2010-2011 NHL season preview: Columbus Blue Jackets

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ricknash2.jpgLast season: (32-35-15, 79 points, 5th in Central Division,14th in Western Conference) To put it bluntly, the Blue Jackets were not good. They fired Ken Hitchcock halfway through the season and let Claude Noel ride things out the rest of the way. They were disjointed, they were bad defensively and they couldn’t score a lick. At least they scored a solid first-round draft pick out of that mess in Ryan Johansen.

Head coach: Scott Arniel takes over as coach and with that he’s going to try and bring in a puck-possession style, transitioning Columbus from a lock-down defense-first team to a team meant to keep the puck and pressure offensively. That doesn’t usually go too well as it takes time to play things out and get the players that fit the system best. Just ask the Minnesota Wild how they’re doing in the post-Lemaire era. Arniel will have his hands full negotiating through a system change. Hopefully GM Scott Howson can be patient with him through it.

Key departures: None. Seriously, they didn’t lose anyone of significance.

Key arrivals: F Ethan Moreau, F Nikita Filatov. Moreau comes over from the Oilers via waiver claim while Filatov returns from Russia after being essentially exiled by Hitchcock. The offensively-starved Blue Jackets could use a guy like Filatov breaking out and fulfilling his potential.

Under pressure: I’m going a little off the radar here and picking on Derick Brassard. When Brassard broke in, he had immediate chemistry with team leader Rick Nash. One injury later, Brassard hasn’t been the same player he appeared he was going to be and on a team that’s in desperate need of having a playmaker on the first line with Nash. Brassard’s regression (36 points and just seven goals last season) was a huge letdown. He’s making $3.2 million against the cap for the next four seasons so it’s high time he steps up and plays like a guy meant to earn that.

stevemason1.jpgProtecting the house: The Blue Jackets will again roll with Steve Mason and Mathieu Garon in goal. The 2009 Calder Trophy winner is coming off a nightmarish season, giving new meaning to the term ‘sophomore slump.’ His save percentage went from .916 in his rookie season to .901 and his goals against average went from 2.29 to 3.06 while recording only half as many shutouts (five compared to 10 the season before). While he benefited from Hitchcock’s system two years ago, he struggled behind it last season and was often left in games to take a beating. If his confidence is shaken, Mason’s struggles could resurface again. Garon is just a backup goalie at this point and if they need to fall back on him to save the team, the Jackets are in big trouble.

Defensively, this team is as weak as it gets. They lack a true shutdown defenseman, they lack a true power play quarterback offensively and while they’ve got nice role fillers they have no absolute presence here. Mike Commodore is a solid defensive defenseman and Anton Stralman has a good shot from the point, but after that things get really iffy. Jan Hejda, Kris Russell, Fedor Tyutin, and lifetime Blue Jacket Rostislav Klesla round out the pack. Marc Methot and Grant Clitsome help fill in when needed. If the team wasn’t concerned with finances they’d likely make a move for a guy like Sheldon Souray or Tomas Kaberle to improve things.

Top line we’d like to see: Let’s get creative. Filatov-Brassard-Nash. Nash has been working out some in camp at right wing so why not give him the playmaker he once had chemistry with in Brassard and a dangling potential star in Filatov and just let them run wild on the ice to see what they can create. This team desperately needs something exciting out on the ice and the slick skating of Filatov mixed with the skill and power of Nash could be a lot of fun. If Filatov isn’t your cup of tea, change it to Jakub Voracek and let them get rough and tumble out there with a wrecking ball-ish line.

Oh captain, my captain: Nash is the captain and much like Jarome Iginla in Calgary, he’s the whole show and the whole reason people want to watch their team. On a team severely lacking in offense last season, Nash still scored 33 goals to lead the team. He tries to lead by example doing everything he possibly can to help the team win and God love him, but there’s only so much a single man can do. The only thing left to wonder about this season is how many alternate captains will Nash have as his executive committee. The current Blue Jackets roster lists off six players as wearing the ‘A.’ That’s just goofy.

jaredboll1.jpgStreet fighting man: If there’s anything the Jackets have been good at over the years it’s fighting. Whether it was Jody Shelley back in the day or David Ling getting the call out of the minors to run around and be a maniac, they always had fighters going for them. Now it’s up to Jared Boll to be the one to show them the way of the fist. Last season, Boll had 21 fighting majors and with a holy terror like Derek Dorsett running around and creating havoc, Boll’s job is a tough one. Not that Dorsett has anything against dropping the gloves — he had seven fighting majors last season — but Boll is the heavyweight with Dorsett the cruiserweight.

Best-case scenario: If Brassard can regain his form and abilities with Nash, they both can have huge seasons. With Antoine Vermette, Kristian Huselius and Voracek doing their part as well. Columbus can have two solid scoring lines. The forwards play the way they look like they can and all play their roles to the max and get strong, serviceable play from the defense while Mason regains his rookie-season form, the Blue Jackets could push for a playoff spot. That’s a lot of ifs and variables, however.

