to even the slimmest touch of optimism available.
As we all have our traditions and bouts of superstitions, my most recent decision to hold off on my critiquing was solely focused on a lack of interest in hounding this team. With any losing streak, the hardest thing to do is provide positive and reasonable commentary, and unfortunately, that was not the direction this blog was headed. That being said, I am confident we have hit our low point of the year, and I am getting more and more confident that a coaching change will be on the horizon.

While some players still appear to be struggling around the puck, the one wearing the biggest burden (Steve Mason) had probably his best game of the year, returning to a form that won him the Calder trophy not a season ago. He played so well, I felt the banner may as well be of him, considering yet again, he has found a way to bring a ‘W’ to Columbus.
I am excited to bring to you a state of the team post tomorrow, along with my thoughts on the trade to bring a defender and some much needed leadership to the team. For now, let me share with you my excitement for a victory, and my optimism for the coming weeks, even though they will be rocky.
Thank you Steve Mason.
Good bye Chimmer.
Go Jackets.
Carry the Flag!

Time for some ‘They say, I say”

Befuddled is likely the best excuse for the small lull in my blogging week. After forgettable performances against Anaheim and Nashville, and two periods of (from what I hear… –thanks Versus–) ‘coulda, shoulda’ hockey, there really is not much to be said about this team.

There has been a bit of a critical bubble wrapped around the team. I can’t really blame specific individuals for poor play, because the team as a whole has been playing to the par of probably the AHL. I can certainly blame the coach, but I have already done that on multiple occasions, citing his inability to get the team on board with his program, and excited to play each game. I could certainly blame Mason, but that would be short sighted, considering he rarely has a chance thanks to a dismal defensive performance.

The likelihood that a specific piece of the puzzle will fall into place, reviving a third of a seasons worth of terrible play is minimal at best. There are so many holes in the current system, so many blown concepts (the all Swede line, are you serious!?) and stupid line combinations, and so many ‘optional’ skates, that really, putting the blame on anything would simply continue the current trend.

Bottom line, this team needs to stop finding excuses, and start finding solutions. Here are some of their comments, and my ‘what should be said’ retorts;

Them: “so and so is not performing, and it will take them rising to the occasion for this team to turn around in that area.”
Me: “Our team needs to strengthen itself in the defensive end, whether it takes a certain individual to raise their game, or whether the group as a whole can come together and start playing unified hockey.

Them: “Rick Nash needs to stop trying to trying to beat the entire team by himself.”
Me: “While we have certain individuals that are trying to elevate their individual game to raise the scoring opportunities, the best solution in the offensive zone is a strong cycling game with all five skaters moving their feet and opening lanes.”

Them: “The situation in net is dismal. Steve Mason is –insert blah blah stat statements pointing out his numbers– and will need to play better to help this team win games.”
Me: “Last year, this team prided themselves on stymy defense and tremendous, unlikely saves by our goaltender. If we want to compete in each game, it will have to be a collected effort to keep the scoring chances to a minimum, and the slot closed at all times. The saves will come with the confidence of not having to think there are players open in all areas of the slot.”

Them: “Ken Hitchcock is not at fault, because the players are not buying into his system.”
Me: “Hitchcock does not fit the style of hockey that would be suit the talent this team has. They are also skating lazy, and reaping the benefits of countless optional skates, and next to zero accountability when it comes to lazy play. We need a coach that can get these players into the right mindset.”

In the end, solutions are the only proper way to resolve a slumping team, not excuses or pointed fingers. The after game interviews are becoming more difficult than the game itself for the players, and that absolutely needs to stop. Accountability in the form of these examples can easily propel this team back into form.

Carry the Flag!

The Hypocrisy of Accepted Mediocrity


There has been some comentary lately about the need for patience from Jackets fans. I know many hockey teams struggle to maintain the interest of their fanbase with a losing team, and I think it is a shame that the NHL has to work so hard for their fanbase, considering how exciting the sport is. I do not, however, think any fanbase should be forced to grow through mediocrity. If you consider some of the greatest NHL fanbases currently, you may as well be looking through time to storied franchises full of excitement and good fortune. The cup runs by the Boston Bruins, New York Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, Detroit Red Wings, and Chicago Blackhawks of the original six, over decades of dedication, solidified the fans into a lifelong commitment to their team.

