There are a plethora of question marks heading into the 2010-11 season for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Can goaltender Steve Mason return to his Calder-winning form of 2008-09 and justify his recent two-year $5.8 million extension? Can Derick Brassard establish himself as a top six center and the playmaker with an eye for the net that put up 25 points in just 31 games two seasons ago? Is Russian winger Nikita Filatov willing to play a two-way game and earn a spot in the top six? Is Ethan Moreau the only addition this team needs to catapult its way up the standings and into playoff contention?
But perhaps the most pressing question has to do with the players’ transition to new head coach Scott Arniel’s up-tempo style, especially on defense.
Much has been said when it comes to the Blue Jackets’ blue line. With the exception of Kris Russell, let’s just say they’re not the most, uh, dynamic bunch.
In fairness, the group was not built to be dynamic. Former head coach Ken Hitchcock’s system emphasized defensive responsibility first and foremost. His trap didn’t leave much room for defenders to step up in the play or join the rush.
It should be noted that in the Blue Jackets’ lone playoff season, this group of defensemen (for the most part) excelled at Hitch’s system and found success.
Last season? Not so much.
So out with the old, in with the new. Enter Arniel and his coaching staff of Brad Berry, Bob Boughner and Dan Hinote. Enter a new up-tempo, puck-possession style that Hinote likens to Detroit, San Jose and Chicago.
“It’s not an easy thing to do, as a d-man, to play our style and to step up and to be in the face of an opponent, especially when you’re used to a trap system for so long,” Hinote said. “In our system, we’re going to them.”
Arniel wants his defenders to hound forwards in the defensive zone, to “do what they’re supposed to do” and step up and close the gap. It is a stark contrast from the Hitchcock era. He also wants the defense to be more of a part of the attack, something that rarely occurred in seasons past.
Russell made gigantic strides in that department last season. The generously listed 5-foot-10 defender finally realized that when he is on the ice, he is usually the best skater out there. As the season progressed his confidence grew exponentially. It almost became commonplace to see him scoop the puck up in his zone and skate it all the way to the opposition’s hash marks (as seen in this clip below).
As for the rest of the crew? Crickets.
Arniel and his staff aren’t going to turn Mike Commodore into Paul Coffey. Fans won’t be confusing Jan Hejda with Scott Niedermayer. Fedor Tyutin isn’t going to… well you get my point.
But, that’s not what Arniel and co. are trying to do either.
“We’re not asking them to lead the rush, we’re asking them to be in the rush,” Hinote said. “By that we mean, ‘be that be that outlet — that fourth outlet — a little bit behind the play in that lane that opens up when people over back-check.’
“If you time it right, and you’re in the right position, you don’t need to be fast to be in the play.”
And while it will assuredly take time, Hinote said that all the defenders are transitioning well so far, although the corps took a big hit when Russell went down with a knee injury on Sunday. He is expected to miss 2-4 weeks.
Russell’s loss has led to rampant speculation over potential moves Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson might make to bolster a rather one-dimensional back end. Disgruntled Edmonton defenseman Sheldon Souray, a player the Blue Jackets have been linked with much of the summer, is the name that has come up most recently.
Souray, who owns one of the heaviest shots in the league (and holds an unofficial record), has been barred from participating in Oilers training camp as they attempt to move the 12-year NHL veteran. Souray is coming off an injury-plagued season (his career has been littered with them), but appears to be keeping fit despite his omission from camp.
If he were acquired, he would immediately improve what for the better part of a decade has been an abysmal Blue Jackets power play. He would also be playing with the proverbial chip on his shoulder.
But trade or not, Arniel wants his blue line prepared to make up for Russell’s absence.
“Obviously he’s a special kind of player that a lot of teams don’t have,” Hinote said. “The hope is that with our system…you’ll replace that fleet-footed defenseman with a smart d-man that can just get up in the play at the right time.”
Through two exhibition games so far, the jury is still out on whether that can be done with this current batch of defensemen.