Archive for the Coaching Category

Playoff Preview: CBJ vs. Pittsburgh

It’s pretty crazy to think about how much has changed since the Jackets last playoff appearance. Steve Mason was the savior. Rick Nash was the franchise. Derick Brassard and Jakub Voracek were the future. RJ Umberger looked like a steal. Mike Commodore and Jan Hejda were a beloved shutdown pair. Ken Hitchcock was coaching them up. Scott Howson looked like a genius. Well Mason is the savior in Philadelphia. Nash is the franchise in New York. Jakub Voracek and Derick Brassard are the present in New York and Philadelphia. Mike Commodore is somewhere. Jan Hejda is a beloved shutdown defender in Colorado. Ken Hitchcock is coaching up St. Lous. And if you are paying attention, Scott Howson actually still looks like a pretty good GM. Make no mistake, this is Howson’s team. He brought nearly every single player on this roster into the organization. The most prominent player expected to play in this series that was a Jarmo/JD pickup is probably Blake Comeau. Both goaltenders were Howson pickups. Seven of the eight defensemen who might see time were Howson pickups (Nick Schultz being the exception). Comeau, Jack Skille and Corey Tropp are the only Jarmo pickups at forward (plus the injured Nathan Horton). I’ve already dwelled on this more than I planned on, I just wanted to make sure it was out there that this team was built by Howson. Moving on.

The Pittsburgh Penguins. Funny how the Jackets first two playoff opponents have been Detroit and Pittsburgh. I know some fans are concerned about Pens fans taking over the building. Think back on that last playoff series, and remember the atmosphere. Nationwide was rocking with CBJ fans, and I expect the same this time around. If Detroit fans couldn’t overtake the rink, I don’t see how it should be much different this time. As for the on-ice product, I expect this to be a very close series. At even strength at least. The two teams are actually very close when it comes to 5v5 play. In shots for percentage, they rank 13th (Pittsburgh) and 14th (Columbus). In Fenwick Close, they rank 12th (Columbus) and 16th (Pittsburgh). In Corsi Close, they rank 13th (CBJ) and 16th (Pit). In goals for percentage, they rank 8th (Pit) and 12th (CBJ). On other words, the Jackets are slightly better at controlling the play, while the Penguins score a tiny bit more. Which makes sense, considering the talent they have, as Crosby, Malkin, and others have shown they (and their linemates) can consistently score on more of their shots than league average. But then again, the Jackets have Bobrovsky. Like I said, this should be a very close series at even strength. Pittsburgh has been quite a bit better on special teams than Columbus. So on the surface, the edge lies with the Penguins. Let’s look deeper, comparing the forwards, defense, goaltending, and special teams. And maybe we’ll see how the Jackets might be able to pull of the upset.
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Observation Time — All Star Style

asg123457_325In the wake of home-and-home losses to Pittsburgh, the usual cacophony of reactions are evident — ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous.  Today, we’ll try to take a relatively dispassionate look at the club, the recent efforts, and dust off the crystal ball for some thoughts as to what might come down the pike.

First things first, however.   Shortly before game time, I caught a TSN tweet indicating that Gary Bettman was at Nationwide for the game, and a second tweet indicating that he was in the company of Mayor Coleman.  Rudimentary arithmetic led me to one conclusion — All Star Game — a fact confirmed about 30 minutes later, when the lights dimmed, Greg Murray advised the crowd of a special announcement from John Davidson, who then appeared on the scoreboard screen with Bettman.  The announcement that the 2015 All Star Game was coming to Columbus on January 24 & 25, 2015 was almost an anti-climax at that point.  Still, it was terrifically positive news for the franchise, the city and the 18,634 assembled fans.  The NHL made good on its promise to “do right” by Columbus after the lockout trashed the All Star Festivities  for the 2013 game.

The most surprising aspect of the announcement was the timing.  Traditionally, the venue for the All Star Game is announced in January, or at least in conjunction with GM meetings.  That the announcement came so far in advance is a credit to both the NHL and the progress that the organization has been making at all levels.  Kudos to all concerned, and Columbus fans can now tuck those 2013 All Star Game pucks away, waiting for them to appreciate in value.  (Just kidding…sort of)   So with that issue put to bed, time to return to the ice.  The intent here is not to provide a game summary of the Pittsburgh battles —  @Canadan82 does that extremely well — but to look at the higher level issues, positive and negative, that are emerging as this fledgling season moves forward.  The two games vs. the Penguins do highlight some of the issues in stark relief.

