Archive for August, 2007

h1

The fans’ paradox

August 30, 2007

In the ‘80’s and ‘90’s, it was easy to be both proud and ashamed to be a Cincinnati Reds fan. Proud, because the team was fairly successful during that time, winning a few division titles, one World Series, and dressing one of the great ball players of the last 25 years in Barry Larkin. Ashamed because of the mess in the front office, notably owner Marge Schott and the negative attention she brought to the organization.

It is definitely folly for anyone to expect a person at any level in a sports organization, from clubhouse towel boy to player to general manager, to behave in a manner suitable to Mother Theresa or Mahatma Gandhi. Even so, it is still painful to watch those associated with the team you’ve chosen to support tarnish their organization with their actions or words.

All the on-field success in the world could not have swept the vehemence of Margie under the rug. From her public thoughts on Hitler, African-American athletes, and other topics (not to mention allowing one of her dogs to fertilize the turf in Riverfront Stadium), Schott turned what should be a classy organization into the butt of many jokes. What effect these actions should or did have on the players and fans of the Reds organization is debatable. As a fan who still harbors idealistic views of the sports world, the real issue is people who put themselves, or their pride, above the game or the success of their team.

An article in today’s Dispatch talks about Blue Jackets’ GM Scott Howson and his recent trip to Ottawa to meet with Nikolai Zherdev and his two agents. Howson schedule this “clean-the-slate” meeting to address club expectations and to extend the olive branch to Team Zherdev.

Howson sought to rectify the situation, perhaps heading off a messy divorce before it reached a point of no return.

I know a lot of the tone here at End of the Bench over the last 18 months of our existence has been negative towards the now former GM Doug MacLean. While the intent of this entry is not to further drag Doug through the mud, I strongly believe that this is not something that MacLean would have done (the peacekeeping).

As an aforementioned hopelessly idealistic fan, I’m pleased to see Howson put personal and organizational pride aside and try to reach an acceptable middle ground with his players. I don’t feel he abandoned his principles as much as I think he has realized that there is more than one way to skin a cat. One thing that always stuck with me from my background in education is that there are many different types of learners, and the best teachers are those who are able to develop ways to reach all students regardless of learning style.

What Howson, Zherdev, and all Blue Jacket fans presumably want is a competitive team on the ice. Bombast and bluster may work to motivate some players, but it’s become painfully apparent that in the hockey classroom Nikolai is not a student who responds to this type of teaching/management. Unfortunately, it often seemed like these were the only tools possessed by the previous management team (see how diplomatic and polite I’m being? Isn’t it nice!)

Scott Howson has taken the pithy saying “you catch more bees with honey than vinegar” (or however you heard it) out of his GM tool belt, and hopefully used it to his (and resultantly our) benefit. By all accounts in the article, Zherdev and his agents were extremely pleased that the GM reached out to the enigmatic winger. Let’s all cross our fingers that this is another step in turning #13 into the player he sometimes appears to be capable of becoming.

Between Marge Schott, Art Modell, and Doug MacLean, I’ve never been exactly blessed to have one of my sports teams run by selfless team oriented individuals. I’m not naïve enough to believe that Scott Howson is a saint, but at least his actions to date allow me to sleep at night proud to be a supporter of the Columbus Blue Jacket organization.

Advertisements
h1

Dose of Reality #66

August 22, 2007

So we’re going to sign Michael Peca.  I guess it’s better to sign him than to kill Derick Brassard’s career, and he won’t cost that much, and he is a “name” player who will pique the interest of knowledgeable hockey fans, so why not?  I do agree with Eric McErlain that he may be a rental until the March trade deadline, but if he is in demand at that time, it means that he has performed up to NHL expectations, which would be good for us Jacket fans.

I enjoyed reading that Peca had talked to several of his friends about Columbus and how they all gave the city and fans high marks.  One of those that Peca had talked to was Todd Marchant.  Marchant loved it here and really wanted to stay, but things did not work out.  Michael Peca is a similar type player, a defensive center with good speed, who never stands still.  I have no doubt that Ken Hitchcock will use Peca as a defensive forward, giving us a chance to see (barring any injuries) what it might have looked like with Marchant.  Maybe I should have written that we can see what it might have looked like if we had a real GM running the show.