Yet, for some reason, there is a new unspoken request to fans for patience through tough times. The request to embrace a team who loses, in hopes of watching them someday win. It seems that mediocrity is meant to be paid for, and beyond the casual fan, people should pay for it throughout the year.

I disagree.

For many reasons, I do not believe that mediocrity is something any club should be able to portray to their fanbase. I believe that all NHL teams can compete, it is simply a matter of conditioning them in the right ways, and producing the appropriate line pairings, specialty teams, and goaltender matchups. In Columbus there is a different animal currently running rampant through the dressing room. Laziness.

Laziness, in my opinion, is the direct cause of their nine game funk. Laziness is a luxury they did not afford themselves last year after bringing in Steve Mason, and it was a lack of that very concept that drove them to the Stanley Cup playoffs. In the body movements of players, both before and after the whistle, you can see a certain sense of disinterest towards the game at hand. It is this laziness that drives a fan like me away from a team.

If an organization wants to preach mediocrity, they do not have a very strong business ethic. Most know that in business, you are either extremely good at what you do, or you work your tail off until you have reached that point. For the Jackets, being full of youth is the number one excuse used by the coach and pundents. If they want to fall back on youth, I will fall back on how youth are supposed to play this game… With speed, tenacity, energy, and a general excitedness that can not be bought on the open market.

They say ‘we have excuses’ regarding their record. I say ‘I have had enough excuses, it is time to see some success.’ We have a team that should be more competitive than last year. We have a group of talent that should be able to compete beyond any other team in the NHL. When they show up for a game, it is one of the most exciting things for me to watch, but they need to find a way to do that every game, for sixty minutes. Once that is consistent on a game by game basis, the fans will fill the seats. Once the threat of 4-8 goal losses has been removed, the fans WILL fill the seats. If they do not show passion, they will likely not get any from their fans.

Carry the Flag!

Game Recap: FLA vs. CBJ 12/10


Last night marked the first time in well over a month that the Jackets came out of the gate firing. The wheels were spinning fast and strong through the early going, hammering the Florida defense with a strong forecheck from at least three lines. The offensive combination of Dorsett – Brassard – Torres was by far the most potent, pressing relentlessly and making a statement that no ice time would be easy for their opposition.

Then enter the Nash – Vermette – Huselius line, who were passing brilliantly and coming ever so close to scoring on multiple occassions, forcing the defense to shrink towards the net. While the goals were not being scored, the effort and tenacity that was so badly missed was evident, and none were more pleased than the thousands in attendance.

For me, I was excited. Sitting at home watching the game was a ‘gametime’ decision after attending the last two home games (aka losses) and I immediately begun to regret opting for the lazy route. Every effort on the puck, and every connected pass reminded me why I dedicate so much time to this team, and it truly got me excited again as a fan.

The unlikely hero in the first period was Jason Chimera. After tucking his head and barrelling towards the offensive blueline, I was quick to get frustrated with him for missing a wide open Voracek streaking wide. Chimera, however, had plans of his own. After throwing a fluttery backhand at Vokoun, he crashed the net hard, tucking in the rebound. The guys finally got the goal they deserved, and took a 1-0 lead into the dressing room.

The second period was forgettable for the offense. A 1-0 lead was clearly the cushion they were searching for, and fortunately, the defense decided to bail out Steve Mason after a couple miserable turnovers lead to spectacular saves. As I had mentioned a few posts ago, Mason was only lacking a fair chance at the puck, and none were more difficult or fair than Kulikov’s slapshot, gloved perfectly by Mase. For me, that changed the game. The offense realized that Mason and the defense would hold if they continued their pressure, and the third period was much like the first, up until the refs started making calls.

Now, regardless of whether the calls were fair or not, the edge went to Florida. Once again, Columbus was forced to kill a 5-3 late in the game, and once again, they pulled through. Midway through the third, one of the more media favored (recently) players came cruising down the left side with the puck. Brassard artfully lifted the puck over Vokoun’s shoulder into the top of the net, and just like that, the Jackets had their dreaded two goal lead. A strange faceoff win and ‘sort of’ shot by Sammy Pahlsson sealed the deal, and Steve Mason held on the record his first shutout of the season.