Worst-case scenario: Brassard continues to struggle and Nash goes without a guy that can help set him up. Filatov and Voracek have middling seasons while guys like Vermette and R.J. Umberger check in with average seasons that seem better in comparison because the team is struggling. The defense plays as bad as advertised and Mason plays more like he did last season and the Blue Jackets are instant front-runners for the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft.

Keeping it real: With as much promise as there is with this team with guys like Voracek, Brassard and Filatov, along with a guaranteed producer like Nash, there’s reasons to be hopeful. It’s just a question of when or if it’ll be fulfilled. With the brand of hockey that Arniel wants to play, however, he doesn’t have the players in place to make that successful right away. Counting on breakout seasons for the young guys they’ve got is wishful thinking. For now, this is not a playoff team and may still end up being one of the worst in the league.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale of 1-5, with one being the worst and five being the best, the Blue Jackets are a definitive 1. They’re in no way a threat to win the Stanley Cup. They barely have a defensive unit fit to win the Calder Cup in the AHL, and their scoring depth, while loaded with all kinds of potential has to show up in a big way to clear up any kinds of doubts. Mason is coming off a terrible season that casts doubts on his ability to carry a team. Unless Arniel catches lightning in a bottle the way Joe Sacco did in Colorado last year, this team isn’t even a threat to make the playoffs.

It’s Calgary Flames day at PHT

PHILADELPHIA, PA - FEBRUARY 29: Sean Monahan #23 of the Calgary Flames celebrates his goal with teammates against the Philadelphia Flyers during the first period at Wells Fargo Center on February 29, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.(Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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If you want to boil the Calgary Flames’ past two seasons down simply, you could do worse than this:

In 2014-15: Bob Hartley won the Jack Adams Award.

In 2015-16: The Flames fired Bob Hartley.

The Flames finished this past season with 77 standings points, missing the playoffs for the sixth time in the last seven years.

While Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan survived the sophomore curse, the Flames couldn’t survive in their own end. No team allowed more goals than the 260 Calgary surrendered last season. It cost people some jobs, most notably that of Hartley.

Off-season

Naturally, the first big change in Calgary comes with Glen Gulutzan replacing Hartley behind the bench.

Much like the team he’s coaching, Gulutzan needs to get over some past failures (he failed to make the playoffs during his two seasons coaching the Dallas Stars) but is young enough (45) to argue that the best days are ahead.

To little surprise, the Flames decided that Karri Ramo, Jonas Hiller and Joni Ortio isn’t necessarily the group of goalies to get things done. The Flames brought in two-time All-Star Brian Elliott to try to right the ship.

The Flames didn’t stop there, adding Chad Johnson as Elliott’s backup. With a .917 career save percentage, Johnson could very well keep Elliott on his toes.

Aside from big improvements behind the bench and in the net, the Flames’ most noteworthy work came in extending Sean Monahan,* picking up Troy Brouwer and landing Matthew Tkachuk in the draft.

Calgary is making a lot of strong moves, but did they make enough to climb back into the postseason in 2016-17? PHT will explore these factors on Saturday.

* – Naturally, the biggest move needs to come soon: also handing an extension to Gaudreau.

Avalanche’s new head coach Bednar is at least saying the right things

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via Colorado Avalanche
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Look, there are exceptions, but new head coach press conferences feature the same basic terms and buzzwords.

After witnessing the high-octane Pittsburgh Penguins skate opponents ragged on their way to the 2016 Stanley Cup, any reasonable coach would throw “speed” into their phrasing.

Still, the Colorado Avalanche have been so deeply buried by even the most basic of modern measurements that you had to wonder: would they learn from Patrick Roy’s struggles? Can someone come in and at least attempt to keep up with the pack?

We won’t know for sure anytime soon, but hey, at least Jared Bednar seems to be saying the right things as he transitions from the AHL to the Avalanche’s head coaching gig.

When discussing his hire with NHL Network, Bednar seemed confident that his style in the AHL – “Up-tempo, aggressive style in all three zones of the rink” – will translate well in Colorado.

That interview hits the beats you’d expect from job interviews beyond hockey. There’s even a “detail-oriented” bit.

(If you space out, you might just assume there’s a mention of thinking outside the box, like every corporate interview in human history.)

Still, it’s OK to settle for baby steps, especially considering the tough situation Patrick Roy created in abruptly skipping town. For many, it might just be comforting to note that Bednar doesn’t outright dismissive “analytics” or “fancy stats.”

Mile High Hockey brings up a great point: if nothing else, the spotlight will shift from the Avalanche’s flamboyant head coach to the talented core of young players.

So, not only is Colorado bringing in a coach who is as savvy with spreadsheets as he is with the wipe-off board, but he’s going to allow the players to crawl out from under Roy and finally earn their own accomplishments. This is every bit as important as fixing the breakout play or eliminating the Collapse-O-Rama™ defensive system.

