Once again, every Tuesday, WFNY’s The 5-Hole brings you up to date with the goings-on of the CBJ…
The Summer That Was
Regular Season: 32-35-15, 79 points (5th division; 14th conference)
Playoff Result: did not qualify
This is a pivotal season for the Jackets. Expectations were high (in this space as well) heading into last season. Coming off of their first playoffs appearance in 2009 and having seemingly addressed their biggest needs in the off-season, the Jackets looked primed to improve in ‘09-‘10. As we know now, the wheels fell off the wagon entirely, and we enter the ‘10-‘11 season with a new coach and system, and a whole new set of expectations. Training camp started on Friday, September 17th, and the Jackets are now four games into their exhibition season under the guidance of new coach Scott Arniel, whose new up-tempo system has looked good at times, and also has shown some areas for improvement.
Unlike the summer of 2009—otherwise known as the summer of “Thank God We Got Nash Signed Before Crapping Out!”—the Jackets largely stood pat, content to project improvement from their current roster with a fresh coaching perspective and system. So, without a ton of roster turn-over and instead the turn-over having taken place behind the bench, I thought our best course of action would be to highlight the five biggest storylines/questions heading into this oh-so-important season for the Jackets.
1. This is largely the same roster from a playoff team in ‘08-‘09. Can a new coach really bring them back without an infusion of new talent?
This is really the fundamental question. General Manager Scott Howson believes that they can, as evidenced by his lack of “big” moves this off-season. Part of that, of course, is that the Blue Jackets fall firmly under the grouping of “budget teams” in the NHL; they can’t spend up to cap. When one adds in the Nationwide Arena lease issue, this is magnified. Much like our Cleveland Indians, however, this means that he has to be right on almost 100% of his moves.
Two of the biggest moves of last off-season were moves that were not made: they let two “leadership” guys go (Manny Malhotra and Michael Peca), and didn’t adequately replace them. Talent-wise, one would have expected Sammy Pahlsson to exceed the performance of Malhotra, but they missed Manny’s leadership. They brought in Chris Clark at the trading deadline last year—a former NHL Captain in his own right—but it’s hard to bring a guy in mid-season and expect him to lead. To his credit, Clark has said he’s more comfortable stepping up this year, now that he’s been with the team.
This off-season, the only real move of substance was that Howson brought in cast-off Ethan Moreau, another feisty grinder type who’s known to stand up and get on guys in the dressing room. Moreau’s best days are clearly behind him, but if he can help to light the fire of accountability under the backsides of the younger players, it can only help.
Arniel has a couple of things in his favor, as well. First, he played for many years in the NHL, whereas former coach Ken Hitchcock did not. That will help Arniel relate to his players, because he knows the grind. He knows when to ask for more and when to back off. Second, Arniel has spent his last four years as a head coach working with young players at the AHL level. Arniel’s system is more up-tempo, which for the most part the players seem to enjoy. Gone are the days of playing defense first and foremost and trying to wear down the other team. Arniel wants defensemen jumping up and pitching in on offense. He’s OK with a bit of risk-taking, which the prior coach certainly was not. The Jackets-of-yore never possessed the ability to come back from deficits, and so it will be interesting to see if the new system unlocks that ability, or if the team still lacks the overall offensive firepower.
So, can they get back to the playoffs? I believe they have the offensive talent to score, if Arniel is able to unblock the logjam on the tons of potential sitting there on the top two lines. It’s going to come back to one thing, really…
2. Can a back end that got burned so badly last season return to its playoff form?
A key to Arniel’s system is going to be defensemen than can contribute offensively. The Jackets have never really had that, though the Jackets’ most offensively-ready defenseman—Kris Russell—finally took a huge step forward last season and should be ready to contribute, though in true Murphy’s Law fashion he’s been nursing a leg injury for most of training camp thus far. Anton Stralman was a big boost to the Power Play last season, but his defensive chops are in question.
The big question comes from the Big Four on defense: Jan Hejda, Mike Commodore, Fedor Tyutin, and Rusty Klesla. All four had pretty bad seasons in 2009-2010, for varying reasons. Klesla never played after early November due to a significant injury (torn groin and abdominal muscles). Hejda battled knee injuries throughout the year and had statistically his worst year with the Jackets. Commodore struggled with conditioning issues all season, voluntarily missed time because he knew he was hurting the team, and had a bad year. Tyutin was pedestrian at best, and kind of is what he is at this point.
Youngster John Moore is waiting in the wings, and will probably start the year in AHL Springfield. If he has a crazy-good exhibition season, however, he’s in the discussion. Commodore has looked much-improved so far, but it’s hard to say what we’ll see until the puck drops for real in the regular season and the intensity ramps up.
And last, but not least, there’s goalie Steve Mason. He did not follow up his rookie of the year season well, finishing near the bottom of the league in every statistical category. He did look better down the stretch after Ken Hitchcock was gone, and to his credit he has spent the summer working hard and came into camp with a mindset of someone who had been humbled and recognized that his work needed to be harder. Howson has recognized this with a two-year contract extension for Mason, so it is put-up or shut-up time for Mason this year.
If the Jackets can shore up the defense—and their top four guys not collectively having their worst seasons all together should help—and Mason can come back closer to his rookie year form than his sophomore year form, the Jackets have a chance. And yes, I know that’s a lot of ifs. And if it doesn’t work out, or looks in camp like it won’t, Howson has some irons in the fire.