Skill from the playmakers, and strength from the grinders won this game. Proper defense, and a potent offense caused Florida to play smarter, removing some of the offensive efforts that may have been there if the Jackets sat back. They played the hockey they are meant to play, and Hitchcock better take notes. If they play every game like this, minus the second period lull, making the playoffs are going to be the least of their worries.

Carry the Flag!

Line Juggling with the Return of Modin


After watching the last couple weeks of Blue Jackets hockey, it becomes rather clear that a change is necessary to motivate the players. Their play has been subpar, and their motivation has been all but non-existent. Sometimes players need to feel the press of another competitive forward, ready to sweep in and steal their roster stop.

Enter Frederick Modin.

After a myriad of injuries and a miserable couple of years, he is finally coming close to playing condition. He competed well with the rest of the team in an hours worth of practice recently, and the outlook is very positive for one of the next three games. Now, it is well known around my circle that my criticisms of Modin have been relentless, even when healthy. His play on the puck is quite strong, but his lazy attitude while not on the puck needs some serious reworking, especially considering he is a veteran.

That being said, I can think of a few players on the Jackets roster I would love to replace with a healthy Modin. Mike Blunden seems outclassed in the NHL right now, making small but consistent mistakes on a nightly basis, and would do well to return to Syracuse for more conditioning. Jason Chimera is great with his speed, but has rarely used it of late, and has been the cause of many Blue Jackets turnovers. Even MacKenzie, who has seemed to be one of the more consistent players on the latter lines, could be removed for the boost in talent. The problem is, once Modin is on board, where does he fit in?

I have thrown together an assumptive line combination based on how I believe Hitchcock will react to his return;

Huselius – Vermette – Nash
Voracek – Umberger – Modin
Torres – Pahlsson – Dorsett
Boll – Brassard – Chimera

A couple of notes: Umberger should not be playing center, and it is really quite unfortunate that Hitch wants to go that route considering how deep the team is at that position. While his ability to get physical is higher than Brassard’s, it is a waste of talent to place Brassard on the fourth line, which should focus on pyhsical play and neutral zone attack.

Here is my preferred lineup;

Huselius – Vermette – Nash
Voracek – Brassard – Modin
Torres – Umberger – Dorsett
Boll – Pahlsson – Chimera

I am really excited about these pairings. That being said, it would have to be generated in a system where the top two lines play talent based hockey, and the bottom two lines play the Hitchcock ‘crash em and bash em’ hockey he is so famous for. By allowing the skilled lines to work the puck and try for the fancy passing, chemistry and excitement will build within Nationwide. If games are lost, at least fans will be treated to a level of talent that is currently being masked under a tired system. The Torres, Umberger, and Dorsett line really excites me. It will make teams top lines shudder at the thought of facing them, and they are all talented enough to bury the puck if an opportunity arises.

Hitch can make this team work, but he needs a three dimensional view of his talent.

Carry the Flag!

Behind the Numbers: Derick Brassard


Upon first glance, it is not hard to write off Derick Brassard’s second full season in the NHL. With one of the teams worst +/- ratings to this point, Brassard has struggled to find his form inside the Hitchcock system. He has also fallen short of management’s expecations of playing alongside Rick Nash and Kristian Huselius on the top line. Brassard is a prime candidate for skeptics when hunting for scapegoats, considering the only unmoving position on the top line has been at center.

But what exactly defines a bad season? Brassard is far from a checking forward, standing a mere 6’0 and weighing in just slightly over 170lbs. His assets are his ability to see the ice, move the puck, and move with the puck, and unfortunately, these assets are considered second rate in the style that Columbus has been trying to mimmick for the last couple years. There is no question that Brassard can move the puck. His efforts on the second powerplay unit have been evident over the last ten games, and help to make it much better than the first unit in regards to maintaining possession in the offensive zone. So what is the hangup?

It is simple. Brassard, like Filatov (but to a much less extent) thrives on a non-physical game. His talent and skill far exceed his need for physicality, and on many teams, he would thrive on a fast paced puck possession game. His size and speed directly design him for puck management, not dump and chase, yet these are not the sole focus of any line on a given night in Columbus.

I have been first to bash Hitchcock this year. I will more than happily admit that. I am impressed with his NHL record, but I do not base every opinion on that. Most of the wins he acquired were long before the NHL was modified, and his mindset is shared by few current NHL coaches, and probably even fewer who are actually successful with that mentality. Unfortunately, I have to put this on him as well. Brassard’s talent is obvious on the powerplay, when the door is open for possession. Once he goes back to even strength play, he is forced to go to a style that is both below his talent level, and not something he excels with.

