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On Their Way?

While there is reason for optimism for Blue Jacket fans with their best start ever at 6-4-0, I am of the opinion that it doesn’t mean that all bodes well.

With recent performances, injuries and the constant tinkering with lines and their cadre of young phenoms – specifically, Derek Brassard and Nikita Filatov – the Blue Jackets emergence as a Western Conference power might be put on hold, at least until these issues are addressed.

Let’s start in goal, where defending Calder Trophy winner Steve Mason is struggling early on. During the last West Coast swing, Mason completed the trip with a whopping goals against average of 5.33, and a not-so-stellar save percentage of .807.  This performance certainly doesn’t conjure up images of Patrick Roy, but more like memories of Marc Denis, perhaps Brian “Bobby” Boucher. What’s most disconcerting about Mase’s performances, is that he appears to have now developed some bad habits or flaws, chinks that had not occurred during his stellar rookie campaign.

During his rookie year, the “book” on Mase (Steve Mason) was to go “glove hand high”. This year, however, Mase has been beaten, as they say, Five Hole (between the wickets – twice) and in the lower areas (low blocker stick – 6 times; low glove side – 6 times). He has also struggled with rebound control, again, something that had not surfaced, at all, last season.

Now, here’s the puzzling part: It was reported today that Dave Rook – the recently hired goaltending consultant – had joined the team, now that the Blue Jackets have returned from their West Coast “roadie”, to work with Mase and Mathieu Garon. Here’s My question: He wasn’t there for the catastrophic tennis matches – with scores of 3-6, 4-6 (Garon was in goal), 6-4 and 2-6? If it’s not the protocol to have the goaltending consultant accompany the goalies on road trips, tough economic times, aside, you might want to look into springing for it.  Sure, Rook’s gig is to assess the goaltending for the entire organization – AHL, Juniors – but, if, on a road trip, the goalies are giving up that many goals, on those few shots, uh, the AHL and Juniors can wait.

In short, it might be time for some serious net minding intervention – pronto.

Again, going from the back end, forward, the next concern is the team’s blue-line. Jan Hejda, AKA The Big Plus (for his stellar +51 +/- rating, over the course of the last 2-plus seasons), was injured on October 13th, against the Flames. While the Blue Jackets stepped up and defeated the LA Kings, the following home game, it has been anything but Ken Hitchcock hockey since then, having given up 22 goals in their last four games. While Hejda is, without a doubt, their best defender, that surge in goals allowed is inexcusable.

What’s also hurting the Blue Jackets, besides losing Hejda for the past two weeks (Hejda’s been skating with the Blue Jackets Strength and Conditioning coach, Barry Brennan, as we speak) is the early-season absence of Mike Commodore, Hejda’s first defensive pairing partner.

Commodore’s is battling with a lot of adversity, including the following: A groin injury, the flu and a groin injury. So this past Saturday’s game against the Ducks was his season debut, one pre-season game, aside. As a result of Commodore getting his conditioning back, expect that he won’t be back in the swing of things until Mid-November.

How’s that really impacted the Blue Jackets? By having their remaining defensive corps play additional minutes, many more than they would normally incur. And apparently, for some of the corps, that’s not exactly a good thing.

Need proof? See the recent scores, above.

But, the blame can’t be specifically pointed at the blueliners, no, there has been some shoddy play by the forwards, as it relates to being not-so-strong on the puck.  I’d list the culprits, but, that would take too long.

Regarding the handling of the young forwards, I will be the first to acknowledge that Hitchcock has taken the Blue Jackets to places very few coaches, if any could have taken them. In other words, the man has coached his rear end off. Merely getting the Blue Jackets into the playoffs, for the first time should automatically have punched his ticket to Toronto (the Hall of Fame). The man’s forgotten more hockey than any of us could remember or know, but, the handling of two young phenoms, Filatov and Brassard, has been a bit puzzling.

Filatov, for three games, has also seriously reducing his minutes played while sending a message that he needs to play the 2-way game required in the NHL. This may have also caused him to press far too much, and to think far too much, while on ice.

In Filatov’s particular case, while there’s no questioning his being benched against the opponents they were scheduled to play such as Calgary, a little lessening of the brakes might help restore his confidence and let him use his world-class offensive skills to impact the outcome of a game.  Word is Filatov’s being elevated, as a result of his recent play, to the 2nd line, but, that can changes as quickly as…well, how about within a line change.

By this, I liken it to how Hitch allowed Nikolai Zherdev to improvise, during his last season in Columbus, with the intention of raising his trade value, after a disastrous prior season. Not that I’m suggesting this as an end state, merely stating how letting Filatov free-wheel it, a bit, might pay dividends, in the long run, in his overall transition to the NHL game.

In Brassard’s case, while there’s certainly some justification towards dropping him from the first line.  His percentage in face-offs being that low (sub-50%) is not something synonymous with Hitch’s system. With Hitchcock dropping him to the fourth line one again, this certainly didn’t boost Brassard’s confidence. It is true that he needs to understand the criticality of winning face-offs, at least within a sniff of 50%, but without having a playmaker of his caliber to accompany Rick Nash and Kristian Huselius, this certainly impacts a team that’s been known historically as being a bit offensively-impaired.

In both cases, it appears to be a bit of too short a leash extended to both young players, something that differs, historically, with the veteran players. This might be the reason why Hitch has been known to rely on more veteran-laden teams during his coaching career – it’s a trust factor.

However, not all is gloom and doom, in Blue Jacket land. Let’s not forget that they played seven of their first ten games in the Pacific and Mountain time zones, in traditionally hostile arenas, against pretty stout opponents, and they now play seven of their next nine games in the friendly confines of Nationwide Arena. But, after playing the much-improved Phoenix Coyotes, they then are squared up against the likes of the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Washington Capitals (a road game), and the San Jose Sharks.

While there’s is reason to be optimistic – usually, by Mid-November, the Blue Jackets have been mathematically eliminated. That is not to say there are some troubling signs that need improvement, but adjustments need to be made.

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