Thursday, November 26, 2009

State of the Union

Coach Hitchcock feels that the league's youngest team is still learning what style of hockey is needed to win consistently.

This is my favorite holiday because it is totally focused on eating. But wait...something is giving me indigestion. It's my hockey team. Who are these guys? It has been really difficult to put a label on this team, because they beat Dallas on the road one night, and give up a TOUCHDOWN in unanswered goals against a slumping Rangers team on another night. Key players (Nash, Vermette, Klesla, etc.) were given contract extensions in the off-season. So is there an element of complacency from these leaders? I don't think so. I know that too much has been made of this fact, but I have to take solace in the fact that this team is still quite young (avg. 26) and needs to find a balance between calm confidence and unbridled passion. It's not an excuse - it's a fact. And I'm willing to live with that for a (little) longer. What makes this perplexing is that the Jackets have retained much of the same leadership that took them to the playoffs -- notably Nash, Umberger, Commodore and Hejda. So these (increasingly regular) blowout losses and meltdowns are becoming pretty concerning.

The team is scoring goals at an unprecedented pace. And that's a new place for the Jackets to be, because offense has never been a strong point. Finally, we have a team that can score regularly, and our much-heralded defense has collapsed? Why? Ultimately, I think this is the question that we have to tackle, so I've given some of my thoughts below:

Essentially, the personnel are the same on the blueline. So you have to look at the variables that have changed. Anton Stralman, the only newcomer, is logging more NHL minutes than he's ever had the opportunity to do. Certainly, it takes some time to learn how to effectively compete as an NHL defenseman. Nobody can really dispute that. However, the pairing of he and Tyutin has not been very effective at five-on-five hockey. They are showing great success on the powerplay, and the Jackets really depend on the goal production from that powerplay right now. The fact that the Jackets now have the top-ranked powerplay in the league (26.1%) is worth a whole additional post at some later point, but reinforces some of the monumental shift that has happened on this team with essentially the same players. Back to Stralman -- I'm just not sold on that pairing. Combined, they are (-14). Tyutin has not been the responsible line of support that Hitch may have hoped for in that pairing. He has been guilty - way too often - of giveways and missed coverages. When the two are together, I see a lot of blown coverages, some "skate arounds" by opposing forwards and a general lack of communication in the defensive zone. I see little compelling reason to put two "offensive minded" defensemen on the same pairing in even situations-- especially when you've given up more than 80 goals at this point in the season. Let me say that again....more than 80 goals. The Jackets are on pace to give up more than 300 goals this year.

Kris Russell has seen a fair number of healthy scratches this year. Just last year, he was considered un-tradeable by Howson. However, his status this year seems less certain. He continues to show promise in his puck-moving ability, and he's rarely accused of not putting in a solid effort. I think he has great instincts for jumping into the offensive zone and he can certainly skate the puck out of trouble. However, he's just not that big and is moved off the puck by larger forwards. In some respects, that makes him a "role" player and could ultimately relegate him to more time on the powerplay unit. Obviously, that role is currently being filled by Stralman, who apparently has a much more effective slapshot from the point. All that said, Russell is a worker from Western Canada, and I think he brings more than Marc Methot right now. Methot hasn't shown me much this year.  In fact, the only plays I remember him making were bad penalties. He is a physical presence and provides some much-needed grit, but he's not providing even the modest offensive threat that he showed last year and hasn't dropped the gloves with anyone. He has to bring some more energy to his game or he'll start watching more games in the pressbox.  He's an Ottawa native, so if he cracks the lineup tonight, I would expect a solid showing. 

Rusty has been around long enough for the organization and the fans to know exactly what to expect. I believe that the positives outweigh the negatives in the long-term. He is physical. He has a great shot from the point. He brings energy and he won't hesitate to take the body or drop the gloves. He is a streaky scorer, and he has proven he can move Holmstrom from the crease. He also makes boneheaded turnovers and occasionally loses his way in the defensive zone. It's Rusty and he's a loyal Jacket. I think he has played pretty well this year, but I haven't seen him really flourish with any of his partners this year. If he plays like he did in the playoffs last year, he can stay around as long as he wants.

Why have we not re-united the "Death and Taxes" pairing of Hejda and Commodore? How about just once? I understand there have been concerns about conditioning and injury rehab - in fact Commodore looked pretty beat down and just plain ineffective in Montreal. He is not picking his spots well, and he can't get into the flow of the game. Playing independently of one another, neither player has shown the efficacy they did last year. Missed clearing attempts, blown coverages in front and miscommunications -- these are chemistry and conditioning issues, not skill issues.  But this was the top pairing for the Jackets last season -- and frankly, one of the most effective shut-down pairings in the league. Chemistry is so important in hockey, and these two players obviously have that asset when playing together. At this point, what is there to lose?

Speaking of losing, let's talk about goaltending. Mason is in a sophomore slump. Game. Set. Match. It has been proven beyond argument that he's not performing to his ability. The good news is that we all know what he is capable of. He can shut down a game and lead this team with confidence. He's still young, and he's not had near the level of defensive support that he enjoyed last year. That being said, he's just off in his technique right now. I still believe that this is a short-term problem and not something to lose to much sleep over.  Hitch has a delicate situation here, and I think he's handled it pretty well thus far. He's striking a good balance between disciplinarian and mentor. Jackets' fans should also be encouraged to know that Mason has overcome great adversity in the past, including injuries, death threats and splinters from the bench. He is mentally strong. For young pros that meet with early success, the game seems simple. Then they over-analyze and make it too complex. And then, hopefully, it becomes simple again. Apparently, he's in the middle stage right now.

Garon has been playing pretty well, with the notable exception of the Montreal game. He is consistently capable, solid in shootouts and brings a good veteran perspective to the room. I continue to believe that he was a smart acquisition and a good fit as a backup. If Mason doesn't get out of his slump soon, the Jackets are going to find out just how much starting duty he can handle.

If team defense is a glaring problem, you can't just limit the criticism to the defensemen and goalies. The Jackets forwards have been occassionally committed to backchecking, but not nearly at the level at which they need to compete. Rick Nash "leads" this team with the worst (-11) rating. It is simply unacceptable. It's become clear that the leaders on this team -- and he is at the top of that list -- have a tremendous impact on the energy and play of the rest of this young team. As such, Nash has to set the tone and expectations for defensive zone coverage and neutral zone play. That is not happening, and people around the league are noticing.  I think the team misses Andrew "Weighty" Murray, who wasn't a tremendous offensive threat, but very solid on defense and wins a lot of battles in the corners. MacKenzie has filled in admirably, but I haven't seen too much from Blunden recently. Speaking of recently invisible, Chimera has got to step up his game as well. Like...right now. He made a gutsy "soccer" clear on the PK when he was without his stick in Montreal, and maybe that's a sign of things to come.

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