-Truth Serum

h1

Dose of Reality #65

August 20, 2007

I go away for one weekend (to a hockey clinic, by the way) and Alexander Svitov jumps ship.  What are we going to do?  I mean, where in the world is the team going to get those seven goals from now that Svits left?  My oh my, the sky is falling.  We can forget about the playoffs now!

If Doug MacLean were here, he would have signed Petr Nedved or Alexei Yashin by now, forking out $3 million a piece to make up for the loss of Svitov.  But now we have sane people minding the store, so that won’t happen.

I didn’t find out about this until late Saturday, but I was still able to sleep that night.  The question I ask myself now is, does anybody care?  Should we care?

I’ll post more when I get back in town.

-Truth Serum 

h1

Spotlight on: Goaltending

August 20, 2007

In the final installment of the season ending review process, here is Drew’s look at the Blue Jacket goaltenders.

Goaltenders

Fredrik Norrena

– Age – 33

-Status – Signed through 2008-09

-Pros – Lightly tested early last season, Norrena proved his mettle and earned his stripes as the Blue Jackets number one goalie.  Confident without being flashy, Norrena seems to have the ability to put inexperienced defenseman more at ease and enable them to play within themselves.

– Cons – At the age of 33, it’s too soon to say Norrena is over the hill, but it would be nice to have a legitimate contender for his job under the age of 27.  If the staff decides not to go with a platoon system and give the top netminder 60-65 games, can Steady Freddy handle the load?

– If I were GM/Coach – Norrena is locked in for the next two seasons.  He starts this season as the No. 1 goalie, with the added task of assisting in the development of the much younger Pascal Leclaire.  The hope would be that he can help bring Leclaire into the realm of a very good young goalie.

Pascal Leclaire

– Age – 24

-Status – Signed through 2007-08

-Pros – Speed.  Pascal has the quickest reflexes we’ve seen of any goalie donning the CBJ crest.  Frequently comes up with saves that simply woud not have been possible with Tugnutt or Denis in net.

– Cons – Another young Blue Jacket who wears the scarlet letter of injury, Leclaire has never managed a full professional season without some time on the bench.  His resulting lack of consistent playing time has stunted his development.  Not being between the pipes for more than a few months at a time, it has to be hard for management to know if this is a franchise guy to invest in, or a short lived shooting star.

– If I were GM/Coach – I encourage a year-long training program to facilitate endurance and develop some toughness.  It seems that the new regime in Columbus is more encouraging of the fitness aspect of sports, and is not looking to repeat the Francois Beauchemin mistake.  Leclaire has the ability to be a top goalie in the league, but even Martin Brodeur couldn’t win a Vezina from the press box.

Tomas Popperle

– Age – 22

-Status – Signed through 2007-08

-Pros – Had a good year in Syracuse, his first season in North America.  Popperle has the potential to challenge for a position in the next few years.

– Cons – He has not played enough in Columbus (mop up duty in two games only) for me to form an opinion, but I will list inexperience as a con.  On the bright side of this, Popperle is only 22 years old.

– If I were GM/Coach – I keep Tomas in Syracuse this year, and don’t call him up unless I absolutely have to.  He needs game experience, and as the No. 1 for the Crunch he will get it.  Sitting on the bench in Nationwide Arena he will not learn as much.  I’m very hopeful that the new management team will allow Popperle to develop properly and not rush him to flash-in-the-pan status.

Position overview

Experienced is not a word to describe the Blue Jackets netminders.  The three players listed above have a total of 116 game appearances between them.  Contrast that fact with this one: the top three Detroit netminders have a total of 1,319 game appearances.  Simply put, this is not exactly an area of strength in a developing organization.  The potential is there for many seasons of success, but there is a lot of growing up to do before that level is attained.

Talking heads around the country have mentioned Columbus as a potential landing spot for aged veterans like Ed Belfour and Sean Burke.  If I were in a position to do something about it, I’d let other teams take their chances with these guys.  Not that they couldn’t possibly help the Blue Jackets in the very short term, but it’s not a long term success strategy to throw the big money that would be required to lure one of these guys just to win a few games (right, Doug?!?).  More experienced teams with goaltending needs can afford the trade-off.  The Blue Jackets are not built to win now, and I see a move like that as a great detriment to “moving in the right direction.”

