Archive for March, 2007

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Dose of Reality #37

March 30, 2007

My last post, #36, brought out a lot of comments on the issue of a premium that Columbus has to pay for free agents to attract them to play here. All of the comments agree that the team does have to pay a financial premium. Some writers blamed Doug MacLean while others blamed the lack of winning by the team. I have to ask, what is the difference? MacLean is a big reason why the team does not win.

At the risk of being labeled a “bottom feeder”, I attribute the premium to Doug MacLean. His record as a GM speaks for itself and is a matter of public record. His personality (or emotionalism if you prefer a softer term) is also out there in the known hockey world. So to get the right kind of free agents, the team has to offer more than other clubs. To eliminate this premium, the team has to win more. You might say this is circular, but if the GM were changed, the circle would be broken.

One other related topic is this: How many players or which players did not consider playing here in the past due to the lack of winning and/or the current General Manager? I know of one player who said no thanks when Columbus approached him a few years ago and that was Dallas Drake, current captain of the St. Louis Blues. (And thank God he didn’t come here; a guy who thinks hit first and touch the puck later.) The Blue Jackets also attempted to lure Brian Rafelski of the Devils, but he stayed in New Jersey. I don’t know of any others out there, but I bet there is a fair number. If any agents are reading this or a person with inside knowledge, feel free to comment.

Finally, in regards to The Hockey News Poll which was not very good for Columbus, there are some positive things that you should know. From my conversations with Blue Jacket players and coaches, they love the facilities here. Having the arena and practice rink under one roof is perfect for them. They can keep their gear in one place, do off-ice workouts in the same place, and attend meetings in the same place. The rest of the NHL teams do not have season-long access to their home ice for practices and have to travel to other rinks for practice and workouts. Picture this: If there were no Ice Haus, the team would have to utilize Easton or the Dublin Chillers for practices. They would have to head to a different location for an off-ice workout. If the coaches call a meeting, they would not be able to hold those at either Chiller.

Also, you hear from nearly everyone who played here how much they like the Columbus area. They are like you and me and want good schools, housing, and not have to put up with problems like crime and traffic. There are lots of golf courses in the area and the restaurant selections aren’t too bad. They can have a little anonymity here and not be bothered that much when they go out in public. If the players are young and single, they simply head over to the Campus area to find what they are looking for.

Now if they would have beat Anaheim last night, it would have been easier to write this post. But Anaheim had to be gunning for the Jackets since we embarrassed them in January and followed up with another win two weeks ago, twice in their own building. The Jackets didn’t play that bad, but the Ducks played a lot better. This wasn’t the October Blue Jackets playing last night, but it certainly wasn’t a play-off contender, either, no matter what some reporters said.

Truth Serum

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Can we get a little perspective, here?

March 29, 2007

The Blue Jackets won their fourth game in a row on Tuesday, shortly after being officially eliminated from playoff contention.  I should have been able to see the next part coming, but I’ll confess that I was looking the other way when it hit me.  And when it did, I had to smile a little.

Here is a paraphrased sample of the comments I’ve heard on the radio call-in shows the last few days:

  • “Here go the Blue Jackets on one of their patented ‘the season doesn’t matter anymore so we’re going to start winning’ streaks.”  Or…
  • “Finally, the team is playing very well.  Where was this team in October?  Why can’t the play like this every night?”

There are a few things that this line of thinking compels me to address.  I’ll do so in the super-unfashionable bullet point style.

  • First things first.  Let’s take a look at the opponents in the last four games.  Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis (x2).  Counting overtime losses and shootout losses as pure losing efforts, this give the three opposing teams a combined win percentage of 45.6%.  And that’s with the Red Wings in at 60.5%.  I’d argue that it shouldn’t be that big of a surprise that they won at least three of the four games.  Chicago and St. Louis are teams (at this point in the season) that any team in the NHL should have a reasonable chance of defeating.
  • Next item: we played the Blues twice in that stretch.  This is a team that had two of their top players (Bill Guerin and Keith Tkachuck) shipped at the trade deadline.  And the TV announcers couldn’t stop telling us how their power play has been so ineffective lately (currently 4 goals in 62 opportunities in March for a stellar 6.5% conversion rate).  Also, they were putting Jason Bacashihua and Curtis Sanford in net (both relatively inexperienced even compared to Norrena).  Let’s not get too excited beating up on these guys, it’s what you should expect.
  • Is anybody really comparing the March Blue Jackets to those that were playing in October and November?  As I see it, the cast is mostly unchanged save for one minor detail: the coach.  Simply put, this is a different team with Hitchcock behind the bench than it was when Gallant was there.  There are days where I don’t believe a coach should make that much of a difference with professional athletes, but I won’t say it doesn’t.  Hitch is a proven winner over the course of his career (minor blips this season notwithstanding), and it’s evident to many that the team Columbus is icing at this moment is very different from that which started the season.

