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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Columbus Blue Jackets' 2009-10 Season: R.I.P. (Part 1 of 2)

Chicago at Columbus, 16 JAN 10

IN the 2008-09 season, the Columbus Blue Jackets qualified for the postseason for the first time since they entered the league in 2000-01. Columbus started the 2009-10 season strong, going 12-6-2 through their first 20 games to earn a call of CHASING STANLEY from On Goal Analysis on 19 NOV 09. After Game 20, however, the wheels fell off: The Blue Jackets stumbled through a disastrous 6-17-7 stretch, culminating with a 6-5 home loss to Chicago in Game 50 (16 JAN 10). That loss put Columbus so far below OGA’s PQC (Playoff Qualifying Curve) as to make a comeback virtually impossible, forcing us to call the Jackets a SHOT OFF THE POST, meaning…our original (IN) call was wrong, and we’re now sitting down to a dinner of Crow a l’orange. Like the fans in Columbus, we find ourselves wondering just what went wrong with this season, and where the organization might go from here. Let’s break it down:


1. Goaltending – Steve Mason won the Calder Memorial Trophy last season for (essentially) carrying this team on his back to the playoffs. This season, his confidence has been damaged by the dreaded “sophomore slump”. Mason’s slump has been magnified by:

2. Team Defense – This team was carefully constructed by GM Scott Howson to play hockey the Ken Hitchcock Way; that is, a tight-checking, defense-first, grind-it-out style. This season, the Jackets have attempted to play a more wide-open, run-and-gun style (i.e., Chicago Blackhawks-style) at times. Unfortunately, while Columbus has the offensive talent to score goals, they lack swift-skating blueliners capable of both contributing offensively and hustling back to make the defensive play (i.e., the Blackhawks defensive corps). This, coupled with spotty backchecking from the forwards, has left both Steve Mason and Mathieu Garon exposed far too often.

3. The Kids – 09-10 was supposed to be the year for young Derick Brassard to develop into the number one center that he was projected to become. Instead, he’s regressed, as Coach Hitchcock has shuffled Brassard from the top line to the Press Box (for one game) to the fourth line, and everywhere in between. Brass has even played a couple of games on the wing…And speaking of wings, rookie (and future superstar) Nikita Filatov, after a promising showing in just 8 games last season (including a hat trick against Minnesota), made the club out of training camp, but spent the majority of his tenure either on the fourth line or in the Press Box. After averaging around 8:08 of ice time and scoring just two goals in 13 games, Filatov decided he’d had enough: He asked Howson to allow him to return to Russia, where he promptly recorded 5-9-14 in 12 games.

4. LeadershipRick Nash is unquestionably Columbus’ best player, but…is he the Jackets’ best leader? The consensus seems to be that Nash’s leadership style is too quiet, too understated for this club, and he needs help. Scott Howson took a step in the right direction by trading for Washington’s Captain, Chris Clark, who has had an immediate (positive) impact in the room and on the bench. The full impact of Clark’s presence won’t be felt until next season, though.

5. The Coach – Bottom Line: Hitch gets paid to win games, and the Jackets’ tight-checking style leaves no room for rookie mistakes. How, though, can rookies learn and grow as NHL players in Hitch’s system? If anyone in the Columbus organization could answer that, the Blue Jackets wouldn’t be a Shot Off The Post. The Hitchcock Way is also tough on veteran players, and concern is growing that some of the older players might be/already have tuned Hitch out. Ironically, Ken Hitchcock had his greatest coaching success (the Stars' Stanley Cup win in '99) with a team made up largely of veterans, including FIVE current or former team captains. Today, he coaches a team with leadership issues, which also happens to be one of the youngest teams in the NHL. The question must be asked: Is Ken Hitchcock the right coach for the Columbus Blue Jackets at this time?

TOMORROW, PART TWO: Where does Columbus go from here?

Take me back to On Goal Analysis.

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