Continue reading Observation Time — All Star Style

Hartsburg Named Associate Coach

The Blue Jackets announced this morning that Craig Hartsburg will be joining Todd Richards behind the bench this season.  This move brings a tremendous amount of additional experience to the Columbus coaching staff, as Hartsburg has spent time coaching in Minnesota, Philadelphia, Chicago, Anaheim, Ottawa, and Calgary.

Additionally, he coached the Canadian junior team to two consecutive Gold Medal wins in 2007 and 2008 (after having won a gold as an assistant in 2006), and enjoyed a ten year playing career with the Minnesota North Stars.  During that time, he wore the captain “C” for seven years.

Hartsburg has over fifteen years of coaching experience between the Canadian Junior hockey leagues and the NHL.  It is hard to put a value on knowledge, but it seems like Richards has made a wise choice in bringing someone on board with such depth of experience.  Craig will be able to relate to the players and be a vital resource.

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Blue Jackets Give Todd Richards Two Year Deal

The Columbus Blue Jackets have signed Todd Richards to a two year deal as the new head coach  News broke this morning of the decision to sign the interim coach after his efforts to turn the team around mid season left him with an 18-21-2 record.

To his credit, the Blue Jackets played visibly better with Richards at the helm.  One of the more notable positive stats was his 14-0 record when leading after two periods, a statistic that would shock most considering the early season distasters that plagued Columbus at the end of games.  This level of execution in the third period was an enormous boost.

While his record with the team was not entirely desirable, the difference in the team mentality appeared to improve substantially under Richards. Players like Derick Brassard are a prime example of someone who really found their way after the coaching change.

One of the biggest benefits as far as I am concerned, is the stability of a coaching position that does not sit vacant coming into the off-season.  I have seen coaches struggle with certain types of players (Hitch and the offensive players of Columbus in his final year come immediately to mind) and having a coach in place helps to gain an idea of what kind of team would be best iced.  Obviously this won’t be the main factor in what kind of free agents will be brought in this summer, I see it as a real positive to allow Howson and Richards to work together to find some of the more glaring roster holes based on a specific system.

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New Look Jackets Behind Todd Richards

Sometimes the atmosphere around an arena can become stale.  I am not one who normally attends practice, and after experiencing an Arniel practice shortly after the new year had arrived, I was not really left with the need to attend another one.  The drills were reasonable, and the effort was somewhat there, but the atmosphere was heavily lacking.  With that said, I attended my first Todd Richards practice on Monday morning, and I must say, the difference was clear.

Players were upbeat and into the drills with quite a bit of effort.  When the time was appropriate, they enjoyed ribbing each other for scoring or not scoring, and were giving Mason (the goalie who happened to be on our side of the ice) all kinds of cheering when he made a big save.  Dorsett, Boll, Brassard, and Prospal were the most audible for me, and there were times when I was openly laughing at their antics.  I would never suggest that the team play to the fans during their practices, but I truly enjoyed watching some of the character bleed out.

The drills themselves were very satisfying to watch.  High compete level with specific parts of their game in mind, and I’ll share a couple here.  The first drill is designed to have a forward head into the zone with the puck and take a shot on net.  Once that has been accomplished, two skaters take the puck the other way on a two on one, and the job of the original shot taker is to back check hard to try and get back into the play before the shot is taken on the opposite end.  It is a very creative way of getting the back checker a bit tired first, not unlike how he would feel in a game.

The second drill I really liked was designed for two players to shoot on the goalie uncontested.  The first player would have to beat a pylon aka coach on the bottom of the faceoff circle, and would then make a pass to the middle for a one timer.  Once that shot was taken, they would attempt to score on the rebound if there was one.  This is a great drill for the Jackets who I don’t think we see enough one timers from, and for Sanford and Mason who have been dealing with such attempts for much of the year.

The last thing about practice I wanted to mention was how much I truly enjoyed how vocal Todd Richards was.  I can’t really comment on his presence in the locker room or anything like that, but he was extremely vocal during the practice, and engaged the players beyond the whiteboard, which I really appreciated.  I have yet to see something about him that bothers me.