Let me take one final angle with this. Rick Nash. Our team captain, and our best player. He succeeds in the Hitchcock system, but he has quietly modified into his own game a way to provide both. His size allows him to get into the corner and gain possession of the puck, but once completing that, begins to possess the puck until he finds an open lane. It is a quiet way of keeping skill in the game, and it generally provides him success on the scoreboard. Unfortunately, Brassard does not have the size to play that kind of game, and it has absolutely had an effect on his output.

I am confident that Brassard can succeed in this league. I am a big fan of his capabilities, and believe that he needs a longer leash when playing. If Hitch can find a way to allow his young stars to be competitive with the puck rather than forcing the dump and chase, he may find a surprising amount of success in a geyser of talent waiting to spill over on the second line.

Carry the Flag!

Setting the Record Straight: Steve Mason


I have spent many hours this season reading articles designed to belittle Steve Mason and his “sophomore slump.” While the stats tell the story to any ‘fan’ who watches the odd game and weighs in, or a hockey analyst sitting a plane ride away, trying to find credible discussions, I would like to take the opportunity to clear the air on some blatant misconceptions regarding our number one.

First and foremost, they are wrong. Not completely, but conceptually, their argument is flawed. While some would argue that he should be playing at the same capacity that he did last year, I argue that he may have been playing some of the best hockey of his career, and anything slightly below that is completely reasonable. He made saves that did not register logically for me. He embarrassed other teams top scorers, and turned aside enough pucks to get the entire fanbase supporting him. He won games for the team rather than the team winning games for him, but he did it with something he does not have this year.

Defense.

Go to any sports fan and ask them what the key to winning is. Most of the time, they will break it down into two categories; a structured offense with solid weaponry, and a stymy defense that has the ability to deflate even the most potent of opportunities. This year, The Jackets do not have either. I would like to talk about both.

First, the offense. In a word, the best depiction of their offensive chances would be sporadic. Rarely consistent, I have personally watched the Jackets offensive sleep through 45 minutes of a game, only to turn it on for 10 minutes. It has happened in multiple games where they score two or three very quick goals, and then fall back into the Hitchcock coma, allowing the opposing team to get right back into the game. If the Jackets can sustain their powerful offense throughout a 60 minute game, it would not be a surprise to me if they started winning games by a two to four goal margin.

Now, to the defense. Last year, the pride of the Jackets was their defense, lead by the shutdown pairing of Hejda and Commodore. This year, with both being given an excuse to play poorly on account of their injuries, the Jackets lack the necessary pairing to keep the other teams first line in check. Kris Russell is getting more and more confident with the puck, but he needs to be complimented by a defensive defensemen with a mind for his own zone first. Pairing Russell with Stralman is both illogical and nonsensical. Everything this team is built on suggests that a defensive defensemen should be paired with an offensive defensemen, and I believe it is costing them games.

Once the Jackets shore up their defense, Mason will be given the freedom to build back the confidence lost on account of the blown asisgnments and goals being scored on plays that do not give him a chance to make the save. With the NHL scouting the way it is now, it is not hard for opposing teams to note how much freedom is being given in front of the Jackets net, and until they resolve the gaps, Mason will continue to be scored on. Not a goalie in the NHL will resolve these issues.

Carry the Flag! — The Jackets don’t play again until Wednesday, but stop by tomorrow for another hard hitting piece.

Game Recap: COL vs. CBJ 12/5


The night finally arrived. After two years of hate brewing, adam fo*te (name removed because this blog knows better) finally returned to Nationwide Arena, to a fanbase he offended and abandoned. Much to the dismay of the fans, the team did not quite show up the way we did.

