Sunday, December 12, 2010

Filatov's Springfield Debut

On Friday, the CBJ announced Filatov had been sent down to Springfield of the AHL. I had tickets to Saturday nights game, so for me it was a happy coincidence, even if I'm sure it wasn't a happy day for Filatov.

So let's get into how Filatov played:

Remember, Nikki had arrived sometime earlier in the day on Saturday, so he definitely hadn't had a chance to participate in a full practice with the team. It's not clear as to whether or not he arrived in time for a morning skate, so we only know for sure he participated in warm-ups with the team before the game.

Nikita's official line: 1 shot, 0-0-0, and he was on the ice for a power play goal, though he wasn't really involved in the play. He was even on the night, and wasn't on the ice for any of the 3 goals against. His general play was ok, though I felt he was floating a bit. He played ok defensively, staying with his man, and only had one turnover that I saw. My seats are on the glass, so I have a pretty good angle for most of the play.

The biggest piece of news from last night is that for the first time in quite a while, Filatov looked like he wanted the puck. He only officially had one shot, but he hit a post and sent another shot wide. He had two other chances where he should have shot, but he attempted to set up Maxim Mayorov, who ruined the chance, not once but twice. Mayorov is having an OK season, but frankly, I think his last season as a CBJ prospect unless he really steps it up.

For obvious reasons, he wasn't playing on the teams top line along with Kubalik and Calvert. Kubalik had his first off game of the 3 I've seen, while Calvert had a strong one. Player of the night definitely belonged to Grant Clitsome, who had two goals and played a strong defensive game. John Moore, who had played poorly in both of the games I'd seen thus far had a good game last night. He had 4 shots, and more importantly played a very good defensive game. David Savard was a scratch last night, a casualty to the log jam of defensemen still plaguing Springfield.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Your 2010-2011 Columbus Blue Jackets??

4 workman-like wins, 2 UGLY blowout losses, and squeaker loss in the Swedish home opener. That's the better part of the first month of the season for the CBJ. It's enough to make even the most experienced CBJ fans, accustomed to befuddlement at that helter-skelter play of this club over 9+ seasons to sit back and scratch their heads. 

So who exactly are this seasons Blue Jackets, and more importantly, what will they become? It's way too early to say for sure, but there might be some hints in how this team has performed in certain situations. Specifically, the Jackets have won following every loss and are 3-0 on the tail ends of the 3 back-to-backs they've had already this season.

It's a small sample but I think it says a few things about this club:

- As Aaron Portzline likes to put it, this team has a "high boiling point". Several folks have asked why, including the past 2 head coaches, and I think it comes from Rick Nash. And before anyone starts calling for the team to take the captaincy away from him, I don't think a letter on his sweater is going to matter. Rick Nash is the best player on this team, and the players take a lot of their cues from him. One of his best aspects is that he's very laid back; a guy who is usually pretty cool under pressure. 

The only time this is a problem is when the rest of the team may be looking to him to take charge, and he doesn't feel the game has reached a point where he needs to be more than laid back. This is where players like Ethan Moreau and most specifically RJ Umberger come in to fire up the troops while Nash does his talking with his play. Nash's lieutenants are going to have to play a sizable roll if this team is going to learn to win and win regularly.

- Steve Mason has looked solid and at times spectacular thus far into the season. Mathieu Garon has only played in a single game, but looked good as well. This is incredibly important because the defensive personnel of this years team is not what Coach Arniel would consider a dream match to his system; a system that puts a lot of pressure on defensemen to play up with the puck. There will likely be a lot of reliance on the goaltenders to be strong early and often as the D corps continues to feel their way through the decisions they'll be asked to make.

- There seems to be some resiliency in this club that may have been lacking last year. Much of that is likely a manifestation of the club having tuned Coach Hitchcock out prior to his dismissal. To this point, the message from Coach Arniel is either fresh or being delivered in such a way that it is falling on receptive years; perhaps both. The two blowouts sure don't show it, but coming from behind and winning in Chicago was a big game, showing the team wasn't willing to be a part of the kind of embarrassment it had received just a day earlier.

- Arniel is starting to figure his club out. The learning process isn't just on the players side of the relationship; the coach is getting to know more about this club than can be seen on video or from watching a few pre-season games. Coach Arniel was quoted as saying there were several things he was learning that he "doesn't like very much". It would seem that one of those things is the fact that as much as Voracek and Brassard seem like a natural pairing, all that creativity on one line begs for someone to execute. 

