The greatest challenge, in trying to create content in writing about a particular team—in this case, the Columbus Blue Jackets (CBJ)—is trying to write when the team is playing lousy. While others may spin this in a particular manner, that this is a phase the team is going through, I view it in an entirely different manner.
Two words: Panic Button.
A phase is one thing. Going 2-8-4, and going from near the top of the Western Conference standings, to the 13th spot (and falling) is entirely another.
In fact, the CBJ lost, and I mean, "no doubt about it," lost, last Saturday night, to the 15th place, Anaheim Ducks. And, the Ducks were coming off of a tough OT loss, the night, before, to the Detroit Red Wings.
They followed up this "performance" by being pummeled by their Central Division rival, the Nashville Predators, 5-3—a game not nearly as close as the score would indicate. On the next evening, to make the cellar-dwelling "journey" complete, they lost to the Minnesota Wild, 2-1, after giving up a goal, immediately after a timeout was called by Coach Ken Hitchcock, with 38 seconds to play.
So, rather than strain my somewhat feeble brain, by going into great detail as to what has gone wrong—there's not enough time, and there's not enough deodorant for that conversation—I've decided to take it easy on myself and just pose a long series of questions.
So, if you'll indulge me, take a look at the questions and see if you can come up with logical answers, to them.
So, with that, here are the questions:
What exactly is this team's identity? The Power Play (PP) leading, and 9th in overall goals scored version? Or, the gritty, North-South, Ken Hitchcock's system, defense-first, physical, tight-checking version?
When do they hit their boiling point? Is there anyone (Steve Mason and Derek Dorsett aside) who display ANY level of emotion, when the team struggles?
Why do they not seem to show any emotion or frustration, either during this skid, or when they are embarrassingly being blown out, during a game? And, that has happened, quite often, particularly during seven of their first 28 games, when surrendering six or more goals.
Who will step forward, in the locker room, and get the team going in a unilateral, positive direction?
Is it coincidence that the Blue Jackets slide began when Derek Dorsett was boarded by James Neal, going 2-8-3, including his early departure, this past Saturday, when he broke his hand?
Is it coincidence that the Blue Jackets have also gone 3-8-4 since Nikita Filatov departed for the KHL, on the "loan agreement"?
While the team's performance may not have been altered (as much) is it coincidence that the performances of second-year players Jakub Voracek and Derrick Brassard—often times looking confused, lacking confidence, and as a result, in the particular case of Brassard, being demoted to the third and fourth lines (after starting the season on the top line)—have suffered? Filatov, Brassard, and Voracek were extremely tight. Just asking...
Why was Filatov "healthy-scratched" so often, or had his minutes reduced to five-six minutes per game—particularly after playing well, during the first period, when other veteran players were acting as "turnover machines" yet not having their minutes reduced?
Does anyone really believe Filatov will return, here, for training camp, in September, 2010?
Are we really to believe the comments by Hitch and the players, or, for that matter, from the organization brass, that losing Filatov—a world-class talent, their former No. 1 pick, the No. 1 prospect in hockey, a guy who Hitchcock once compared to Pavel Bure and others have compared to Paul Kariya or Phil Kessel—was not that big of a deal?
Conversely, why did Coach Hitchcock, in his pre-game radio segment, against Anaheim, state that, as Frederik Modin (who'd missed the first 30 games of the season) wouldn't play more than eight minutes in his first game back with the team since April, play over 12 minutes?
Is it improper, as some media members have stated, to express frustration at Frederik Modin, in missing approximately two-thirds of his games, over a period longer than two-and-a-half years? We know of his legendary toughness, during last season (playing with broken toes), but, is it ever wrong to question why he was placed on the second line, after missing almost 20 games, for Game One (his first game back) of the Stanley Cup playoffs?
Was there any consideration, or any subsequent regret, for not buying out the last year of Modin's contract, should his injury issues, resurface?
Is there truly too long a leash for veteran players, and too short a leash for younger players?
Does a sophomore slump really exist for Messrs. Mason, Brassard, and Voracek? Is it a confidence issue, being moved up and down lines, in the case of Brassard and Voracek? Or, was it a case of those players displaying the limits of their talents, going once or twice around the NHL, and having its teams figure out how to play against them? Worse still, are Brassard and Mason really that talented, in the first place?
