Assessing Scott Arniel

During the off-season, Columbus Blue Jackets General Manager Scott Howson, after being informed that his leading head coaching candidate, Guy Boucher, turned down his offer to coach the Blue Jackets (Boucher took the Tampa Bay Lightning head coaching position, instead), offered the position to Scott Arniel, previously an assistant to Lindy Ruff with the Buffalo Sabres and the head coach of the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League (AHL).

Many in Columbus viewed the offer rejection as a snub and a slap in the face to the state of the organization and perception of Columbus in the National Hockey League (NHL). Further, it was believed that hiring Arniel may have been a case of settling for 2nd best.

Well, although at only 19 games into the season and while Boucher is doing a fine job coaching the Lightning, it’s looking more and more like the Arniel selection was the right choice after all.

The Blue Jackets have one of the best records in the NHL at 13-6-0 and they have done so in historical fashion, having recently pulled their first ever West Coast sweep of three of the better teams in the Western Conference, the Los Angeles Kings, the Anaheim Ducks and the San Jose Sharks, the last of which was the first time the Blue Jackets had won in the HP Pavilion in regulation.

Making the feat even more amazing was the combined home ice records of the three teams coming into their games against Columbus:  21-3-1

So, while early, I offer an assessment of how Scott Arniel is doing as a head coach. In order to assess his performance, to date, I do so by using certain factors and characteristics, as follows:

X’s and O’s – In assessing Arniel’s performance in this area, one should assess Arniel’s overall scheme, style and melding this approach with the current crop of players.  Arniel’s up-tempo system is reminiscent of the swarming style, particularly of the defensemen and the ability of the forwards supporting each other, to what the Buffalo Sabres have employed under Ruff. As mentioned above, Arniel was an assistant with the Sabres between 2002 and 2006.  In melding the scheme/system with the personnel, it is perhaps this area that has been most successful, to date. The Blue Jackets forwards, it appears, are tailor-made to play this type of system.

The greatest concern in the melding process going into the season was how the Blue Jackets current crop of defensemen, primarily those of the stay-at-home variety, would adapt to this system in which defensemen are often called upon to lead the offensive rush and to successfully be able to move the puck through all zones. While not as symmetrical a fit as the forwards, the defensemen’s ability to adapt to it has been quite surprising. Marc Methot, arguably the Blue Jackets best overall defenseman, has thrived quite well in this system. Additionally, traditional stay-at-home, borderline plodding defensemen such as Mike Commodore and Rusty Klesla have looked solid in their play and have even recently contributed well on the offensive end.

So, in assessing Arniel’s ability in this area – Grade: A

Game preparation – The Blue Jackets former head coach for the period from 2006-2010, Ken Hitchcock, was often lauded by both players and other coaches as the master of pre-game preparation. While perhaps the team’s personnel may not have been as adept at implementing the plan, there was no doubt that, given adequate time, Hitchcock could scheme with the best in the NHL. So, going in, being successful would be quite a tall order for any successor.

However, Arniel appears to be no slouch in this department, particularly when not given much time to prepare for an upcoming opponent, which is often the case when playing back-to-back games or in playing a stretch of several games over a few days.  For example, the Blue Jackets were successful in playing a gritty style against the Anaheim Ducks, yet changing course and employing a high-energy style against the San Jose Sharks.

Evidence of this preparation, particularly without the luxury of much preparation time, is evident in the Blue Jackets record in the second game of back-to-back contests:  4-0-0. Most notable is that three of those victories came immediately after losses, and two of those on the back end of blowout losses.

Perhaps the most impressive part of this performance is that the Blue Jackets have yet to experience consecutive losses. In fact, they are the only NHL team who has yet to experience that fate.

So, in assessing Arniel’s game preparation abilities – Grade:  A

Respect of the players – To best assess this factor, I offer what occurred when the Blue Jackets experienced their third blowout loss in their first ten games of the season, a 5-1 pasting at the hands of the Colorado Avalanche.  Rather than close the door and “peel the paint from the ceiling” with a “fire and brimstone” tongue lashing, something quite commonplace with Arniel’s predecessor, Hitchcock, Arniel did close the door to players-only. However, in this particular instance, rather than the “old school” approach, Arniel instead listened to the players reflect on their frustration.

Then Arniel sensed the long-term lingering feelings, both historically and particularly after last season’s disappointing season, and offered his insight as to how the team tended to get down in the room and on the bench. In doing so, Arniel knew what was wrong and what needed to change to break this cycle of defeatism. The result was winning six of their next eight games, and only one of the losses being of the blowout variety.

Arniel has gained the players’ respect and trust through his ability to build relationships and in his leadership abilities.  Arniel values two-way communication and the knowledge of what essentially drives individuals to succeed.  While his experience as a longtime NHL and AHL player and minor-league coach lend credibility, it is believed that his consistency in dealing with players and his genuine sincerity have had the greatest impact on the players respect for him.

So, in assessing the respect the Blue Jacket players have for Arniel – Grade:  A+

Ability to adjust during the game – This particular factor is often called “The game within the game”, and it deals with a coach’s ability to quickly assess what type of game plan or approach an opponent brings early in the game and adjust, accordingly.