Moving on to the last couple games, I want to talk a bit about some of the things that have really popped out at me.  I will be drawing my assessments directly from the Phoenix and San Jose games, because I feel that is a realistic time to give Richards and the team an opportunity to get acquainted and discuss some on ice changes.

First, I really, truly like the current lines.  Nash and Brassard have seemingly found a bit of chemistry, and while Vinny seems to be aging quickly as the season progresses, I find that line to be relevant again (more on a couple of those players later).  Secondary to that, I am a big fan of the Vermette, Kubalik, and Johansen line.  Maybe more for the potential that rests on this line, but I feel like it is very dynamic and can play a number of different styles successfully.

Specifically on Rick Nash, and maybe this deserves an entire post, but I have been seriously satisfied with his on ice production over the last two games.  He has shown a ton of determination, and his legs have been moving a lot more than in the last twenty games or so.  I know I have been hyper critical of his playing this year, but if he continues on the path he’s taken since Richards came aboard, I will be following up with a long post about the necessity to retain him.

Brassard is another player I think has truly benefited from the coaching change.  Obviously the disconnect between him and former head coach Scott Arniel was visible to all following the team, but the constant demotions and line bouncing really seemed to affect Brass.  Since Richards came on and brought him alongside Nash and Prospal, he has seemed to shine, being aggressive at the right times, and finding the back of the net.  If you don’t follow Brassard’s career closely, two of his major criticisms have been his inability to get physical along the boards, and his inability to take the shot in an opportune moment (he’s big on passing).  Both, at least in the last couple games, have become short term solutions to his game.

Quick Notes:

- I am excited for the Gillies acquisition.  It’s going to fill out the fourth line well and from everything I have read, there is upside.  He is a former first rounder with decent hands and a big body.  If he can take the Nikitin approach and fit in with the team, this could be another Howson-esque move that makes you think back and really appreciate it.

- Dane Byers is kind of a bad decision maker.  No reason to make that hit against San Jose, and he’s paying for it with a three game suspension (and surprisingly not more at that).  Laughably enough, with the Gillies acquisition, I can bet Byers wouldn’t be seeing the ice anyways.

- Mason took some serious reps in the practice yesterday.  There seems to be a concentrated effort to get him working on the major faults of his game, and I can’t help but be optimistic about what it may generate in the near future.  With Dekanich playing decently well in Springfield and Sanford remaining solid in Columbus, it will be very interesting to see the goalie battle play out over the next couple weeks

- Can there be enough good things to say right now about Johnny Moore?  He’s a kid who has truly taken the ball and run with it, and I can’t be more excited for him.  I am still optimistic that he can be a top two defensive solution for Columbus in the long run, and hopefully his work this year is the true starting point of that.

- Columbus just keeps showing up.  Attendance was 16,582 (91.4%) on Saturday and 14,119 (77.9%) on Friday.  This for a team who is in last place by eight points.  Still think Columbus can’t hack it as a hockey market? Kudos to those of you who have attended games.

Carry the Flag!

Arniel Removed as Blue Jackets Head Coach

After a half season of enormously underwhelming hockey, Blue Jackets General Manager Scott Howson has decided to remove Scott Arniel from the head coach position.  During his time behind the bench this year, Arniel amassed a record of 11-25-5, with the largest salary in franchise history on the books, and a team who many had high expectations for playing substantially below their capacity.  But that is really only how the books cover should read, as I think it’s important to consider some variables:

1 – The Jackets have been short handed due to injury or suspension for most of the season.  As it stands, free agent signings Wisniewski (broken foot), Carter (separated shoulder), and Martinek (concussion) are all out due to injury.  Mark Dekanich is finally competing in full games after his injury, but only at the AHL level, leaving me to wonder how long it will take for him to regain form.  Huselius has found himself on the IR once again for multiple injures, and finally, early acquisition Letestu is out with a broken hand.  To Arniel’s defense (and more so to Howson’s defense), the team has not had a real stretch of games where they could compete as a full roster.