In the case of Mason, when, for each prior season in Hitchcock's tenure, the No. 1 goaltender produced stellar results and winning records—Freddie Norrena and Pascal LeClaire—is it the goalie, or the defense-first system?
Should Matheiu Garon have played more often, during Steve Mason's early season struggles? Case in point, Garon not starting the next game, after posting a stellar, 36 save, shutout performance against the Phoenix Coyotes, early this season?
Is it possible, that along with his sophomoric struggles, that reports of defending Calder trophy recipient Steve Mason's relationship, inside the locker room—witness his stick-swinging incident when his teammates failed to score one goal, after the initial three rounds, against the 'Hawks—have affected both his and his teammates performances?
Do Mike Commodore's physical struggles—groin, flu, groin, charlie horse, fatigue, rounding into game shape—albeit a year, later, justify those critics' predictions as being one of the potential UFA busts, during the prior season's UFA signing period? Which Commodore—the pleasant surprise of 2008-2009, or the head-scratching 2009-2010 version—are we to believe?
During the last few games, since his return from the puzzling healthy scratch list designations, has Kris Russell finally found his game, and is ready to take that next step? Or, prior to the healthy scratches, did Russell really make much, if any, jump to the next level, from his rookie season?
And, given both Russell's gifts and limitations—His speed, his ability to burst on the offensive rush, and his more effective down low shot from the point—would Kris Russell be better served as a forward on the wing vs. the struggles that his diminutive size present, on the defensive end? He seems more Paul Kariya than Brian Leetch.
Will a consistent top line ever emerge, during this season, or will it require constant tinkering, never to solidify for a playoff push?
Will a trade be made prior to the trade deadline, to shake up the current team chemistry, or lack thereof?
At what point will a blockbuster trade need to be made? Given the team's budget—not salary cap—construct, can a blockbuster move even be made?
Recently, Scott Howson, upon returning from the NHL's board of governors meetings, stated that a blockbuster trade seems unlikely, due to the preponderance of long-term contracts, and their inherent limitations. Didn't the Blue Jackets also make three significant contract extensions, after the season started, that now, at least in the cases of Rusty Klesla and Kris Russell, appear both questionable and burdensome (as to trade value)?
Will recently reported interest in Brian Lee be related to attempting to recognize some return for the possibility that Filatov has, indeed, played his last game as a Blue Jacket? Or, is interest in Brian Lee separate, part and parcel, from the attempts to acquire a return? Could a potential trade for Lee indicate a move to eliminate the glut at the forward positions, while strengthening the overall defensive depth?
While Anton Stralman has been a pleasant offensive surprise, are there any regrets in not acquiring Marc Andre Bergeron, who's found an offensive groove for the Canadians, suspect defense (but reasonable UFA price tag), aside?
While Ken Hitchcock might not directly be on the hot seat, and may have lost the players, how long will the struggles continue, as evidenced by the rapidly-dwindling attendance, before aggressive player personnel moves are made?
(Note: I do believe Hitchcock to be safe, for reasons of his accomplishments, historically, and with this team, his being the face of the franchise, his relationship with the founder of the CBJ, John H. McConnell, and primarily due to the fact that the organization's financial woes wouldn't allow them to buy out the remaining years of his contract)
If it's a matter of working through the return to buying into Ken Hitchcock's system, how long will that process take, and will it then be too late to have a reasonable run at returning to the playoffs?
Might there be a meeting between CBJ Captain, Rick Nash, and Ken Hitchcock, over whether the team should still adopt/utilize Hitch's system of playing, or will they decide on using a different system? If the system is more free-wheeling and less defensively responsible, does this team have enough talent to be effective with that later system?
Can we still employ the phrase, "in Howson we trust?" See Filatov's departure, and the Klesla and Russell contract extensions.
Has the team's fan base gotten completely apathetic?
Does this recent slide turn around, particularly with three brutal road stretches upcoming, or does it continue? If it continues, when will it be too late to salvage the season?
Whew! My head hurts, but doing this was cathartic. So, if you don't mind, ponder over those questions, and and let's see how this all plays out.
While this all might come off as being somewhat negative, I do hope, as a fan of this team, it all works itself out. But, times a' wasting...