And while the Blue Jackets have enjoyed a rousing, successful start (13-6), they generally have won almost all of the games in which they’ve scored the game’s first goal (10-1). This might speak more of a team’s resolve and ability to succeed in the face of adversity. However, the Blue Jackets are 3-5 when their opponent scores the game’s first goal. And while the Blue Jackets have garnered three come from behind victories, they have also been unable to adapt to an occasional opponents initial surge to an early lead, the result of which have been the blowout losses.

This appears to be an area in which Arniel may have to improve upon, particularly when facing an opponent who tries to knock the Blue Jackets out early.

So, in assessing Arniel’s ability to make in-game adjustments – Grade: B-

Motivation of players – The Blue Jackets have historically earned the not so flattering tag of “Club CBJ”, as in the vein of “Club Med”. Further, it is often been speculated as to whether this team has much of a “boiling point” as their reaction to disappointing losses is often seen by long faces and generally devoid of emotion.

And while it was believed, during the disappointing 2009-20100 season, that Hitchcock may have lost the message if not the team, Hitchcock often referred to the team’s lack of playing with a continued jump and intensity – to use the Hitchcock lexicon:  To compete and play heavy. So, in assessing Scott Arniel’s ability to motivate his players, it appears that a “reverse-Hitchcock” approach has been a rousing success.

While Hitchcock would often blister players with his assessment of their performance, or lack thereof, Arniel has employed the “speak softly and carry a big stick” approach to motivation. The two best examples are in his not playing his highest paid defenseman, Commodore, until he was fully recovered from a hand injury and particularly until he was in condition to keep up with the higher-tempo system Arniel employs, and in more recently benching defenseman Kris Russell for his inability to perform in the area he is best suited to contribute to the team – that of an offensive defenseman.

Arniel has also demoted players to lower lines and pairings for their inability to perform up to their capabilities. In short, Arniel has exhibited, in his action, that there are no more “free passes”. Whether you’re among the highest paid players on the team or whether you were previously utilized on the team’s top line or defensive pairing, you will be rewarded, justly based entirely on performance.

The most novel result is that, for the first time in the team’s history, there is an “all in” mindset to the entire team.

So, in assessing Arniel’s motivational abilities – Grade:  A+

Delegation –  Hitchcock was not known for his delegation of coaching to his assistants.  Part of that could have been the quality of the assistants, or it could have been an inability to delegate the duties to his staff – a control issue. Well, this is certainly not the case with Arniel.

Arniel has successfully delegated the game-day coaching, game-preparation and specialty areas – special teams: power play and penalty kill – to his assistants.  And, while the power play has struggled – the Blue Jackets currently are ranked 29th in the NHL — Arniel has allowed his assistants to facilitate his efforts towards challenging the players to be accountable and in changing the overall culture/mindset of the team.

Delegation therefore is no longer an autocratic process, so in assessing Arniel’s ability to delegate to his assistants – Grade:  A

Teaching – In selecting his assistant coaches, Arniel brought in an entire group of new assistants without any NHL coaching experience.  However, Arniel and all of his assistants – Brad Berry, Dan Hinote, Bob Boughner – were players in the NHL and/or AHL and who retired from their playing days only recently. Thus, they also brought in an ability for “hands on” teaching, something Hitchcock or his assistants generally didn’t have the capability to do.

It has been a successful pattern in the NHL to hire former players, particularly those players who were “grinders” in both the NHL and AHL. Dan Bylsma, Bruce Boudreau, Mike Babcock and Joe Sacco are recent examples of former NHL/AHL players who have successfully made the transition from former players to successful coaches.

What’s particularly beneficial to this background is the ability to teach players, particularly younger players, as the Blue Jackets are one of the league’s youngest teams, how to execute the system and methods they’re trying to employ.

As former baseball legend Pete Rose once said of his father, a former semi-pro baseball player, it was invaluable for his dad not only to tell young Pete what to do, but to also demonstrate how it’s done.

And adults, particularly today’s modern young athletes, particularly trust the teachings of their coaches when it’s demonstrated, in actions and execution, what they’re trying to get across. And seeing how the players have successfully picked up the new system so quickly, most of which can be attributed to the coaching staff’s ability to teach it.

So, in assessing Arniel and his assistant’s ability to teach – Grade:  A

Results – One can assess all of these aspects in order to determine how successfully a coach has performed in their duties, but in the end results, and only results, are the ultimate indicator.  And it is that aspect that Scott Arniel and his assistants have been most successful.

With their current 13-6-0 record, they have tied a franchise record for the most points at the 19-game mark of the season. The Blue Jackets have accomplished feats not previously done before in their 10-year history. They’ve set franchise marks for their historic West Coast sweep, for their greatest margin of victory and having two separate goalies post back-to-back consecutive shutouts. They’ve also pounded a divisional foe that has recently done that to them by being more physical, being stronger on the puck and taking out the opponent, early. Finally, for a team who historically lost twice as many road games as they’d won, the Blue Jackets currently possess an astounding 7-1 mark.

Most pundits, including myself, had the Blue Jackets finishing near the bottom of the Western Conference and certainly not in the conversation regarding a playoff-worthy team. And while it’s early and several challenging divisional games and brutal road trips await, so far the season can be judged as a rousing success.

Assessing this area can best be served in this statement:  If the playoffs were to start today Arniel would receive the Jack Adams trophy as NHL Coach of the Year. So, to grade the results, so far – Grade: A+

So, in an overall assessment of Scott Arniel’s performance, so far the results have been outstanding.

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