With Hitchcocks seemingly overwhelming need to protect his team from his rookies mistakes, he would never have taken the leap Arniel did in putting the pair on the top line with Rick Nash. It paid dividends on Saturday night, and perhaps putting the two up against the other teams top line, and giving them the space that Rick Nash provides his linemates, they'll be able to take advantage of the chemistry that has been so tantalizing to CBJ fans for the past couple years.

It's a lot of supposition, I know; but with seven games into the season and with fans jumping on and off the bandwagon already, I think it's best to focus on the long term while we wait to see where this team is going.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Dear Bloggers, learn from my mistakes

I've been reading a lot of CBJ blogs, and especially a couple of stories regarding how some NHL teams treat their bloggers. In lieu of these stories, and with the CBJ blogosphere growing by leaps and bounds, I thought maybe it was time to share some of my experiences as probably the non-professional writer with the most experience writing about the Blue Jackets.

I wasn't really a hockey fan when I moved to Columbus from Michigan in 1997. Sure, the Red Wings were on at holiday parties, but I never really paid attention. I was a baseball and football fan until October 7th, 2000. Sitting in my living room in Grandview I watch the Jackets play that game and I was hooked. By the end of the season, I'd gone to several games and signed up as a season ticket holder for the following season.

In that same time, I found a group of friends who had been working on starting what would become the Jacket Backers, official booster club of the Columbus Blue Jackets. I joined up right away, and on the day the club was accepted by the league, I was signed on to help write the first newsletter. In that newsletter, we ran my first ever  interview, a discussion with Serge Aubin and Marc Denis, about their friendship and having played together for 3 different teams.

Late in that first season, after several months of covering the team, is when I made my first mistake. I was in the "press room", at that time a small office off the CBJ's locker room where most of the longer interviews with players occurred. It happened to be trade deadline day, and while I waited for my interviewee to arrive, then General Manager Doug MacLean walked into the room, clearly in a less than positive mood. Doug spoke tersely with the staff worker stationed in the room, and it was clear the trade offers weren't going the way he wanted, and he said as much in presence.

As a writer for a booster club newsletter, we didn't really have a setup for quick publishing, so instead of taking the route of holding onto that information for a more thorough story, I threw it up on the fan message board I frequented at the time. Just under an hour later, the then president of the Jacket Backers got a call from the Blue Jackets, with a message given in no uncertain terms: that information was not for public consumption, regardless of the forum.

Needless to say, I took the post down, and I was relegated to covering the Jackets under the pseudonym "staff writer" or worse (in my mind) covering anything other than the team itself. It took the entire offseason for the situation to cool down and for my involvement with covering the team to be ok'ed by Jackets brass. (Remember, this was quite the different team under Doug MacLean's regime).

The lesson to take away from this mistake is that there are some things you learn that you either need to keep to yourself or find a way to say without actually saying them. I still learn all sorts of CBJ related stuff that I can't share with anyone other than my wife and a couple close friends. Remember, don't let the urge to be the person with the story take over for common sense.

Over the next 3 seasons, I regained the staffs trust, interviewing dozens of players and prospects, as well as staffers and officers of the club, with the stories I wrote appearing in Jacket Backers newsletters and online. I got to know nearly everyone associated with the organization and had the trust to be in the press and locker rooms without much guidance and eventually unchaperoned for meetings with players. 

The one problem I had after writing all those pieces is that some of my friends who were less than happy with the teams performance (to put it nicely) were disappointed in my writing as I was rarely if ever critical of the teams decisions or on-ice play. Some of that came from writing for a very pro-CBJ audience, the other part came from the fact that at heart we all start writing about this team because we're fans.

That would be my second mistake CBJ bloggers can learn from; don't be afraid to be critical. The Blue Jackets support bloggers because primarily, they know the writers will be a bit "in the bag" for the team. I mean, if not, why would they bother taking their free time to write about it. But that doesn't mean you need to write everything as seen through rose colored glasses. There are a lot of areas where every team can improve, and if you write about these issues in a respectful way, readers and team staff will see you're writing fairly and honestly, and that's all they can ask for. 

Following the lockout, I was elected president of the Jacket Backers and in that first season following the lockout, support came back slowly from the fans and the team, so there wasn't much writing going on. I was just happy we were able to get through the season and get the club up and running again. The 06-07 season was much better as we got the writing back on track, and I spent some time in rookie camp interviewing a draftee by the name of Steve Mason. As the season moved on I turned most of the writing duties to other staffers, as I had other duties to attend to.