See the rest of the Spotlight Series here, or visit:

h1

Spotlight on: Defense

August 14, 2007

In a continuation of the season ending review process, here is my take on the defensemen in the organization.

Defense

Duvie Westcott

– Age – 29

-Status – Signed through 2009-10

-Pros – Westcott has shown flashes of being a hard-hitting player who positions himself fairly well in his own zone and still has a nose for the net in the other end.  Capable on the breakout and a decent skater, a healthy Westcott is easily a top-four man on this team.

– Cons – Duvie has been saddled with the label of injury prone, and I am willing to admit it is not an undeserved moniker.  Having missed a total of 61 games in the last two seasons will do that for you.  Westcott’s size is also a concern against the bigger forwards in the league.  He’s not afraid to take on any challenge, but sometimes that fearlessness can send a guy to the press box a little dazed.

– If I were GM/Coach – Duvie is around for the next three seasons, so there is no contract work to worry about.  I’d continue to drill the defensive aspects of the game, and encourage Westcott to develop his positional game and worry less about the big hit.  Brian Rafalski is another “undersized” defenseman who has not suffered any major injuries yet plays a sound game.  Duvie could pick a worse model to emulate.

Rostislav Klesla

– Age – 25

-Status – Signed through 2009-10

-Pros – A good-sized young blueliner, Klesla is a guy who loves to hit people.  His scoring touch is starting to emerge, and he has taken steps in maintaining a consistent approach to his game.

– Cons – Oft-injured, Rusty needs to make every effort to stay off the bench in the upcoming season.  Not the best skater in the world, he needs to be positionally sound as he lacks the ability to recover once burned.

– If I were GM/Coach – I’m hoping that this is the year Rusty blossoms into a top two talent (if only for this team).  Thrust into the NHL too early, Klesla has hopefully learned some valuable lessons going into his sixth season.  If Rusty’s development continues, his role as a young backbone of the team will be realized as ex-GM Doug MacLean always said it would.

Adam Foote

– Age – 35

-Status – Signed through 2007-08

-Pros – He has the captaincy at this time, so he must be a good leader, right?  I’m sorry, but at his age and price ($4.6M per year) it’s tough to call much of anything a positive.  Despite his lack of agility, Foote is still decent in his own zone.

– Cons – Adam has been injured more than one would like for such an expensive team leader, missing 40 games in the last two years (for those of you keeping track at home, that’s almost $2.25 million paid to a guy sitting on the bench).  Foote also seems to have a knack for taking a careless penalty (hooking, roughing, high-sticking) when the team least needs it.  Not to mention his comments this summer about (paraphrased) wishing he’d never come to Columbus.  True or not, this seems to run counter to the definition of leadership to me.

– If I were GM/Coach – I let Adam play out his final year on his contract as a 5 or 6 defenseman, doing some time on the penalty kill unit (when it’s not him in the box), and wave goodbye to the Foote family in mid-April.  If the opportunity presents itself to unload Adam at the trade deadline, I’d consider almost any offer.  I don’t suspect that much more than a late round draft pick or two would be available in return, but that seems fair.

Ron Hainsey

– Age – 26

-Status – Signed through 2007-08

-Pros – Another young defenseman who is showing signs of becoming an NHL mainstay, Hainsey moves well with and without the puck, and is by far the best skater on the team’s blueline.

– Cons – Ron could use polish in all areas of his game.  He is not great in any one aspect at this time, and could use a little grit to go with his flash.

– If I were GM/Coach – I believe Ron has the potential to be a producer for the club, and I’d work on getting him locked up for two or three years.  He will likely see a lot of power play time, and it would be nice to see him develop the skills that enable Hitchcock to trust him in all situations.

Ole-Kristian Tollefsen

– Age – 23

-Status – Signed through 2008-09

-Pros – A decent defensive defenseman, Tollefsen is another guy who loves to hit.  Not afraid to drop the gloves to protect himself and his teammates, OK is one of the tougher Blue Jackets in terms of pure physical grit.

– Cons – Still lacking polish in most areas of his game, Tollefsen is a guy who has a lot to learn about the NHL game as a whole.  His penchant for the big hit sometimes leaves him out of position.

– If I were GM/Coach – OK will see a lot of time at even strength and on the penalty kill.  If he can keep himself healthy, he will be important to any success the club may have.  Looking beyond this year and working on the assumption that Jody Shelley will not be retained, Tollefsen looks like the major physical force of the CBJ.  I’d make sure he’s ready for that role.