(Collapse-O-Rama, huh? Can we stash that term for future use regarding another coach or two?)

Bednar isn’t a retread, so we only know so much about what to expect.

There are positive early signs. Roll your eyes all you want, we have seen more than a few successful transitions from AHL glory (Bednar just won the Calder Cup) to the NHL.

He’s not necessarily anti-information and seems at least interested in implementing modern, attacking systems. Attacking systems that, theoretically, would best suit the talents of a gifted-but-flawed group.

It all feels a little vague, but then again, it’s not even September yet. So far, so good.

One way or another, Al Montoya will be important to Canadiens

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 02:  Goalie Al Montoya #35 of the Florida Panthers looks on in the second period against the Washington Capitals at Verizon Center on February 2, 2016 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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This is part of Canadiens day at PHT …

Here’s an unsolicited opinion: a good backup goalie is often underrated.

Yes, getting a quality Plan B is easier said than done – goalies are an unpredictable lot – but it’s simple to see when it pays off.

(There are plenty of examples, but Matt Murray winning a Stanley Cup for the Pittsburgh Penguins is the shiniest one.)

Even if injuries aren’t a big issue, a No. 2 goalie is a pretty safe bet to play 20 games for a given team. In that regard, Al Montoya could be a significant upgrade over Mike Condon, and that could be important.

Waning workhorses

In 2015-16, no goalie played 70 regular season games. Jonathan Quick was the workhorse of the NHL with 68, while only 10 played at least 60. So, more than two-thirds of last season’s teams needed at least 24 games from their lesser-paid goalies.

Even in Carey Price‘s dominant 2014-15 campaign, he played 66 games while Dustin Tokarski was in net for 17.

Let’s ponder the outlook for a variety of scenarios as Price hopes to rebound from injury:

If Price resumes Vezina-caliber form

As PHT notes, Price seems confident that he’s at 100 percent.

That’s great … but what else is he going to say? Knee injuries can beguile just about any athlete.

He does admit that he’s getting up there in age a bit – relative to the sport, mind you – at 29. Earlier this summer, the Hockey News went over Montreal’s plan to scale Price’s workload a bit, injured or not.

So, even in a dream scenario, Montoya and/or Condon will still see plenty of reps.

If Price falters

The Canadiens are expected to live or die by Price. Let’s not kid ourselves.

The leash might not be very long for Michel Therrien if Price really falls on his face, however. A Condon-led Habs team stumbled terribly, but what might we see from Montoya being thrust into the spotlight for performance reasons?

  • With a .909 career save percentage, Montoya’s experienced his stumbles in the NHL. Montreal has to hope he follows more of the path from strong showings in 2013-14 (13-8-3, .920 save percentage with Winnipeg) and 2015-16 (12-7-3, .919 save percentage with Florida).

Long story short, there were flashes of the brilliance you’d expect from a guy who went sixth overall in 2004.

  • The good news is that he’s accustomed to a fairly heavy backup duty. He set a career-high with 31 games played and 26 starts with the Islanders in 2011-12. Including that season, he’s enjoyed 20+ appearances in five of his last six seasons.
  • The bad news is that he hasn’t ever even carried half of a season’s workload so …

Yes, a Price re-injury would be disastrous

Montoya hasn’t been “the guy” before, certainly not in a pressure-cooker like Montreal. Condon’s opportunity didn’t go especially well.

One can understand ownership giving Therrien and GM Marc Bergevin something of a “Price pass” after 2015-16, but would there be the same level of acceptance if they couldn’t thrive without their star goalie again? You’d have to ask about lessons learned.

***

Long story short, Montoya matters to Montreal. The Canadiens just have to hope that he doesn’t matter too much.

 

Ducks lock up 2016 first-rounder Max Jones

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 24:  Max Jones poses for a portrait after being selected 24th overall by the Anaheim Ducks in round one during the 2016 NHL Draft on June 24, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Jeffrey T. Barnes/Getty Images)
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The Anaheim Ducks handed their 2016 first-round draft pick Max Jones an entry-level contract on Friday.

Anaheim selected Jones 24th overall. It looks like he’s getting a pretty typical rookie deal, according to reporters including NHL.com’s Curtis Zupke.

In PHT’s “Get to Know a Draft Pick” series, THN’s Ryan Kennedy described Jones as “a power forward who can make you look silly with his offensive moves or simply plow you through the boards.”

Jones was one of three London Knights players who went in the first round in 2016, following Olli Juolevi (fifth overall) and Matthew Tkachuk (sixth overall). He certainly seemed to enjoy the team’s Memorial Cup victory:

You never really know for certain, but one would imagine that Jones may take a season or two to make it to the NHL level with the Ducks. From the sound of things, he’s in the sort of power forward mold that the team’s had a lot of success with.