The 06-07 season marked my last actively writing for the Jacket Backers, as I chose not to run for President and took on more of an advisory and support role to the club. In that time I wrote almost 100 stories and interviews covering all aspects of the club from game operations to player interviews to a personal favorite story; a period spent in the radio booth in between George and Bill, that I was able to turn into a story I am extremely proud of.

Sadly, much of that work has disappeared into the ether. During the lockout, the Jacket Backers website went dormant and a lot of that database of stories was irretrievable. But I have copies of some of the newsletters, so it's not all lost. And just this season, I was able to interview Player Development Coach Tyler Wright for my triathlon blog regarding his recent participation in Ironman Canada. 

My final lesson to share: Make sure you enjoy what you're doing; it's not worth it if you don't. Write stories you would want to read, don't try to guess what's in your readers heads.

Oh, and make backups, so that 5 years later you'll still have everything. 

Monday, October 4, 2010

Jacub Voracek as a positive example

Blue Jackets fans are already aware that Jake Voracek has been one of the true bright spots of our recent drafts. Elliotte Friedman of Hockey Night in Canada fame mentioned Jake in a report today as a comparison to the plight of the Leafs Nazem Kadri. The general feeling in Toronto is that Leafs high picks better perform, early and often. Kadri, a 2009 entry draft pick, was cut this weekend by the Leafs and sent to their AHL club (conveniently also located in Toronto).

Friedman listed the NHL games played by the #7 overall pick of each draft since the lockout. Among these, only Voracek had played a whole season.
This whole Nazem Kadri thing is insane. Since the lockout, here's how many games the seventh overall pick has played in the two years after his selection: Jack Skille (2005, 0); Kyle Okposo (2006, 9); Jakub Voracek (2007, 80); Colin Wilson (2008, 35). Jeff Skinner, taken in June, may beat them all, but Okposo is proof that not playing a ton by that point is no a big deal. Even Skille is still a prospect.
This fact points out that Jake was more "NHL Ready" at the time of his drafting than most of his counterparts at the same draft position, as has been proven by his continued success. However, It also points to the fact that the Blue Jackets have long had a dearth of scoring talent to properly fill out it's top six, and Jake got as many or more opportunities than his peers due to that fact.

It also shows the difference between just 2 years ago when Jake made his way into the starting lineup and today when Nikki Filatov is doing the same. To make room for Filatov, the CBJ are pushing R.J. Umberger down to the 3rd line to play with Ethan Moreau and Sammy Pahlsson. I can't say this is too surprising, as Filatov has the potential to be a tremendously gifted scorer in the league and Umberger is perhaps the most versatile player in the league; capable of playing basically anywhere amongst the top nine forwards. Umberger's skill has made up for gaps in the CBJ offense in the past, and his moving down should allow the 3rd line to play a more offensive game, or at least a balanced one instead of strictly acting as a defensive shutdown line.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The argument for 3 scoring lines

At some point later, I'll go into my history as a Columbus Blue Jackets fan, my time with the Jacket Backers booster club, and what my plans are for the blog, but today I have something far more important to talk about. CBJ head coach Scott Arniel has been considering the idea of using 3 scoring lines and a single checking line. The concern that some folks have is whether or not the Jackets have the skill to actually make this work.

What I wonder is not if we don't have enough talent, because I believe we do. Rather, I wonder if Coach Arniel is willing to take this kind of risk and make this kind of statement in the first year of his first NHL coaching job. 

If you look at the roster, it's really the flexibility of the players that makes this kind of discussion even possible. The teams best player, Rick Nash, can play either left or right wing. Ostensibly, this would mean either Christian Huselius or Jake Voracek could be paired with Nash to flank Antoine Vermette. 

One of last years top six fowards, RJ Umberger is defensively sound and can play any position on the 3 forward position. His presence would give legitimacy to a 3rd scoring line, and allow Nikita Filatov the space to get top 6 minutes. This is important because Filatov is still learning to play the defensive aspects of the game at the pro level, and isn't a strong fit on a 3rd line, where he wouldn't likely see fewer minutes and be required to be a bit more defensively responsible.

The drawback to 3 scoring lines is mostly one of finance or depth. Do they waive one of their experienced players and pay him (perhaps Chris Clark) if he's not picked up? Do they risk losing one of their potential younger checking line players (Blunden) on waivers? I say either way it's worth the risk to ice a potentially more offensively potent lineup. Especially as it allows Arniel to include players that likely have a skill set that better matches the system he wishes to run.

My proposal would lead to a lineup something like the following:


I'm not one against having a heavy in the lineup, but the Red Wings and others usually do without, and we have a team with enough toughness that it should be able to stick up for itself on the night Boll isnt there.