Monday, November 21, 2011

Columbus Players Look to Goalie for Confidence

This will not be an admission of being wrong.  In fact, I long discussed this fact last year while Mason and Garon shared time in net for the Jackets, but it is getting impressively accurate at this point.  The team flat out plays better when Mason is not in net.  I have read a lot of discussion regarding Mason's time being done in Columbus, and I feel like I have been looking at it entirely the wrong way.  Where I looked at it as an inability for him to simply take over games the way he did in his Calder year, I really needed to start considering the simple mentality of the team in front of him.

I think this team can function with a mid level goaltender behind them.  When they are structurally sound in the defensive end, and the back checkers do their jobs by not allowing trailers to take free shots from the high slot, it seems that the system (when played correctly) allows for even a goalie like Sanford to come in and be competitive.  I've seen this before, with some of the goalies that have passed through the Philadelphia system over the last couple of years.  While they are in need of making quality saves, rarely is the focus solely on them to win games, at least until the playoffs arrive.

If that is the case in Columbus, where a thirty plus goalie who has never really been that significant in his NHL career can come in and create the type of effort in his teammates that Curtis Sanford has, I can't help but wonder whether it's worth making any significant change to the back end right now.  With Dekanich hurt, and Mason recovering from a concussion, the Jackets have the time to wait it out and see if Sanford can continue producing sound goaltending through solid positional hockey, while the players in front of him continue to step up.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Game Recap :: Columbus vs. Boston 11/17

At some point in the last couple weeks, my expectations for the Blue Jackets on ice quality changed.  Admittedly I am still in the opinion that when playing to their potential, they can compete with any team in the National Hockey League, but that effort is so rarely seen, it's hardly even worth discussing at this point of the season.

They took the ice last night, but they didn't really show up.  More perimeter hockey for long stretches of the game left me bored and frustrated, and once again the secondary line of Letestu, Johansen, and Prospal appeared to be the most effective line for the Jackets.  I was pretty surprised when they didn't come out with lots of passion, as they have brought their dads on the trip to watch the suck.  I can remember playing in front of my dad as a youth and I will readily say I fought with every ounce of effort to get into his good graces.  It would seem those days are gone for most of the Jackets players.

A hot topic for most of the night was the success that goaltender Curtis Sanford had between the pipes, which is true.  With that said, I think there was a lot of overreaction regarding what his spot in the depth chart should be.  Certainly he played well enough to win THAT game, but he faced a truly listless Boston team that really didn't force him to make more than a handful of tough saves, including a couple shots in overtime that more hit him than forced him to make an actual save on the play.  If you want to gage the true quality of the Boston play, look no further than Joe Haggerty breaking down the weak effort by the Bruins on Bruins Talk.  With that in mind, I have to look at this next laughable quote from Portzline who apparently wasn't watching the same game as Haggerty or me:

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

My Issues with Rick Nash: Minnesota Version

Earlier today, the excellent Matt Wagner posted a great piece on Blue Jackets captain Rick Nash over at the Cannon. He makes some excellent points about what may be weighing on Nash, but in my opinion there are many problems with Nash's play lately that could be fixed easily. Both @Canadan82 and myself have been critical of Nash, so I thought I would break down Nash's game from last night and try and show the aspects of his play that have been so frustrating. Before I get started let me say that I am still a huge fan of Rick Nash, as he has a package of size and talent that is matched by only a handful of players. I've watched Nash for over a decade now (starting during his time in the OHL with London) and have long thought that he would eventually break out into a true superstar and put up the numbers to go with it. However, his play as of late suggests a regression. This has nothing to do with an erosion of his skill, or his quiet leadership style, or Nash trying to do too much. Armed with the game film and Nash's time on ice, let's look for some examples from last nights game.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Game Recap :: Columbus vs Chicago 11/10

Once again, my love for a listless team had me convinced that making the drive up highway 71 to Columbus was a good idea.  I had to believe that after a half of a week off following a 9-2 throttling at the hands of Philadelphia, the team would come out hungry.  The pre game was great, with delicious Chipotle devoured and enjoyable conversation with some fellow Blue Jackets fans, but painfully, and not surprisingly, my night peaked there.

Arniel's "new system" looked like a penalty kill.  Drawn off the forecheck, the Jackets watched as the Blackhawks poured on the offense and with it, two goals against. Where Columbus was not effective, Chicago was.  In fact, the most notable decision made in the first period was Nash breaking into the offensive zone with the puck.  Drawn well to the outside and below the faceoff dot, Nash took a high shot that was swallowed by Crawford, instead of taking a low shot to the far post trying to generate a rebound.  Shortly following, Duncan Keith traveled almost exactly the same way into the Jacket zone, but instead of taking a bad shot, he took a low shot to the far post, causing a kick save.  Poor coverage by Vermette gave Toews an opportunity all alone, and he would not make a mistake.

