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.
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!
It took twenty five games this season to visualize the words I have been trying to produce regarding the Jackets play. Twenty five games, a dwindling +.500 record, and a whole little at which to look positively. There are a seasons worth of things to blame such as injuries, laziness, and bad coaching. Focusing on one thing or the next, while being sufficient for a given time period, rarely does the trick.
I will start with the coaching. While this is something that I have focused on in past entries, I feel it necessary to reiterate my distaste for the way this team is being coached currently. To begin, the right players are rarely the players that are given the most opportunity. Coach Hitchcock seems to overuse his veteran first mentality up until the boiling point, and will only in a dying effort bring in some youth to try and stoke the fire. Losing Filatov was inevitable based on his attitude toward youngsters, and that is not to say that Filatov does not have a lot of developing to do, but it does say that the wrong people were put in place to develop Niki as a player. Futhermore, putting Russell on the shelf after he single handedly held in the concept of puck moving defenseman late last year seems to be a horrible waste of talent, regardless of whether Stralman is a better all around player.
Yes, I am pushing hard, but so be it. Most of these players will earn more this year than I will see in my lifetime, and while I respect that, so should they. There is no desire for victory, no push for perfection, and certainly no accountability from the coaching staff that maybe their tactics are short of what this club needs.
Let us move on to laziness. There is no question that the better part of each game (especially each loss) is spent with our Jackets firing at maybe 70% of their actual capacity. It was obvious in the Calgary game, when they scored three goals in the final seven minutes of the second period, only to fall back asleep in the third. It has been obvious game after game that these players are finding little reason to force the issue and work extremely hard game in and game out. While this may seem like a trivial pursuit of the flawless victory, I do not believe it is out of the question to expect a high caliber of effort from each of these players.
In the previous couple games, horrible giveaways and brutal blown assignments have cost the Jackets costly goals and unnecessary losses. If the defense held strong, and the offense maintained their positioning in the defensive zone, there is little doubt in my mind that one of Garon or Mason could easily provide the goaltending needed to win a game or twenty.
Finally, we can chat about injury. I have heard and read more complaints about poor conditioning due to injury from some of the players in the Jackets organization than I can personally stand. Take a minute to consider a guy like Raffi Torres, who loses half of his mouth from a puck, and manages to return to form only a few games afterwards. Then, we look at a guy like Mike Commodore, who has complained over and over again about conditioning being a factor. Here is the simply truth. If a player is not in good enough condition to play, then do not play them! There are a multitude of bubble defensemen that would love to step in and play. We are not in a situation where there is a dying need for injured and unconditioned defensemen need to be playing in each game. Forget what the players can and can not do, it is time to start hearing that accountability is the number one factor in every game and practice. It is time to hear that the best players available are playing in each game, and are playing to their fullest capacity.
I am done hearing excuses. This is an extremely talented group of players who are heavily underachieving, despite a winning record they do not fully deserve. It is time to start playing for the fans. We deserve it.
Carry the Flag!
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!
An unexpected decision was made this past week by General Manager Scott Howson, bringing young Nikita Filatov up from the Syracuse Crunch to soak in the playoff atmosphere. Unclear towards his intentions, fans have been skeptical about the decision considering Syracuse is in a playoff race of their own, however, the decision was based on the ability to provide one of Columbus’ very promising young players a chance to get some unique experience.
Now, typically this would get me excited, as Filatov has shown the ability to hang with NHL caliber hockey teams. He has already experienced the thrill of an hattrick and blended well and quickly with different players on the Jackets roster. His experience and size obviously need a boost, but I suspect Howson believes the place to gain that is with Columbus and not Syracuse.
I say typically because there is a catch involved if Nikita plays, which based on the need for scorers on the Jackets roster I would expect he would. Any coach or GM will do whatever it takes to win, even if it means giving playing time to snipers like Filatov. That catch is obviously his NHL contract, which would kick in if he plays two more games with the big team this year. Not a big deal in the long run I suppose, considering Columbus has plenty of cap space and can spare it here and there, especially assuming Brassard, Voracek, and Filatov are their future up front.
That being said, if Filatov’s NHL contract kicks in this year, he becomes and unrestricted free agent the same year Brassard does. This is not terribly relevant towards cap implications, but it most certainly is an issue in terms of ‘matching’ or exceeding a contract. It is definitely likely that Filatov will have as much success as Brassard if not more prior to entry contract expiring, and because their styles are even minutely similar, this is personally a concern.
It is a double edged sword in reality, and even I can not make up my mind whether the idea of playing him and having his contract kick in is worth the extra round in the playoffs. Many teams do everything they can to win the cup every year, and having Filatov playing rather than Peca or Murray is certainly at the top of my list, but I really do not want to see any sort of animosity between the young players as their contracts expire.
Tonight, the Jackets finish one of their biggest statement weeks of the year against the Detroit Red Wings, who they beat 8-2 last weekend. Confidence will not be of short order, as both teams are coming off wins.
A familiar face returned to the Jackets lineup recently. Marred by injury this season, Rusty Klesla is finally off IR and making a difference on the ice. I personally was on the train that pegged Klesla as good deadline trade bait, but it is time for me to digress and appreciate his talent.
While the Columbus defensive corps are full of promise and potential, there is always room for a player like Klesla, who has the size advantage, and a lot of the time a hockey sense advantage over many of the other d-men on our depth chart. With Tollefson on IR with an injury, the need for physicality will be filled perfectly by either Mark Methot or Rusty Klesla, which leads me to wonder.. Who are the odd ones out?
I would be fairly comfortable in assuming Commodore and Hejda will be safe on the roster for the remainder of the season. Both are playing strong defensive games, and have been known to step it up against the opposition’s best lines. Tyutin and Russell are staples on the powerplay, and seem to have earned their spot on Hitchcock’s depth chart.
That leaves a recovering Klesla, injured Tollefson, Christian Backman, Aaron Rome, and Mark Methot in limbo. Based on any kind of consistency, Klesla will outplay every one of them, (unless something unexplainable happened to his abilities) and OKT will be recovering, which would leave the remaining four players competing for a single roster spot. Now, the fact that Hitch has had the common sense to sit Backman through multiple games gives me some confidence. I know his contract is robust for what he can (and clearly can not) do on the ice, which leads me to believe that when push comes to shove, the position will not go to him.
The concern I have is whether or not Hitchcock will be willing to sit Aaron Rome. He would have to clear waivers to return to Syracuse, and from what I have heard and read, the organization really likes what he can do, meaning that Methot will flat out have to be brilliant to obtain a position that in reality should be his.
What are your thoughts Jackets fans? Will Rome take the spot by default, or will Mehtot get a fair crack at the roster down the stretch?
Carry the Flag!
News is that the Jackets have acquired center Chris Gratton from the Tampa Bay Lightning, who tried to bring Gratton back up on re-entry waivers. This is a rather interesting trade, based on the high number of centermen the Jackets have, and the fact that Howson has already proclaimed that nothing has had an effect on his search for a center.
I do not like to be the person to downplay a very positive thing, but I have found that I single out players or coaches even in victory. There are a couple things that I want to get out there and I would really like your (the fans) opinions on them as well.