My point in all this?  I’m not sure, but maybe something like “as fans it’s best to remain even keeled.”  Don’t get too high or low.  Relish the opportunity to see professional hockey in your town.  Or maybe it’s “think about what you’re complaining about or praising before you find yourself on the radio sounding like a doofus.”  Take your pick.

And to all those who think that the Jackets would be better off losing to better their draft position, I personally think that this is a terrible thing to consider under almost any circumstance.  Winning is why you play.  Whether you’re in the playoff race or not, you should play to win.  I’m not a world-class anything, but I was raised to know that any time you have an opportunity to win (fairly) in sports, you do so.  Anyone who gives up once their team is “out of it”, should be forced to forfeit any salary they are paid for those “lost” games.  Of course I realize this would never happen, I’m (mostly) joking.  But I will stand strong to the day I keel over on this issue.  Winning is all that matters.  Not draft picks, Rocket Richard Trophies, save percentages, or anything else.  Just win, baby.

Just ask the season ticket holders who are having trouble deciding what to do next season.  I’d guess that this little winning streak has helped one or two people make up their mind.  Does anyone think that if the Jackets lost most of their games after being eliminated that this would endear the team to their fans?

Thanks for stopping by the End of the Bench.  Come back soon.

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Dose of Reality #36

March 28, 2007

The Jackets whipped St. Louis for their fourth in a row.  That’s great, but you know what would be even better?  If they have one of these streaks in October or November of next season.  That would go along nicely with the concession stand discount that I look forward to next year.

I’m going to go off on some other topics now because what more needs to be said about the current Blue Jacket team?

I read a local blog, The Neutral Zone Trap, and recommend it to everyone.  Sarah, the blogger, does a fine job covering hockey, food, and culture in the Columbus area.  She blogged about high school hockey the other day, mentioning Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky programs, and I wanted to share some things with her.  I have had experience with high school hockey in these two areas and I wanted to let her know that teams in Cincinnati are very competitive with Columbus area teams and easily hold their own.  I have seen one Kentucky team play, Trinity from Louisville.  They also were pretty tough, but did not have the depth of our local teams and ran out of gas in the two games I saw them play.  But the programs from the South are very respectable and will only get better.  The same can be said about Columbus; our teams still don’t have the depth of the Cleveland and Toledo area teams and need to develop overall quality to go along with the increasing numbers.

One other issue that Sarah brought up was girls playing high school hockey.  The three Dublin high schools have a lot of kids playing and they had two girls playing JV and one on the Scioto varsity this year.  Hilliard had a girl playing on their varsity.  UA has had girls in the past.  Gahanna had a girl go through their varsity program and she now plays at OSU.  Centerville Club had two sisters playing on their team who were pretty good matches against the boys.  My point is that there are lots of girls playing high school hockey in the Columbus area and they are not just taking up a roster spot.

Moving on, Patrick made an interesting comment on my last post.  He talked about the MacLean factor on the Blue Jackets.  He said, and I agree, that MacLean does not have the ear of the players in the dressing room because the team now belongs to Ken Hitchcock.  I’m not sure if MacLean ever had “the ear” of the players, but it wasn’t because he didn’t try.  I often wondered why I could never see the strings attached to Gallant that MacLean was pulling when Turk was coaching the team.

Patrick’s comments and Drew’s post about Vyborny leaving the Columbus team and area in a year made me think about the organization and the signings of MacLean.  Many of us fans and bloggers have discussed about how MacLean has a tendency to over-pay for players.  Marchant, Carter, Foote, Fedorov, and others come to mind when you consider that category.  But what if MacLean himself, with his meddling and ego, is the reason why these players get more to come play in Columbus?  If you are a top tier free agent and your choice is Columbus (with Doug MacLean) and Minnesota or St. Louis or Phoenix or any other middle-of-the road North American city, would you factor in a surcharge to play here?  Think about real life; if you are comfortable in your current job, but another company shows interest in you, would you factor in the cost to start all over with a new organization, new people, new management, and new values?  What if you knew that although the other company pays more, their turnover rate is higher due to things like pressure and management style?  You would figure out a cost for this and if you don’t get it, you won’t move.

Now if you are Anson Carter and you looking around, how much more will you need to see from Columbus before you take them seriously?  To cut to the chase, does having Doug MacLean as GM, with his record of under-performing, drive up the cost of free agents for Columbus?  Does the team’s reputation of not having a strong coach, of going after players that they want instead of what they need, and of having a moody GM drive up the cost of doing business here in Columbus?