With this in mind, and what I think to be (at least by mid-season standards) a terrible suspension length to Wisniewski, I have to believe that Howson gave Arniel the benefit of the doubt early on due to the mess of players missing time, leaving large gaps with few ideal candidates to fill the holes.  When the team started showing signs of life in front of Sanford I have no doubt it bought him more time, but the huge slide following that momentum must have been the last straw.  Howson was quoted saying he believed Arniel was running out of potential solutions to the teams struggles, and I am personally under the impression that when something like that is admitted to, or blatantly visible (see line juggling galore) it is time to make a change.

2 – Arniel had completely lost the dressing room.  This is rarely a surprise when a team starts to really plummet down the standings (or stay in the basement) but it was quite obvious the players had little passion for playing a full sixty minutes under the direction of Arniel.  


In his defense, the players appear to be entirely incapable of playing with passion regardless of their cause or reason.  The term “fragile” has been used a LOT this year in the #CBJ twitter world, and their late game collapses after two periods of solid hockey are perfect examples of how coaching is only a portion of the problem.  Now, the line juggling (while obviously a weak attempt at generating offense) was most definitely a mess of confusion and in my opinion poor judgement by the coach, but I can’t help but wonder if the decision was made solely because nothing else was working.  There has to be a good excuse SOMEWHERE in there to explain why Boll managed to sneak into the top six for brief moments, right?

3 – It was probably nothing, but it certainly seemed as though those in decision making power were adamant about convincing the players to find their game and find their compete level.  The logic behind this would seemingly be that the coach is not, nor should he be in the position to babysit the players and convince them to come to ‘work’ each day ready to compete.


I think there’s a lot to this, considering that was one of the arguments that eventually lead to Hitchcock’s demise.  There are plenty of teams in the NHL that just appear to play at a higher level, and unfortunately Columbus is not among that list.  When you consider their see-saw like playing style in each game, and then compare that with teams that flat out play a full sixty minutes each night, I think it becomes very obvious that the overused term “country club feel” in the dressing room was more of a reality than a farce.  Interesting that former player and current analyst Anson Carter feels that a change in the dressing room is very much necessary to right the ship. He tweeted earlier:

@AnsonCarterLA:CBJ, firing your coach isn’t the answer. Ur whole org needs a culture change. Treating young guys like vets and vets like rooks equals 


There are those who will discredit Anson for not being an all star player or a guy who lasted a number of years in the Jackets organization, but for a guy who has been in the dressing room first hand, I think it would probably do well for us to pay attention.  Teams with great leadership seem to feed off hard work, and unfortunately Columbus doesn’t ooze that from my perspective.  From the outside looking in, Columbus has been a place where the lesser talented players (such as Chimera, Malhotra, Dorsett, and MacKenzie) seem to get great reputations solely for their on ice work ethic.  This became exceptionally obvious when rookie Ryan Johansen moved up to the top line with Rick Nash and Jeff Carter, and was notably faster and harder working until they recognized it and picked up their game.  Such scenarios are not necessarily something a coach can maintain, as the motivation is directly rooted in the players feeding off one another.

Todd Richards will be taking over as interim head coach, and if I had to guess, it will last until the season ends.  He is a fully capable coach who has experience at the NHL level with the Minnesota Wild.  Realistically, his talent pool will diminish as the season progresses, with Howson openly stating that trading will commence with the deadline approaching.  While it is hard to define the quality of a coach in scenarios like this where the team has lost most of their competitive edge, it will be interesting to see how the players respond to Richards.  As it stands, there is still a lot of hockey left to be played in Columbus this year.

Carry the Flag.

In which the walls come crashing down…

I had a whole concept to write about this morning…but then news comes across the Porty timeline that potentiallyHowson and Arniel could be gone by tomorrow.Allow me to say, that as of right now, I do not support this decision.

First and foremost, while I know its the nature of the game in sports, announcing to the world that someone(s) may or may not be about to be fired is just crappy. Imagine if your boss went and told everyone in your company that they were considering firing you. In this action, you’ve basically neutralized any remaining effectiveness said employee has. That’s a great idea for a team that is beyond struggling. /sarcasmfont

Secondarily, I can’t argue that Howson has NOT done what he was asked to do. Many of you may offer counter points, and I welcome those, but he went out and filled our biggest holes, communicated to the public, and was agressive. I may take some issue with the trigger finger sending people up and down to Springfield in timeframes shorter than Cam Atkinson, but this alone is not basis for the firing.

