Same Old Jackets?
It’s a phrase that dominated post game conversations for the better part of eight seasons in Columbus, one that I’ve tried to refrain from as long as possible: “Same old Jackets.” But yet, after another gut-wrenching loss, it has forced its way back into common vernacular. The Jackets fell to the Minnesota Wild last night by a score of 2-1. They have now lost 12 of their last 14 and find themselves tied for 12th in the Western Conference. It seems like every game has had the same outline, just blanks to fill in for different opponents and scores. Tonight’s was a slight step forward. The Jackets allowed only two goals as opposed to five or more. Rick Nash found the back of the net for just the third time in the last 14 games. Steve Mason played a very solid game in net, only to have at least a point snatched away with just 37 seconds remaining in regulation.
Mason does appear to be taking steps forward. He single-handedly kept the Jackets in the game early as he was peppered with 11 shots from the Wild in the first. Columbus managed just three. Nash gave the Jackets the lead early in the first but Guillaume Latendresse tied the game up less than five minutes later after the Wild had been working the puck behind the net.
The CBJ outshot the Wild in the second and third periods but failed to beat goaltender Niklas Backstrom and the stingy Wild team that has won eight of their last 10. Marek Zidlicky scored the game winner off a key face-off win from Miko Koivu in the final minute of the third; a defensive zone face-off that Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock called a timeout to plan out. Zidlicky’s shot deflected off of Mason’s paddle and over his shoulder into the net. Despite playing a markedly improved game in the later periods, the Jackets could not catch a break.
So where does the team go from here? The Union Blue take on an upstart Phoenix team Thursday night in Nationwide Arena (over/under 11,500 fans?) and head to Colorado Saturday. Things will not get easier with only one game against a sub-500 opponent in the eight remaining December games. They don’t get more than a day off until next Thursday and Friday.
The Jackets’ issues lie deeper than the non-stop “looking tired” excuse that seems to be the first thing out of every players mouth after a game. Every team is playing a compacted schedule. It affects everyone. Derek Dorsett is out of the lineup (again) for the next four plus weeks with a broken hand. It’s no secret that this team has not faired well in his absence but does anyone honestly think that Double D in the lineup completely turns things around? No, for whatever reason, this team is not buying Hitch’s system. That’s not a new development; it’s been harped on for most of the year.
There are a couple schools of thought that seek to remedy this situation. One is to continue to ride the course and hope that the leaders on this team, especially with Fredrick Modin back in the lineup, can get the rest of the group invested in playing Hitch’s style. Another is that Hitchcock cannot deal with young players and that he will never be able to force this team to play his kind of game. Certainly they way he went about dealing with Nikita Filatov lends itself to this theory, as does his track record with Philadelphia and to a less extent Dallas. Could a coaching change be what the team needs to get back on track?
I am of the tweener school. A coaching change is premature, especially with how invested the upper management of this organization is in Hitchcock. This team was built in his mold and they have had success when they play his style. The turnover from last season’s roster is not that significant at first glance. Most would say they have improved on paper. But, what they may have made up for in skill, they gave up in experience. This team is severely lacking in the leadership department, especially vocal guys. Rick Nash is not a vocal leader. Mike Commodore is not at a point where he feels comfortable as a vocal leader on this team. RJ Umberger has been to an extent but that’s not enough. That’s what having the youngest team in the league will do to you.
While many fans were heartbroken by the way things worked out, or rather did not work out with Manny Malhotra, I would argue that it is the absence of a player like Michael Peca on this roster that is killing this team. Peca was the mouthpiece for both Hitchcock and Nash in the locker room last season. He was a player that completely bought into the Hitchcock system and was able to help translate and teach it to younger players. He was also the vocal leader in the dressing room that Rick Nash was not, nor is not, ready to be. He lifted much of that burden from Nash’s shoulders and demanded accountability and respect from his teammates. Few, myself included, realized the immense contribution he made to the team.
Unfortunately, Michael Peca’s career appears to be over and the Jackets are not likely to pull off a trade in the near future. They have few assets that they would be willing to part with in order to bring a player in that would be able to immediately buy into the Hitchcock system and serve as the sort of locker room liaison that the team needs. There is not clean-cut solution, but this sort of “unstoppable force meets an immovable object” mentality cannot continue or this season of unmatched optimism could quickly be lost for good. Something, or someone, has got to give.
- Bart Logan