As Patrick states, Hitch is now the leader of the team, but unfortunately his rival will not just fade into the background.  Next season will give us some answers, but it probably will raise a lot of questions, too.  One question is what would it take to get David Vyborny to stay a bit longer?

– Truth Serum

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Pure speculation

March 27, 2007

In the last week, I’ve watched all or most of the three Blue Jacket games.  All wins over Central Division opponents, these games starting at 7-8 PM have been more palatable both in start time and in result.

Vyborny and Modin

(Vyborny controls the puck behind the net while Modin follows closely behind.  Photo by Jamie Sabau)

In the Chicago (5-2 win), and St. Louis (4-1 win) games, left winger Fredrik Modin had a combined three goals on six shots, with a plus two rating.  Registering the first assist on all three of those goals?  None other than right winger David Vyborny.  Vyborny has never had trouble finding guys to set up for goals.  With 183 assists in 470 NHL games, he’s not exactly tearing up the league.  But considering the general talent level in Columbus during his tenure, I’d say that’s pretty good.

Vyborny currently has one year left on his contract, and it’s been suggested in the Dispatch that after his contract is up he will be moving his family back to the Czech Republic so his children can grow up there.  I think this is admirable, and hope that he sticks to his wishes for the sake of his family.

My question is this: Fredrik Modin recently signed a three-year extension to his current contract.  Given the chemistry that has developed between Modin and David Vyborny this season, will Doug MacLean (or whomever the GM may be) pressure Vyborny and issue him “an offer he can’t refuse” to sign for another year or two?

Taking family out of the equation, I would personally say go for it.  But my thinking is that David will turn down whatever comes across the table, and put his family above the desire to play in the NHL another couple years.  I’d love to see quiet #9 out there as long as he can go, but there’s something to be said for going with your heart.

Thanks for stopping by the End of the Bench.  Come back soon.

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Dose of Reality #35

March 23, 2007

Back from the Dead.

Yeah, I’m still around.  I may be unreliable, but I didn’t go away.  To make a long story short, I have a day job (at this time) that keeps me busy and interferes with my life.  I’ve still been going to Blue Jacket games, watching them on television, and continuing to elevate my dislike for certain hockey GM’s.  So I want to offer a few random thoughts.

First, the season ticket renewals went out and they have embraced the “wait till next year” theme and hope you do, too.  You’ve probably seen the new commercial that features Ken Hitchcock talking about the joys of putting together a team from training camp and how much he wants the fans to be a part of this (by renewing or buying season tickets).  There is no mention of Doug MacLean nor do we hear John McConnell’s annual apology to the fans.  The renewal package is interesting in that the club appears to realize that they can’t take PSL holders for granted anymore.  They are offering discounts on concessions, guaranteed rewards, and other premiums that always seemed to go to the guy who bought a $71 ticket for $10 from a scalper out front.

Nationwide was sold-out for the first round of the NCAA Basketball Tournament last weekend.  I went to catch a few games and enjoyed the show, but the basketball fans were definitely quieter than Blue Jacket fans.  Sure, there were eight teams here and therefore no single group of fans could fill the place, but they just didn’t make as much noise as hockey fans do.  But there wasn’t any beer being sold, either.

The Ohio High School Hockey Championships were fun and competitive.  Upper Arlington made their game against Parma Padua interesting, but they really couldn’t match the depth of Padua.  Toledo St. John’s won the championship with depth, speed, and hard work.  Maybe a local team that uses three lines will give the northern schools a run for their money in the future.

The Jackets did whip Chicago, but it would have been nice to see that Blue Jacket team in November.  The Jackets played most of the game with hard work and intensity, just like a real NHL team.  Perhaps next season they will have more of those games, which will be great to watch while consuming discounted food from the concession stands.

Sergei Fedorov’s winning goal in the shoot-out against Detroit was sweet.  Although I have always appreciated Fedorov’s talent and accomplishments, his best days are behind him.  It is unpleasant to hear Detroit fans boo him, but I would have paid good money to be around when he put the puck in the net last night to win the game.  I’m sure the boos will be even louder the next time Fedorov plays against his old team.

– Truth Serum

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A good old-fashioned butt kicking

March 21, 2007

The Blackhawks and Blue Jackets each stepped on the Nationwide Arena ice last night looking to take a step out of the Central Division basement.  Tied at 63 points coming in, both teams were looking to use their eighth and final meeting of the season to keep them from falling to the bottom of the conference.

In the end, the Jackets received strong performances from Fredrik Modin (2 goals) and Fredrik Norrena (22 saves on 24 shots) to send Chicago away tucking it’s tail after suffering a 5-2 drubbing in front of 15,195 fans hungry for a win.  Having not seen a home game since March 9th and no home goals in nearly two weeks, Jacket fans slid their trays down the buffet line last night.  Gilbert Brule, Modin (x2), Derrick Walser (1st of season), and Ole-Kristian Tollefsen (1st of career) all hit the back of the net for Columbus, while Rene Bourque and Patrick Sharp scored for Chicago.