And now to Arniel. I am not a coach. I have never been a coach of a sport team of any kind. But I have played on numerous sports teams (certainly not of a professional nature) so I believe I know enough to know that the coach is not alone in bearing the brunt of a teams’ going ons. However the coach is certainly most always the fall guy.

Its been posited that if Arniel does in fact have to go, that we will look to Hitch, and by virtue of the fact that Howson fired Hitch (long pole, tent all that) that Howson has to go. Due to the points I raise above, I don’t know that Howson should go, and, quite frankly, what happened to saying, “hey guys, be grown-ups. Kiss and make up and learn to work together.” If Hitch and Howson really both want this team to win above all else, they can work together. Don’t have to be best friends…but figure it out. Happens to me at work all the time.

And Hitch? Look, I like the guy. But we saw his stock is not highly esteemed in the league as it stands right now – as no team pulled him in to the fold during the off-season. But, is he the right option or just “an option” because he’s on the payroll. As I said in an earlier post, change for change’s sake is not the answer, and if we just keep changing stuff “to see what sticks” – well, we ARE the Cleveland Browns, my friends.

Ultimately, remember, that when Hitch was let go, Howson told us that next time, it would be the players. And, I to some extent, feel that the majority of the problems lie on the ice, not behind the bench. We’ve changed a lot…and yet some things just haven’t changed, and if a coaching/management kind of change goes down or not, if we do NOT hear from the players – with passion (one way or another) – I fear that leadership changes of any kind will not fix our problem.

Why is it that an esteemed Veteran, Vinny Prospal, is already calling out issues of desire and fight on this team? And when does this become a question of finding the guys who have not only the skill but the HEART? A coach – no matter the caliber – can’t MAKE a player care. Can’t MAKE a player fight.

I remain a loyal fan of this team – and will support them because I just can’t help it, but I want to see the desperation and focus coming from ALL levels of this organization and that includes every person that is currently on the roster.

Not So Breaking News… Hitchcock

There has never been any question that my tendencies have leaned towards removing Ken Hitchcock as the coach of this team. With the lack of quality coming from the players, and the excuses piling up, even if Hitch were deemed ‘ the right man for the job’, something had to give.

In removing him at this point of the year, it says a couple things about the organization. First, Mike Priest is eating his words. After praising Hitch and saying that he had absolute confidence in him, removing him is definitely a shot in the leg of an otherwise unwavering attitude towards the veteran coach. While I believe it was the right decision to make 3 months ago, I do have to respect Priest for eating his words and accepting the idea that maybe, just maybe, this team could be better without Hitch.
Secondly, it all but removed Columbus from playoff contention. I was already knee deep in draft lottery details. I have been tracking the standings daily and not necessarily rooting against the Jackets, but smirking a bit each time they dropped a contest. It was never a sense of abandonment, but an absolution that having a top three pick would do worlds for the future of this franchise. By removing the coach now, it gives fans hope of an incredible run to the playoffs, and the ideology that the blanket of abysmal play has been lifted.
Thirdly, it readdresses the issue of Filatov. His value went up with the removal of Hitch, and with it, the likelihood of his return to North America. I am not suggesting that he is going to be successful when he returns, but he remains one of the highest sought after prospects in the game of hockey, and if it does happen that Hitch was simply the wrong coach for him, Columbus has quite a few more poker chips when considering what to do with the budding Russian.
So let us not exaggerate what has happened here. Claude Noel is a fine coach, but not someone I would like to see take over full time for the Jackets. My expectations for the current year went up, solely because I think Noel is going to let them play their own game. I am looking forward to seeing a young, offensive minded coach come in during the summer, and with him, the aspiration of a quality playoff team in 2011. The Jackets still have a hole to dig themselves out of, but it suddenly seems a lot less muddy with a major piece of their team ‘retooled’.
Carry the Flag!

Add Enjoyment to the Game… Let our boys play!


For most sports fans, the common interest in watching each sport is to be entertained. While a layup in basketball makes for about as much excitement as a lobbed wrist shot from the point, we all wait in anticipation as the stars make plays that make our heads spin. Whether it is a diving touchdown catch, a homerun that reaches the upper deck, or a no look pass that results in a nifty top shelf goal, we live for that kind of electricity in our veins.

