Hockey’s Back…Now What?

5ish AM on January 6th became a landmark moment when news started to trickle in that one of the most unnecessary labor disputes in professional sports was finally coming to a close. After another marathon session involving mediators, players, and league and association leadership, Fehr and Bettman took to the stage and made nice.

I will leave the details and debates of the exact contract to smarter minds and turn my eyes to what we have all missed so desperately: Blue Jackets Hockey. In this season interruptus, a few key issues remain front of mind and these are the things I will be watching for when the puck drops:

How game-ready is our team? “game shape” is not easy to come by. While some of our boys have continued to play competitively, not all have. At present, James Wisniewski, Jack Johnson, RJ Umberger, Nick Foligno, Colton Gillies, Derek MacKenzie, Adrian Aucoin, and Steve Mason all sit with not a single game of league play at any level since last season ended. That is a list encompassing both sides of the blue line, goal tending and it runs up and down all lines. For those who did play, arguably the competition they faced across ECHL, European leagues, AHL varied and, some were marred by injury (Dubinsky) or lack of team “compatibility” (Dorsett, Brassard).

Of course all 30 teams will face the same issues and struggles regarding ‘readiness’. I have yet to do a team by team comparison, (though it would certainly be interesting) but our team comes to training camp not necessarily all on the same page regarding fitness, mental preparedness, fatigue and compete level. The protracted travel schedule that comes with staying in the West and a shortened time frame won’t help either. Should be a true test for any and all training plans players undertook between seasons.

Will scoring by committee work? Remember when we used to talk about “where will the goals come from” post-Nash trade? Well it’s time to stop theorizing and time to see. Team leadership tells us that we have players ready to break out, willing to work hard and distribute the G’s up and down the lines. It means returning players can’t slide, new guys have to step up, and, again, we can’t have a lot of injuries! I’ve been one who is willing to buy-in to this strategy. Let’s see if it sticks.

How good is the defense? When I talked to Wiz this summer, the buzz about our D was significant. Everyone was pretty high on what we had built and debates were fast and furious about who will be the top 6. As of this writing, John Moore is injured, and Ryan Murray is out for the season repairing a separated shoulder. This takes a few ‘competitors’ out of the discussion and leaves us with Wiz & JJ, Tyuts and Niki6, and the veteran leadership of Adrian Aucoin. We’ll need to add a name – or two – to that list. I’m curious to see who that is and if we can be all we thought we were six months ago.

Who is the number 1 Goalie?¬†We all know about this one right? Suffice it to say that I’m hopeful for a strong competition between Bob and Mase that results in more wins than losses. That’s as far as I’ll go with those two at present. I’m also one who was strongly in the camp of “leave Curtis McElhinney in Springfield”. Unfortunately, he’ll have to clear waivers to stay there. The position remains unsettled up and down the system. Ugh.

How do we maintain a strong team in Springfield? Last season, injuries ran deep in Columbus and the Springfield roster was ravaged late in the year. A commitment was made between the organizations to build a strong team in both cities. Resident Springfield expert Katherine McCarthy mentioned this morning that the Falcons stand to lose between 1-6 players to the CBJ. While things have certainly been crowded at our AHL affiliate, we need to manage the losses there with the needs of the big club. This would seem to fit with the philosophy John Davidson wants to bring to the team of no longer rushing our youth and developing properly. If only 1-2 guys end up leaving the baby birds, I’ll be happy.

How/When do we start to see John Davidson’s fingerprints? The biggest news of the Blue Jackets off-season was the hiring of John Davidson, Hockey Savior. One of my most significant frustrations has been seemingly “pushing pause” on JD taking the reins of the CBJ – tempered by knowing the lockout gave him time to take a longer look at all that’s going on without the pressure of a full season. The clock starts now. I’ll be watching specifically for his reactions with the Falcons roster (as mentioned above), how he brings in additional veteran talent, and how he builds the leadership of our team – coaching, management, front office – to be stronger.

What IS the team identity? Before the lockout, a team-driven “us against the world” mentality had started to form. I liked it. The team was practicing together, calling each other every day, talking about ‘having a lot to prove’. I have more than a little worry that this passion and energy may have been misdirected or sapped as a result of the lockout. How quickly can our team rebuild the drive to make something of this team and come together in a strongly united group? A lot of progress was made towards a positive “all-for-one” identity that “does not get outworked” (JD) and that “the fans are proud of” (Todd Richards). Let’s hope that the venom directed between players and owners won’t diminish the focus on these goals.

How will hockey-supported business fare? My most targeted ire throughout this process has been directed towards the NHL and NHLPA for their impact on team employees and hockey-related businesses. A half of a season is better than nothing, but these businesses lost months of revenue. Couple this with a gamble that we lost when we counted on the All-Star Game and it’s revenue and one has to worry about long term effects on local people and industries that have built up the support structure (media, entertainment, food, beverages) to the game we love so much. I’ll hope that fans return in droves with their dollars to these businesses. I will also encourage you that, should you come across someone who has a job that directly impacts your enjoyment of hockey, and they weathered this storm, the next time you see them you say THANK YOU.

What happens to the 2015 All-Star Game? Let’s look to the “there’s no luck like CBJ luck” category. When the All-Star game was cancelled, Columbus didn’t receive the same “see ya next year, mean it!” from the league that Detroit heard regarding the Winter Classic. We’ve complained enough, so let’s keep it simple: the city and the team will only benefit from the exposure, the ticket sales and the revenue that an ASG weekend will bring. Let’s make this one right, fast.

What will fans kvetch about next? In the midst of talking about HRR, contract length, salary caps, and still no hockey, I often caught myself laughing at what we all used to complain about. Is “Defend NWA” the best or worst marketing campaign ever? Are you just enraged over getting your season tickets on a “card”? Seems kind of silly that we were so adamant about things we’d later happily accept as long as we got hockey. But we are fans, and because we are fans, we are passionate. Soon, the next “biggest issue ever” will arise and we will fight like cats and dogs about things that don’t really matter…just remember it could (and has!) been far far worse so maybe enjoy it just a little bit, or at least try and keep it in perspective.

All in all – we’re in a heightened “are we who we thought we are?” state. The promises of last off-season are being called in – it’s time for this all to be resolved on the ice – which is exactly how we like it!

GO JACKETS!

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