Monday, December 28, 2009

Please Make It Stop

Those of us in Jacketland are convinced we’re in the midst of a nightmare. How else could a team that was on pace for a hundred points now have only one point between it and the Western Conference cellar? It is mind-boggling to say the least. Think about it, a team whose only significant injuries are two a second pairing defenseman and a third line winger is now 2-15-2 in its’ last 19 games. I keep hearing Arthur Rooney say that it’s been ‘NIIIIINE GAMES’ since the Blue Jackets have congratulated their goalie on the ice at the horn.

As someone who has watched every single one of those games during ‘The Stretch’ (and that’s how I’ll refer to 2-15-2), the only thing I find as painful as watching is how there’s no one thing that stands out as being the reason for the losses. They’re finding different ways to lose every time. The stretch has featured performances where they’ve looked like the better team and lost, games they were outworked and outplayed, games they looked like an average AHL team, games their defense was poor, games their defense wasn’t bad but they couldn’t get any scoring, games that were routs, shootout losses….you name the way to lose, the CBJ have done it. Losing steaks in seasons past have offered very simple, very obvious reasons for ‘why’. It was either: the talent on the team was inferior to the competition, the coach didn’t know what he was doing and/or have a winning track record in the NHL, or their best players were past their prime or several years from their prime.

Unfortunately (in terms of the stretch), none of those reasons hold much water. The talent is there. It’s basically the same roster as the team that made the playoffs last year with a better backup goalie and a core of young players that are a year older and more experienced. Ken Hitchcock has a Stanley Cup ring, numerous playoff appearances and success at every level to his credit. He knows what he’s doing. While the CBJ do have the youngest team in the NHL, most of these guys played crucial roles last year so added responsibility didn’t look to be a leap of faith like, say, Jan Hrdina as your first-line center.

There’s no one guy stinking up the ice either. It’s different guys on different nights doing the Jackets in. Sure, there have been some guys that have played poorly more often than others, but there isn’t anyone on the roster that hasn’t blown a clear, made a bad pass, let in a soft goal, been late getting back, fanned on a puck, hit a crossbar after beating the goalie, blah, blah, blah.

The knee-jerk reaction from some of the fans has been to can Hitch. The argument is that his style is too grating, too demanding, basically too tough for his teams to play for an extended period of time. Hitch has been accused of paralyzing his team with the fear of making a mistake. That’s why Fedor Tyutin has become a turnover machine, Jan Hejda has forgotten how to clear the zone and Kristian Huselius’ body language on some nights appears like he just doesn’t care. I don’t buy it…at least not in its’ entirety. While I’ll agree just about every coach in the NHL wears out his welcome in a NHL locker room at some point, firing Hitch at this point would be a huge mistake in my opinion. The guy has been there, done that and according to the reports from Puck-Rakers, Hitch called a group of veterans in to have a meeting that extended beyond the ice. It got personal. Not negative personal, Hitch apparently showed a side of himself the players aren’t used to seeing (the stretch prevents me from any lame joke that could be inserted there), trying to build a bond between the coaches and dressing room. An old coach trying to extend a hand to the players he’s demanded a lot of is a great move that hopefully will pay long term dividends.

The last point I’ll make on why Hitch should stay is simple. He gives the Blue Jackets an identity. Not a face, that’s what Nash, Mason, Brassard, etc. are for. Like Barry Trotz in Nashville, there is no mystery to how a Hitchcock-coached team plays. Anyone who has ever watched the Jackets and the Preds knows that whenever you play Trotz’ team, you better bring your ass because they’re going to. Hitch’s teams can do the same thing, they just need to learn how to every night.

So if firing the coach isn’t the answer, then what is? First of all, a defenseman needs to be added to the core, especially with Klesla’s injury. The added minutes to Tyutin’s load have not been kind to him. Add the Olympic-influenced schedule and he looks tired and broken down. After early season injuries, Commodore and Hejda have not been able to regain their lockdown form from last year either. A legit, top four defenseman that would push Strahlman, Roy, Russell, and Methot down to compete for the last two spots would do wonders for this group. A guy with a big shot from the point and is capable in his own end would help not only on the power play, but five on five and is something the Jackets have not had since Jaroslav Spacek.

Puck Rakers is reporting that there has been talk of the CBJ and Washington doing a deal. Young defenseman Karl Alzner is said to be scratched from tonight’s game and the only thing that the CBJ could offer to entice the Caps to part with Alzner is Filatov. The only way this happens is if Scott Howson knows that Filatov isn’t going to come back to Columbus with or without Hitch as coach. I don’t see that as happening, but something needs to be done to improve the overall ability on the back end and is key to the overall success of the team. Don’t believe me? Look at the defensive cores of Chicago, Detroit, Nashville, Columbus and St. Louis and tell me where the CBJ rank in that group? Dead last….and it ain’t close.

Bottom line is an easy answer doesn’t exist. This is a young team and young teams are going to have growing pains. Let’s just say this is the largest of growing pains. If you believe in Rick Nash, Steve Mason, Derick Brassard, RJ Umberger, Jake Voracek, and the rest of the boys (and I do), then you have to do what I think the players should do…grit their teeth, show some emotion and get through it. Steve Mason will start making big saves again, Rick Nash will learn how to lead a locker room so they don’t fall into the doubt and loss of confidence that the stretch has brought. Brassard will learn how to be a successful center in the NHL again and Voracek will be a more consistent force night in and night out. These things will happen…and hopefully soon. The stretch may very well have cost the CBJ a chance at the 2010 playoffs, which sucks, but hopefully this team is able to pull out of the nosedive that gives them a chance this year and some momentum for next year.

Let’s hope the boys are able to right the ship, starting tonight against Detroit. I will be there in full throat tonight as the CBJ try to find a way to win against those bastards wearing the Winged Wheel. Will you?

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