For the Blue Jackets, excitement has been far from their game plan. With Ken Hitchcock, the style of hockey played is at best, bland. Heavy traffic in the neutral zone, dump and chase or one man deep, the style of play rarely allows for odd man breaks that lead to earth shattering goals. In fact, most of the excitement last year was watching Steve Mason defy what most Blue Jackets are used to seeing (hard work, determination, and defeat).

While I sat and endured another unfortunate performance a few nights ago, I began to wonder why or how I could possibly be disinterested in a game that sees my team outshoot the opponent 2:1. I could not really piece together how that kind of margin could possibly draw such little interest from me, but in reality, it is boring hockey. While New Jersey all but perfected the most boring trap style I have ever seen, they found ways to win Stanley Cups. I suppose it would suffice if the Jackets were heavy in the playoff race, fighting off opponents 1-0 or 2-1 all the way down the stretch, but that simply is not happening.

This is one of many reasons why I believe Ken Hitchcock is a bad fit in Columbus. It is a city used to exciting games thanks to the Buckeyes. They are built on winning, thanks largely to the conference the Buckeyes are in, and they are sold on the idea of sporting events being highly entertaining. If the Jackets can find a coach that can bring excitement back to the game, whether or not we are winning games 7-6, or losing them 6-5, I think it will be better for the hockey club. Some fan bases are well built to tolerate 1-0 or 2-1 losses, but I personally do not think Columbus is one of them.

The simple fact is, this team is built for high paced, high scoring games. I have seen countless nights where some of our more exciting players are lulled to sleep by their own forced tendancies, causing them to be sluggish around the puck and tired on the forecheck. Our team belongs on the scoresheet, and I do not believe under the direction of Ken Hitchcock that we will see exciting hockey in Columbus unless we make a coaching change. Let the players succeed at their own game. The game Howson knows they can play.

Carry the Flag!

Weighing in on the Hitchcockian Style..


Considering I have been one of Hitchcock’s biggest critics throughout his recent tenure with the Blue Jackets, I feel it necessary to weigh in on the growing conversation regarding his validity as coach. Whether this transfers well to the overall opinion is something I will hope to gain through comments, but I feel that most of what I will say is reflective of the current season.

When Hitch first arrived in Columbus, he had a quiet dream team of players that fall into his comfort category. Mid-range in caliber, and heavy set grinders who will put an emphasis on the body to make up for a lack of skill. Current Jacket players that reflect their abilities would be players like Andrew Murray, Derek Dorsett, and Raffi Torres. But with the change in head coach, so too brought on a change in management, and management style, with the likes of Scott Howson now pulling the reigns and deciding on the draft and trade future of the club.

Enter Derick Brassard, Kris Russell, Jake Voracek, and Nikita Filatov. Four players who in their youth were quite small in stature, their play was far more reflective of their skill and speed with the puck rather than their capacity to be physical. Enter Huselius, who I am still unsure of whether I have seen take the body, let alone throw a bodycheck on anyone, and raise that a Vermette, who (with his playmaking and penalty killing abilities) is a step above the highly physical Umberger. All players with unique abilities that do not really function under a Hitchcockian system.

It is not that I personally do not see Hitchcock as a strong coach. His record is his pillar, with over 500 wins and over 1000 games coached, he is one of the most storied coaches in the NHL still coaching. That being said, his coaching system has been present for some of the more rough edged teams, like the Stars team or the Philly team he coached very successfully in the late 90s. In the new NHL, the margin for error in a system of his nature is both difficulty small, and displaced among a league’s worth of high scoring, high momentum coaching styles that have fed on their style of play this year.

I believe the Jackets are headed in a differnet direction from the Hitchcock style. Their draft class does not correctly match up with his coaching style, and some of the current forwards are struggling to match up with his requested style and their designated linemates. Losing Filatov to Russia on account of low playing time will forever be an issue for me, thanks in large part to the brutal linemates he was given, with skillsets that do not come even close to comparing to what Filatov was comfortable playing with. While he made his share of rookie mistakes, he was never really given a chance to gel with another scorer the way Voracek and Brassard were able to do last year, in their first seasons.

Carry the Flag!