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Blue Jackets Looking To Rediscover Winning Formula

Wednesday night’s 4 – 1 loss to the Phoenix Coyotes was a microcosm of what the young season has offered up for the young, talented franchise. The first period consisted of 20 minutes of sound, fundamental hockey. The team played a unified, tough defense, while the offense created numerous chances. They significantly outshot and outplayed Phoenix, and scored a power play goal by putting shots on the net from the point, and having bodies in front to cash in the inevitable rebound (in this case, Brassard). Though the score was only 1 – 0 after one period, the sense in the building was that the game was well in hand for the home team.

Appearances can be deceiving. After a lackluster beginning to the second period, the Jackets began to do the things they so successfully avoided in the first stanza – committing penalties, turnovers near the blue lines, soft exit passes. Phoenix was quick to capitalize, scoring the first of their three power play goals on a literal multi-player rush of the net. Mason was understandably overwhelmed, and the puck was eventually poked through his pads in the course of the scrum. Less than three minutes later, a point shot was deflected off the leg of defenseman Fedor Tyutin, giving Phoenix the lead for good.

The third period proved to be more of the same – penalties, turnovers, loose defensive coverage and inability to convert offensive opportunities. The Coyote’s third goal was a simple matter of puck movement and a blistering shot inside the left post before Mason could react. The final tally was an inexplicable (from the CBJ perspective) situation where 2 Coyotes confronted Mason unchallenged, with no defender within ten feet of either player. An odd man rush is one thing, but to have this kind of mismatch during a set PK is a breakdown at the most fundamental of levels.

The Phoenix loss was the fourth in five games for Columbus – a stark contrast to the 5 -1 start that boasted the #1 penalty killing unit in the league. Since then, that aspect of special teams has plummeted from a 96% success rate to just 77.1%, ranking 21st in the NHL. Not surprisingly, then, the Jackets rank just 26th in Goals Against Average, surrendering 3.46 goals per game – very un-Hitchcock like numbers. Ironically, the Jackets’ power play, so anemic a year ago, ranks a respectable 12th at 22.7%.

The current slide has been perplexing to players, fans and coaches alike. It is clearly not a lack of talent, for the club has that in abundance, and their early play shows only a fraction of their potential. Injuries are part of the story – the Jackets were missing Mike Commodore for most of the first 10 games, and lost his pairing mate, Jan Hejda, just before this recent slide. Again, that is too simple and easy. The Jackets compiled a 5 -1 record without Commodore, and handed Los Angeles a 4 – 1 defeat without Hejda. While a lack of effort comes closer to describing the malady, it truly comes down to a matter of focus and confidence.

With 26 goals surrendered in the last 5 games, the natural tendency is to look at the goaltending – Calder Trophy winner Steve Mason and backup Mathieu Garon. Again, while there are elements of truth here, the recent criticism goes too far. The Jackets are built around Ken Hitchcock’s “defense first” system, where offense is created through checking and pressure. In cooperation with GM Scott Howson, he has finally assembled a club with the talent, dedication and willingness to buy into the effort required, and the results showed in the first five games. What makes this Blue Jackets team different from its predecessors is that it also houses the talent necessary to create offense on its own. Nash, Huselius, Umberger, Vermette, Torres and Pahlsson bring a great mix of talent and experience to the table, even while youngsters Derek Brassard and Nikita Filatov get their legs under them and prepare to be major contributors going forward. However, when they do that , opportunities get created in the other direction, and the scramble begins.
This will not be as big of an issue in another 20 games or so, when everyone has had the chance to play with everybody, make the necessary adjustments, and know where everyone is going to be. However, right now, with a few key people out of the lineup or underperforming, there is a lack of certainty in their own zone. Uncertainty breeds tentativeness and hesitation, which is the kiss of death in defensive hockey. A good defensive unit has a rhythm that is apparent – defensemen and forwards know where everyone is, and how to react when breakdowns occur. Goalies know the same thing, and develop a “sixth sense” about danger zones in certain situations. The Jackets’ defense, including the penalty kill, were operating just this way in the first six games. They were uncharacteristically aggressive on the PK, which reaped huge rewards, including a league-leading three short-handed goals.

