Sometimes the atmosphere around an arena can become stale. I am not one who normally attends practice, and after experiencing an Arniel practice shortly after the new year had arrived, I was not really left with the need to attend another one. The drills were reasonable, and the effort was somewhat there, but the atmosphere was heavily lacking. With that said, I attended my first Todd Richards practice on Monday morning, and I must say, the difference was clear.
Players were upbeat and into the drills with quite a bit of effort. When the time was appropriate, they enjoyed ribbing each other for scoring or not scoring, and were giving Mason (the goalie who happened to be on our side of the ice) all kinds of cheering when he made a big save. Dorsett, Boll, Brassard, and Prospal were the most audible for me, and there were times when I was openly laughing at their antics. I would never suggest that the team play to the fans during their practices, but I truly enjoyed watching some of the character bleed out.
The drills themselves were very satisfying to watch. High compete level with specific parts of their game in mind, and I'll share a couple here. The first drill is designed to have a forward head into the zone with the puck and take a shot on net. Once that has been accomplished, two skaters take the puck the other way on a two on one, and the job of the original shot taker is to back check hard to try and get back into the play before the shot is taken on the opposite end. It is a very creative way of getting the back checker a bit tired first, not unlike how he would feel in a game.
The second drill I really liked was designed for two players to shoot on the goalie uncontested. The first player would have to beat a pylon aka coach on the bottom of the faceoff circle, and would then make a pass to the middle for a one timer. Once that shot was taken, they would attempt to score on the rebound if there was one. This is a great drill for the Jackets who I don't think we see enough one timers from, and for Sanford and Mason who have been dealing with such attempts for much of the year.
The last thing about practice I wanted to mention was how much I truly enjoyed how vocal Todd Richards was. I can't really comment on his presence in the locker room or anything like that, but he was extremely vocal during the practice, and engaged the players beyond the whiteboard, which I really appreciated. I have yet to see something about him that bothers me.
Moving on to the last couple games, I want to talk a bit about some of the things that have really popped out at me. I will be drawing my assessments directly from the Phoenix and San Jose games, because I feel that is a realistic time to give Richards and the team an opportunity to get acquainted and discuss some on ice changes.
First, I really, truly like the current lines. Nash and Brassard have seemingly found a bit of chemistry, and while Vinny seems to be aging quickly as the season progresses, I find that line to be relevant again (more on a couple of those players later). Secondary to that, I am a big fan of the Vermette, Kubalik, and Johansen line. Maybe more for the potential that rests on this line, but I feel like it is very dynamic and can play a number of different styles successfully.
Specifically on Rick Nash, and maybe this deserves an entire post, but I have been seriously satisfied with his on ice production over the last two games. He has shown a ton of determination, and his legs have been moving a lot more than in the last twenty games or so. I know I have been hyper critical of his playing this year, but if he continues on the path he's taken since Richards came aboard, I will be following up with a long post about the necessity to retain him.
Brassard is another player I think has truly benefited from the coaching change. Obviously the disconnect between him and former head coach Scott Arniel was visible to all following the team, but the constant demotions and line bouncing really seemed to affect Brass. Since Richards came on and brought him alongside Nash and Prospal, he has seemed to shine, being aggressive at the right times, and finding the back of the net. If you don't follow Brassard's career closely, two of his major criticisms have been his inability to get physical along the boards, and his inability to take the shot in an opportune moment (he's big on passing). Both, at least in the last couple games, have become short term solutions to his game.
- I am excited for the Gillies acquisition. It's going to fill out the fourth line well and from everything I have read, there is upside. He is a former first rounder with decent hands and a big body. If he can take the Nikitin approach and fit in with the team, this could be another Howson-esque move that makes you think back and really appreciate it.
- Dane Byers is kind of a bad decision maker. No reason to make that hit against San Jose, and he's paying for it with a three game suspension (and surprisingly not more at that). Laughably enough, with the Gillies acquisition, I can bet Byers wouldn't be seeing the ice anyways.
- Mason took some serious reps in the practice yesterday. There seems to be a concentrated effort to get him working on the major faults of his game, and I can't help but be optimistic about what it may generate in the near future. With Dekanich playing decently well in Springfield and Sanford remaining solid in Columbus, it will be very interesting to see the goalie battle play out over the next couple weeks
- Can there be enough good things to say right now about Johnny Moore? He's a kid who has truly taken the ball and run with it, and I can't be more excited for him. I am still optimistic that he can be a top two defensive solution for Columbus in the long run, and hopefully his work this year is the true starting point of that.
- Columbus just keeps showing up. Attendance was 16,582 (91.4%) on Saturday and 14,119 (77.9%) on Friday. This for a team who is in last place by eight points. Still think Columbus can't hack it as a hockey market? Kudos to those of you who have attended games.
Carry the Flag!