The Blue Jackets opened the season by beating the Anaheim Ducks 4–0 in their home opener. First, that is something that I don’t think any CBJ fan expected, and most fans would be happy if the Jackets could end the season now. What did this victory say about this team and this season? Not much, unfortunately, as the Jackets are now even at two wins and two losses. If the Jackets’ play at Colorado was evidence of what to expect in coming games, the players had better look out, because Hitchcock will be on the war path!
It has been hard to get excited about this season because the Blue Jackets didn’t really do anything big beyond signing Michael Peca this season. While Peca will almost certainly become a fan favorite here in Columbus if he remains healthy, with only a one year contract in his pocket, one can assume that his stay in Columbus will be a short one. Peca does offer much needed help in the face-off circle and leadership that the CBJ can surely take advantage of, but he has been plagued by injuries previously and he started the season on IR. Now that he is activated and fans have seen him in a couple of games, it is hard to predict what kind of contributions he will be able to make. I am rooting for him to stay healthy and perform at his highest level.
After watching the game against the Avalanche last night, a couple of things are clear about this year’s Blue Jackets. The team is playing with more intensity and edge than in previous year; this has to be due to Hitchcock’s influence, for certain. Old habits die hard, however, and the stupid penalties and mistakes seem to continue to haunt this team. These are correctable, but as fans, it looks as if we are going to endure another season of what might have been and what should be. Again, it seems that the focus and skill that are necessary for the CBJ to make the playoffs just aren’t in place yet.
What fans have seen so far this season is causing them to wonder if they are in for yet another season of more of the same old issues. The Jackets pull off a dramatic win and play like champions, often when unexpected, and then lose miserably and just look “off their game” for the next several games after that. Have the Jackets traded one team management methodology for another: one that is different, but no better than what was there previously? Is bringing along rookies in the farm system the right call for a team with sagging attendance and fan unrest? These are all questions that, fair or not, are being kicked around the local watering holes before, during and after the games by fans, even among those who might not be the hardest of hardcore hockey fans.
Goalie Pascal Leclaire has managed two shutouts this season already, which is good because I don’t think many had much confidence in him when the season started. The vast majority of the fan base was in favor of Norrena getting the starting job, as he earned it with his stellar play last season. Hitchcock has indicated that he is not declaring a clear number one goaltender at this time and he will give both Leclaire and Norrena a chance to show what they can do before he names a definite number one. This is good and let’s hope that it causes both of them to raise their game.
The Blue Jackets are a hard-hitting bunch and the defense is better so far this season. From the cannon-like shot of Klesla that scored a goal against the Avalanche to the increased production so far from Hainsey this season, there is some reason to be optimistic on the blue line. Still, there is a need to keep the traffic out from in front of the net and do those little things that are necessary to stop the other team. Everyone has to play defense as job one on this team and there is evidence that this message is getting out to the players from Hitchcock. Maybe getting trounced by the Avalanche was just an unlucky bump in the road for the CBJ.
As for offense, there are some signs of life, but they continue to have the same problem of not being able to get the puck out of our end of the ice. The break out from the Jackets end of the ice is, of course, key in getting the play started and trying to set something up. At times so far there has been improvement here, but overall the Jackets attack performance has been mixed. They must score goals, and in order to do that, have to take punishment in front of the net and look for those pesky rebounds and push them into the net.
Rick Nash looks much better already this season. It is obvious that he spent his time in the off-season working hard on his conditioning and on his game. Nash is getting in front of the net and taking punishment and looking to put those rebounds in. He also has been seen on both the PP and PK this season and seems to be comfortable playing both of them. Four games into the season, he has four points and is a +1. If the Jackets are going to have any hope of making the playoffs, they really need Nash to have a big season and put up some large numbers.
The NHL does not stand still and the Central division looks to be ultra competitive this season. St. Louis and Chicago have both made big improvements over last season and neither of them want to be in the basement again. It looks as if Nashville is the only team that didn’t upgrade itself in the off-season, but that has more to do with cost savings and ownership issues than anything else.
The Jackets are going to find it tough to make their way in such a tough division, but they do have the potential to stop the trend of “more of the same” that has followed this team over the past couple of seasons. They have to play hard, show solid defense, and control the flow of the game. They need to make the Columbus Nationwide Arena a formidable building to play in night in and night out. They need the CBJ fans to support the team loudly and also with their attendance in large numbers. Let’s not forget that they need to pick up wins on the road, as well.
Who are the Columbus Blue Jackets? Are they the team that walked over the Ducks and Coyotes in the first games of the season and looked like true champions or are they the team that was run over in Colorado like poor Wiley Coyote when his “Acme” invention backfired? I don’t want to use the word “hope,” because like so many fans, my hopes have been dashed so many times. There are some good signs of a stronger team this season, but the Jackets need to apply their game more consistently, at home and on the road. And, with the increased level of the other teams in the division, they can’t afford an “off” night very many times.