In net, Mason was decent, but not incredible.  He made some exceptional saves, yet gave up a pretty weak goal to Toews from a brutal angle (although to Toews credit, unlike Nash, he took a solid shot from the corner).  Let's review the goals against:

Goal 1 :: Passing through Columbus, Keith finds the puck on his stick breaking down the right side.  He takes a shot from almost the goal line low and left, creating a rebound which is buried by Toews left alone in front.

Goal 2 :: Leddy walks through a number of Blue Jackets players and deals to Toews, who is defended (arguably) and takes a solid shot that beats Mason either far post or through the five hole.

Goal 3 :: Kruger is fed the puck to the right of the net low, and curls for a shot which Mason saves.  Four Blue Jackets converge on the net, including Moore who overcommits and makes contact with Mason, leaving two Chicago players alone with the puck. Rebound is buried.

Goal 4 :: Montador left completely alone in the slot generates a pass from Keith in the corner. He one times the puck while Tyutin pokes towards him, and the shot beats Mason.  Wisniewski was the secondary defenseman on the play, and I believe he was covering the boards between Keith and the Chicago player behind the net.

Goal 5 :: Propsal flings a pass to no one, and leads Chicago on a breakout.  Tyutin had pinched on the original play, leaving only Wisniewski to over commit on Carcillo giving Kane a breakaway after the easy pass.  Pat Kane, on a breakaway...  hmm..

Goal 6 :: A point shot by Chicago is saved by Mason, along with a follow up shot with the scramble in front.  Unfortunately, Mason is not able to make a third save and Chicago scores.  Not really sure where the defenders sticks were on this one.

I will agree with most who argue that Mason is not playing the role of a top tier goaltender right now.  That is about as far as I am willing to go though.  Of the six goals, we see four goals on account of players uncontested in front of the net, all on rebounds.  A fifth goal generated by awful defense causing a breakaway, and finally a goal that I can rest solely on the shoulders of Mason.  It is not ideal, and I look forward to seeing Dekanich deal with these massive defensive lapses, but at what point does this defensive mediocrity begin to really get questioned by the team?

Another notably bad thing I took from the game is how often Columbus gained possession of the puck, only to flip it to center ice or into the Chicago zone with no real likelihood of retaining possession.  It seemed very interesting that they allowed Chicago to walk through them, yet could not manage to do the same against them. If that isn't a cry for help regarding the Jackets breakout, I really don't know what is.  It was ugly, and watching it got very old, very quickly.

A startling statistic is that of James Wisniewski, who many believed to be solution the Blue Jackets so badly needed on defense, has been one of the worst players on this team looking solely at the scoresheet.  In his last three games, he has not been able to produce a point and is a team worst -11.  In his defense, he has been forced to make a high number of stretch passes to lead the rush which have not surprisingly lead to turnovers and goals against, but he has also been on the wrong end of mediocre defensive decisions.

The problems of this team are far too great to even bother trying to wrap up into one recap.  The only thing that is clear to me now is that my interest in this team is likely going to be limited to viewing on screen, not live, until they either (A) find a new coach -or- (B) make a serious trade.  Russell for Nikitin is a logical move in that they swap out redundant 6/7 speed and replace it with 6/7 grit, but it is not even close to resolving the issues that plague the team.  Letestu was a trade I was pleased with, but again, it will not come close to being enough to being the change this team needs so badly.

The country club mentality in Columbus needs to stop now.

Carry the Flag.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Week in the Madness :: 2-11-1 Edition

I have been notably silent over the last week as the dust settled from the 9-2 loss the team suffered against Philadelphia last Saturday.  With the level of speculation, overreaction, and sense of abandonment at an all time high, I felt it necessary to limit my thoughts to 140 characters and try to find solutions without falling back on knee jerk reactions.  Needless to say, this post comes at the back end of many deleted, semi rant-ish posts that really served no purpose.

It is true, we still have the same personnel in place that we have had since the start of the season.  While it may seem somewhat ridiculous (and many analysts have made note of it) that no sweeping changes to coaching, management, or the roster have been made, it provides an almost unreasonable consistency in what is shaping up to be a pretty painful year.  It is also true that the only major roster change between Saturday and today has been the acquisition of Mark Letestu from Pittsburgh, a player who seems destined to start his career with the Blue Jackets on the bottom six after a rocky start to his sophomore campaign.

Letestu is a talented player who simply could not play his way into the ridiculously deep Pittsburgh lineup. This should not be received as a negative towards him, but a credit to the depth of the Penguins team.  He will provide a spark on the bottom line that I believe Arniel has been hunting for, while at the same time actually having enough and potential to make plays happen.  He also boasts a strong faceoff win percentage, but is versatile enough to play on the wing if need be.  I consider this a solid move considering he is only on the books for around 600-650k for this season and next, but I suspect Howson is a long ways from being able to throw his feet up on the desk.