During the recent unpleasantness, the cohesiveness has disappeared. Confident clearing plays have now become light puck directions into the middle of nowhere. This causes scurrying, and no ability to compensate for missed assignments. Opposing teams are getting prime opportunities at point blank range, and only some of them are being stopped. The natural reaction is to think more and be more careful, which breeds more hesitation, etc. etc. The team needs to relax, return to aggressive play and use their talent within the confines of the system. They have already shown that this works very well for them, but simply need to internalize it.

Still, within the overall framework there have been individual failures. Winger Kristian Huselius has been the primary target of grumbling fans, and not without justification. Despite a two goal effort on the recent road trip, he has been more noted for spectacular misplays than offensive prowess. Repeated turnovers, untimely penalties, timidity in the offensive zone and general poor play in his own zone have helped trigger the recent slide. With Nikita Filatov increasingly showing an ability to play in all three zones, and showing flashes of the offensive brilliance that made him a number one pick, Huselius might be on the ledge. Thirteen NHL scouts from twelve different teams were in attendance at the Phoenix game, and they weren’t there for the $1 Hot Dog Night . . .

The defensive corps has been uneven to date. Commodore is just rounding into form, and Hejda played well before his injury, but Rusty Klesla and Marc Methot have been disappointing early. Periodic flashes of outstanding play make the more frequent lapses all the more frustrating. Fedor Tyutin has been called upon to play some huge minutes early, and while not flawed in his game, he is not showing the speed and overall tenacity that was seen a year ago. In contrast, youngster Kris Russell has improved every game, and shows the ability to create opportunity and stifle breakaway threats with his speed and stick work. Newcomer Anton Stralman has proven to be an even better puck handler than originally thought, and possesses the advertised right handed laser beam from the point, already contributing to several goals and more opportunities.
The odd man out on the blue line was Mathieu Roy, who was sent down to AHL Syracuse on Wednesday, prior to the Phoenix game. While not technically a shock, given the fact that he was with the big club on emergency call-up, many are questioning the decision. In his time with Columbus, he showed a solid combination of skating, puck movement and physical tenacity, something not observed with others. Time will tell how that story plays out.

Finally, there are the “energy twins” Derek Dorsett and Jared Boll. Hitchcock loves their energy, but is showing signs of wearying of their overall lack of finishing ability and judgment, particularly with Boll. The closest thing to an enforcer on the Blue Jackets roster, Boll has not lived up to expectations. Many were surprised to see him on the squad coming out of camp, as Alexandre Picard appeared to have a demonstrably better camp than Boll. For that matter, so did Maxim Mayorov, though he does not bring the physical edginess that both Boll and Picard display. He shows aggressiveness, but without real purpose, and no longer is competitive in his fights. He dropped the gloves on Wednesday with the Coyote’s Paul Bissonnette in the first period, and calling it a fight was charitable. Not sure they could even have legitimately pegged Boll for roughing.
Dorsett presents a somewhat different dilemma. He brings a bit more talent than Boll, but still has not shown the ability to do anything with his energy on a consistent basis. He has shown a worrisome tendency to lose focus/composure at critical times, taking penalties or committing turnovers late in the game. Hitchcock hates playing young players in those critical situations for just that reason, but when your team is among the youngest in the league, sometimes options are narrowed. The Blue Jackets are blessed with a wealth of talent on the wings, and some difficult decisions could be coming.
On the bright side, Columbus has played seven of their first eleven games on the road, including consecutive home openers for Vancouver, San Jose and Phoenix. They remain above .500, and are getting healthier. Some of the young talent is showing signs of maturation, and the line of Vermette, Voracek and Filatov showed some scary potential against Phoenix.
Columbus faces a tough three game stretch of Pittsburgh, Washington and San Jose at a time when they are looking for answers. Last year, they showed the ability to handle these types of challenges, while sometimes falling down to lesser opposition. They have the people, the system and the talent – now they just need to go back to what made everything work in the first six games of the season. As Commodore observed, it is better that they go through this phase early, rather than later in the season. The Jackets seem confident it is just a phase, from which they will emerge stronger than before. If so, the rest of the league may be in for some trouble.

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