Columbus, continuing to play with a decimated blueline, held the Hawks to 24 shots on goal and in general gave goaltender Freddy Norrena good looks at the puck.  The overall picture I’d paint for this game would be that of hard work producing results.  Of particular note would be the second scoring line of Modin, David Vyborny, and Alexander Svitov.  Earning a combined +4 rating and 2 goals and 3 assists on 7 shots, these three played sound defense while pressuring the Blackhawks in their own end.

With the next three games (and six of their remaining nine) against division opponents, there are some remaining opportunities to improve the poor (8-14-4) record against the Central.

Of note:  In his 32nd NHL game, Alexandre Picard finally notched his first point when he assisted on Tollefsen’s goal in the third.  In other Picard news, a few minutes into the second period, he registered all three of his credited hits in a 0:15 window.  He was flying around on the forecheck, hitting anything that wore white.  He drew the ire of Tony Salmelainen in the form of a cross checking penalty.  After the whistle blew, a little scuffle ensued.  On one hand, I was a little disappointed that Picard got into it with Brent Seabrook for coincidental roughing minors.  But on the other, despite being a relative “nobody” the Blackhawks, he stood up for himself and his team and set the tone that Chicago was not getting out of Nationwide without a fight.

Last night was the first hockey game I’ve watched from start to finish in quite a while.  It was good for a change, and I hope the Blue Jackets continue to put forth a good effort the rest of the season and don’t tank for a higher draft pick.  These next few weeks of hockey in Columbus will shape how fans feel going into the offseason.  There are some big hockey events going on in central Ohio this summer (like, maybe an Entry Draft?), and it would be good for the locals to be somewhat excited about the sport when the NHL comes to town.

Thanks for stopping by the End of the Bench.  Come back soon.

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Lucky 13

March 14, 2007

No, this post isn’t about Nikolai Zherdev.  Luck has nothing to do with his drop in production this year.

I took a few minutes this morning and broke down the remaining games the Jackets have left to play, of which there are thirteen.  (All stats are as of 3/13/07)

It’s been mentioned in a few places that, at least lately, the Jackets have played decently against playoff (or close) teams and simply haven’t showed up on the nights against fellow bottom dwellers.  The sample size being used for these “trends” is usually eight to twelve games, which hardly makes a telling statistic in my book.  Yes, it’s nice that Columbus has beaten Anaheim, Detroit, Buffalo, and others recently.  But unless it keeps happening, it doesn’t mean much.

So I went back over the course of the season and looked at how the Jackets have done.  If a team is currently in the top 8 in their conference, or within 5 points of the 8th seed, they are a “playoff” team.  All others are non-playoff teams.  My questions were these:

  1. How did Columbus perform against each subset?
  2. What does this predict for their final thirteen games?

What did I find for #1? 

  • Games played against playoff teams: 40
  • Record in these games (straight won/loss, no OTL): (15-25), for a 37.5% win rate
  • Games played against non-playoff teams: 29
  • Record in these games: (12-17), for a 41.4% win rate

So while Columbus has won more games against playoff teams, their win rate is higher against non-playoff teams.  In the larger picture, the mini-run the Jackets had against Detroit/Buffalo/Minnesota/Vancouver is a bit of a fluke.  They would normally win 1.5 of those games, not all four.  It’s also a disappointing finding that the team only wins 41% of games against crappy teams.  I would have figured that Columbus could have picked up more than five wins in twelve games against the also crappy Blackhawks and Blues.  Not so.

How about question #2?

  • There are eight games left against playoff (or close) teams.  Using a 37.5% win rate and rounding down (let’s be honest, CBJ fans), we’d anticipate three wins.
  • There are five games left against non-playoff teams.  Using a 41.4% win rate, we’d anticipate two wins. 

There is an extra ten points to add to the current 61, for a total of 71.  Not the rosiest picture, but we could be Philly fans.

One interesting thing to think about, if you’re a Detroit player/coach/fan, is how your team has fared against Columbus compared to how Nashville has done.  The best Detroit can do at season’s end is earn 12 of 16 points from the Jackets.  Nashville earned a full 16 of 16 from the CBJ, which could be the difference between playing Calgary or San Jose in the first round of the playoffs.

So the Jackets might be playoff spoilers of a sort, but I’m sure they didn’t think of it that way on December 18th and January 19th.  I’m a Buckeye at heart, so it’s kind of nice to be able to screw over any team from Michigan, even if I did have to use 551 words to figure out how. (I kid!)

Thanks for stopping by the End of the Bench.  Come back soon.