For the better part of a week I have watched and read as Mason received the brunt of the blame (on average) for the porous start and have read as folks demand his removal for a handful of different scenarios, including veteran netminders like Nabokov, Backstrom, Turco, and even a shoutout to Thomas.  The more cost effective option would be to anticipate the healthy return of unproven (but primed) Dekanich, who has every indication of being a solid NHL performer, but has yet to play an entire game at the NHL level.

For the record, I wholly support Dekanich in a large role for the Jackets.  This summer, I was hoping to see a goaltender like Vokoun or Harding get picked up by the Jackets.  This would provide Mason with a secondary, competitive goaltender who can be a part of a 1A/1B goaltending unit.  Splitting time for the most part and riding the hot hand through the season is always a great way of keeping the goalies competitive, and Mason and his lack of confidence/maturity could have room to grow without feeling the entire weight on the franchise on his shoulders.  The Dekanich signing surprised me, but his numbers looked very strong in the minors, and he (unlike Mason) had been given the time needed in the Nashville system to develop into a complete goaltender.

It has been unfortunate that "dexshow" has been out of commission for over a month to start the season, but I think there is real potential here for both goalies.  I think moving Mason at this point would be awfully brash considering how mediocre the rest of the team has been, and having only 3.5 million tied up in goaltending is a big benefit to the team.  Dekanich will be an RFA this coming summer, which gives him a fair chance of showing his abilities in order to obtain a solid contract, and it gives Mason the room to find his game under pressure without the walls caving in.

The breakout, the defense, and special teams have been significantly bad since the last time I discussed them.  Rather than beating a truly dead horse for too long, I will simply look to tonight as an indication of the quality that can be expected in the coming weeks.  That said, here are the few changes I would make moving forward;

The breakout would seemingly be the easiest of the three to fix, with forwards reducing their distance from the defenseman trying to make a pass.  Creativity by way of moving east and west in the neutral zone rather than pushing north south would be a great start to give the breakout pass a higher success rate.

Defensively I see no real reason why the Jackets can't play the way they did in front of York both in Chicago and against Toronto.  Collapsing towards the net and clogging up the slot rather than chasing will force the opposition to either take low percentage shots from the outside or force passes through closed lanes, allowing for a Columbus transition up the ice.

It's hard to deny the possession game of Columbus has been stronger than what we are used to seeing, but the shots by the offense have to become substantially more competitive.  Two out of the maybe five or so real scoring opportunities against Philadelphia resulted in goals.  Of the almost forty shots against Toronto, Scrivens may have been forced to make less than a handful of impressive saves.  They are going to need to find the outside of the net better, ideally scoring a few off the bar.

Special teams... Well... Repetition is poison.. They have to be better.

I will be back to review the game against Chicago tomorrow morning.  In the meantime, feel free to comment on what changes you would want to make if the Jackets were to stay pat with their roster.  Play coach for a day and let me know what your glaring changes would be!

Carry the Flag!

Friday, November 4, 2011

A False Narrative: Why a New Goaltender Won't Fix Everything

Steve Mason was bad against Toronto. There is no getting around that fact. This has led to the many Blue Jackets fans crying out for a new starting goaltender, be it Cory Schneider, Jonathan Bernier or even Allen York. This is seen by some as the logical starting place for the moves that need to be made. I understand how they came to this conclusion. Mason is bad, therefore the team doesn't trust him, therefore they play differently, therefore Mason is holding the team back. That string of conclusions is entirely logical. However, it does not track with how the Blue Jackets have played.

Game Recap: Columbus vs Toronto 11/3

This should be interesting.. I'm going to go ahead and scratch the typical intro. Let's get right into it:


The hot topic of fans last night I am sure.  Mason had an underwhelming night from the start, giving up four goals before being yanked early in the second period.  Per usual, let's run through the goals:

1 - Joey Crabb receives a pass by Lupul and is all alone in the slot. Mason cuts across and tries to cut the angle and gets beat glove side just under the cross bar. Fault Defense, and here's why:

Wisniewski makes a stretch pass from the goal line that Nash tips at the blue line.  It lands on a Toronto stick and the play is made to Lupul who gains the offensive zone as seen in the following picture. Four Blue Jackets players converge on him including Nash and MacKenzie. Nash takes the puck carrier while MacKenzie takes the middle of the ice near the blueline.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Breaking Down the Penalty Kill

The Blue Jackets currently rank 30th in the NHL on the penalty kill, with a paltry 71.4% being killed without a goal. While that rate wouldn't be the worst all time (that dishonor belongs to the 1979-90 Kings at 67.7%), it would put the current Blue Jackets squad among the ten worst penalty killing teams since the NHL began keeping track of the stat in 1963. Despite the current run of eight straight killed penalties over the last two games, the Blue Jackets could make some small adjustments that would help improve the unit. To figure out these adjustments, lets go to the tape!