I was there. Section 209, and loving my first opportunity to sit up there. The one great thing about Nationwide is that there is not a single bad seat in the house. The fans were great, booing fo*te every time he jumped on the ice, and we booed even harder when he touched the puck. Of the three or four times he was checked, (Thata boy Boller and Mackenzie!!!) the crowd went wild with cheers, with two years of angst and anticipation finally boiling over.
The first period was a stalemate. Neither team seemed too interested in the game, or making the games first mistake. Commodore threw down with Koci and the fans and myself gave the checkmark to Commodore, with a few solid punches and a decent take down. Credit Budaj throughout the entire game for coming in and making some massive saves, especially on Chimera who seemed snake bitten considering some of the tremendous chances he had.
The second period was deflating. Two blown assignments by the Jackets defense lead to two goals by the Avalanche. Such a common trend for the new Jackets team, an Av was left alone in front, only to get an open net with Mason flailing to stop them. This has become extremely obvious over the last couple games, and it has really put a microscope on whether Mason is really struggling at all this season. His save percentage last night was .842, however, only one of the goals could ever be considered his fault. In fact, take out the defensive breakdowns, and his save percentage would be around .947… Seems like we need to rethink who is actually at fault here.
I will not be touching the third period very much, because it was not consistent with the rest of the game. In fact, the Jackets looked like their old self in the third, outshooting the Avs 15-4 and scoring (arguably) three goals. They poured on the pressure and were really catching their stride, but once again, they proved that playing a 15 minute game instead of a 60 minute game is the difference between winning and losing in this league. I do want to thank my fellow Jackets fans for erupting in a “traitor” chant while the goal was being reviewed and fo*te was the only player on the ice. I hope he felt terrible because of it.
I am ready to call out Fedor Tyutin. His play has been absolutely miserable over the last ten games. He has been a turnover factory, and has passed the puck out in front of his own net probably 5-10 times in the last two games, a couple resulting in easy goals for the opposition. He is unsteady with the puck in the offensive zone, and has been far from competitive in any recent game I have watched. What is unfortunate about this, is that Hitchcock seems to believe that Tyutin and Stralman make a good defensive pairing, even though both seem to be struggling heavily with the puck. I will be putting some time into a piece about coaching later on today, so once again, I will stick to the game as much as I can here.
The final concern I have right now, is regarding the veterans. While the ‘youth’ has been one of the biggest criticisms by Hitchcock regarding this team, the veteran leadership has been consistently on the ice when the opposing team scores, and have been dragging down the opening section of the powerplay with lazy passing, and next to zero offensive chances. If the Jackets want to start winning games again, the vets are going to have to seriously reconsider their strategy.
That is enough dogging for now. I am optimistic, but not terribly confident that the Jackets can get over their recent slide. They need leadership and their coaching staff to step up big time.
Carry the Flag!

Time for Some Retribution…


Over the last few games, maybe even the last month, the Jackets have shown a major lack in desire when playing. A year ago, there were very few nights when our players opted to ‘take the game off’ and coast throughout. In fact, the one endearing quality of the Jackets roster last year was that yes, while the talent still needed to develop, at least the level of effort was consistent.

This year, it has been a far cry from consistent from the collective. Mason has tried (and failed) to bail out the team on many occasions, just to be left to dry on account of miserable turnovers and blown assignments for many open net goals. While his play has not been stellar, it is hard to build confidence to a giant thorn in his side.
Yes, it is time for the Jackets to receive a wake up call from someone or some thing other than a brutal loss. With eight losses in the books allowing more than five goals, it is pretty clear that something has to give in order to remain competitive this year. Something has to change to generate the drive necessary to compete in the NHL, and I think I know what that something is.
Saturday, adam fo*te (note: capitalization and full last name removed for hatred purposes) will FINALLY make his return debut to Nationwide Arena. Finally, the Jackets fans can have their revenge on a captain who was not. Finally, the Jackets can hurt him where it counts. If ever a game could generate the rowdiness and hate needed to put a fire in the Jackets players, I think the crowd will be a force all on its’ own Saturday.
I will once again be in attendance. I could not pass up the opportunity to see this game in person. I will be booing a player for the first time in my life, and it will be with a lot of other first timers, if I had to guess. It is not so much that I think booing is a reasonable or unreasonable thing to do, I just have never felt such a need to let a player know how much he has affected this team, and the teams fans.
My final tag line has always been “Carry the Flag”. I put it there to remind myself why I put the time in to share my thoughts. I add it to every entry because it defines our roles as ambassadors of this team, and it reminds me what I can be thankful for. Maybe it is time the Jackets players started considering their slogan shortly before they hit the ice. Maybe it is time Hitch took the time to remind them.
Carry the Flag!