3. Will Nikita Filatov finally make his mark on the NHL?
Filatov looked ready at the outset of last season, and then as his playing time dwindled under Hitchcock he took his puck and went home. Going back to Russia threw some writing on the wall that read: this guy will never play for the Jackets again. All credit to Howson and Filatov, as he’s back in camp this year. The Dispatch guys are reporting that he looks bigger, and that he’s saying all the right things.
No one can question his raw talent and potential, and the best-case scenario is that Arniel’s more wide open system allows him to flourish doing what he does best. And, some early returns were encouraging: in his first exhibition game, Filatov was noticed. He scored a goal and drilled two posts.
He has the top-six talent, but it remains to be seen if he has the head to play in the NHL. To his credit, thus far he’s shown some maturity and increased work ethic since last we saw him, and the other players have noticed. If he can get it together, adding a player of that talent level will certainly help the Jackets get back to where they want to be.
4. Has Scott Howson tied his own hands with all of the extensions to young players?
With the exception of Jakub Voracek, Howson has now signed all of his young players to longer-term extensions that keep this core group of Jackets together for the next three or four years. And word is that if he could sign Voracek—who might have the highest ceiling of anyone on the roster—to an extension right now, he would.
This is a double-edged sword. If these guys can develop under Arniel, Howson has his core for the next four seasons, and it’s a young core. If it implodes, Howson is stuck with an expensive and ineffectual roster, and has essentially dug his own grave.
It’s just another piece of added pressure on Arniel as he begins his first campaign as an NHL coach.
5. With the Nationwide Arena lease situation hanging over the franchise, can these Jackets return to the playoffs to get the fans back on board?
This is a longer-term issue, actually. Season tickets are down this year, and the arena lease issue won’t go away without some help from the fans. What incentive is there for the stake-holders if the Jackets aren’t an attractive thing for the citizens of Columbus?
The only way to get butts into seats is to create an exciting team that wins. There’s no other solution. In the best-case-scenario world for this team, in six months we’ll see a competitive team back fighting for a playoff spot again, and the fans have shown they will support this team when it wins… shoot, even when it threatens to win, hehehe.
The Jackets don’t have the luxury of two or three years to “rebuild” with their fans. The fans have seen this movie before, and aren’t lining up to see it again. And, Howson has pushed a lot of his chips into the center of the table with this roster. For better or worse, this is what the Jackets’ roster is going to look like for the most part for the next three years or so. They’re going to have to go out and win the fans back on the ice, and by extension put the pressure on the powers-that-be to get the lease deal fixed and done.
Up Next for Columbus
Well, the Jackets are smack in the middle of training camp and the exhibition season. They’ve dropped three of their first four thus far, but to this point the “starters” have not been playing big minutes. The Jackets will be trimming the roster down significantly this week, so the “starters” will see their minutes increase as the exhibition season continues. They play at Minnesota tonight, and then are home to Minnesota on Thursday. They then finish off their North-American-based exhibition season on Friday and Saturday at Washington and against Atlanta respectively.
Looming after that is the Jackets’ kickoff trip to Sweden to start the season. They will play a final exhibition game against Swedish club team Malmo next Tuesday, and then open the regular season in Sweden with back-to-back games against the San Jose Sharks on October 8th and 9th (well, at least they’re getting those toughies out of the way early). They then get a week off after traveling home and kick-off their regularly scheduled North American docket at home against the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks on October 15th. Welcome to the NHL, Scott Arniel.
Quote of the Week
Finally, let’s finish up with a quote. While most of the attention surrounding new Jackets coach Scott Arniel is regarding his new system and the conditioning that goes with it, I find this quote also very important:
All of our skill guys competed hard when they got hit — and they hit back. We didn’t back up, we kept pushing forward and we have to do that as a group. If you want to gain respect, you have to show the opposition you are going to compete and tonight we competed.
–Coach Scott Arniel
I picked this one quote out of so many quotes for one reason: one of the biggest knocks on the Jackets over the past few years is that they never seem to have the moxie to stand up for themselves. Last season, when the going got tough, they often wilted and folded up shop. In the past, when other teams would hit them hard, they generally never would hit back. The context of this quote was surrounding an exhibition game in Pittsburgh in which both Rick Nash and Jakub Voracek—neither of whom are known for their fighting moxie—got into scraps. Nash took on Evgeni Malkin, and Voracek took on tough guy Kris Letang.
If this team is going to move forward, they’re going to have to keep pushing forward, as Arniel says here. Under Hitchcock, the team looked so afraid to fail that they often showed no heart. They could play a flawless first ten minutes of a game, but be unable to score; the moment they gave up a goal to the opponents, you could see the air come out of the balloon. That just can’t happen at this level, because other teams will not take it easy on you when you feel sorry for yourself.
So, if Arniel can get them pushing forward, if much like Jonathon Moxon he can make them not afraid to fail, while it may not immediately translate in the win-loss record it will go a long way to building the foundation for future success.
As our boy Marty Schottenheimer once said, “There’s a gleam, men! Let’s get that gleam!” As Gene Hackman’s character in “The Replacements” once said when asked what it was going to take for his rag-tag team to win a game, it’s going to take “HEART”. Let’s get it done, boys!