Marc Methot

– Age – 21

-Status – Signed through 2007-08
-Pros – A late-season call-up in 2007, Methot proved to be a solid defensive specialist in his limited action with the big club.

– Cons – Not a name you’ll see much on the scoreboard.

– If I were GM/Coach – Methot will be one of many players vying for one of the final spots on the defensive corps in training camp.  He provides a steadiness in the defensive zone that is sometimes (often?) lacking on this team.

Position overview

A dangerous combination of youth/inexperience and an over the hill veteran, the Blue Jackets defenseman are being touted as a club weakness again as they have been pretty much every season since the franchise’s inception.  If a few of the young guys experience or continue their breakthrough play while staying healthy, and the aging vet can find a way to remain relevant, this unit could surprise a few people.  On the other hand, it could be another copy+paste season for the CBJ D-men.  Swiss cheese they’ve been, what will it be this year?

In the system

The Blue Jackets signed unrestricted free agent Jan Hejda from Edmonton to a one-year contract.  He only has 39 games of NHL experience at the age of 29, but does have plenty of experience in the Czech and Russian leagues.  I don’t recall seeing him play, so I don’t have a personal opinion, but it seems from Edmonton fans that this is a guy that may be missed.  So we’ll see what kind of guy he is in a few months.

Other defenseman that may see time in Columbus this year: Filip Novak (saw 6 games with the Jackets late last season), Sheldon Brookbank (last year’s AHL Defenseman of the Year), and Kris Russell (highly touted CBJ prospect I’d expect to see in Syracuse this season).

Bryan Berard is still an unsigned unrestricted free agent and will not be back with Columbus.  Anders Eriksson was signed as a free agent by Calgary, and Aaron Johnson was not tendered a qualifying offer as a restricted free agent and later signed with the New York Islanders.

If the club is to improve and have any shot at “being in it” in March, the blueliners will have to improve.  It’s as simple as that.  Lastly, the talk around Columbus in April and May was that Sergei Fedorov would be asked to play defense full-time.  In my unprofessional and uninformed opinion, I think this would be a huge mistake.  Overpaid or not, Sergei is more valuable as a center than as a defenseman.  As thin as the club may be on the blueline, they may be even thinner down the middle.

Stay tuned for the final installment in the 2007 Spotlight Series, the goaltenders.

h1

Dose of Reality #64

August 13, 2007

I got this email from the Blue Jackets today:

Monday, August 12 2007

2007-08 Blue Jackets Preview Videos

The regular season is less than two months away and Jeff Rimer and Bill Davidge could not wait to give you a breakdown of the entire season, month by month. Click here for the first installment, previewing opening night.

I’m excited about opening night festivities on Saturday, October 5, 2007. I don’t want to miss them!

-Truth Serum

h1

Dose of Reality #63

August 7, 2007

He’s back, before we even had time to rearrange the furniture.  The Tampa Bay Lightning are being sold, pending NHL approval, to a group that has none other than Doug MacLean in it.  And Doug has already announced that he will be Chairman and CEO, according to TSN.  How about that!  Now Jim Clarke will have a place to go.  The local car dealers must be crying about this one, hoping that Doug would be here when the 2008 models are released.

Seriously, I do have a few comments.  First, I think Doug will do better this time around.  He surely has learned from the mistakes he made in Columbus and will be smarter.  Another thing is that he gets to run an existing team, not starting from scratch like he did with the Blue Jackets.  As much as this hurts, I think he will win the Cup before Columbus does.

The other side is this:  According to the local press, MacLean says his likes current Bolts coach John Tortorella.  Torts is a screamer and ass-kicker, so it will be interesting to see if Doug enjoys watching a clone of himself behind the bench, but a clone that has won the Cup.  And how do you think Marc Denis is feeling now?  MacLean has taken a lot of shots at Marc and now he gets to sign his paychecks, which are now much larger than they were in Columbus.  Will Denis find Post-It notes on his checks?

Finally, can you imagine how much fun the NHL meetings are going to be for the CBJ management now that they have to sit down next to Dougie again?

Look for a real estate transaction in the Arena District now with J. Douglass MacLean’s name on it.

Truth Serum