Although the Columbus Blue Jackets stand at 1-1-0, it is never too late to offer the ten burning questions that will determine their fate for the 2010-11 season.
The 2009-10 season can only be described as a disaster, particularly after their successful, first-ever Stanley Cup playoff appearance. So, there are a lot of questions that need to be answered.
1. Which team — the 2008-09 playoff-qualifying team, or the 2009-10 season, one in which the Blue Jackets recognized the fourth worst record in the NHL — is the team that should be expected for the 2010-11 season?
That’s the million-dollar question.
Performances of upwards of ten players plummeted last year whereas 2008-09 saw career years for most of the team’s players. Many have blamed former head coach Ken Hitchcock’s defense-first, pre-lockout system for stifling their core of young players — Derick Brassard, Jakub Voracek, Nikita Filatov and Kris Russell.
The hope is that keeping almost the entire team intact will reap benefits of the new coaching staff and philosophy. While it’s safe to say that bringing those 10 plus players back to 2008-09 season form will help their playoff chances, that will be a tall order in the always brutal Western Conference.
2. Will Scott Arniel’s new up-tempo system be successful?
While not a million-dollar question, this is definitely a $900K question. While going to an up-tempo, puck-control system has proven successful for the last three Stanley Cup Champion — if the personnel isn’t in place to run the system — it will not only result in unsuccessful results, but possibly even lesser fortunes. If you need evidence of this then just look at the transition currently going on in Dallas and what happened last year in Minnesota.
In the case of the Blue Jackets, those results will take some time and a change in personnel, particularly in their defensive corps, where some of their recent drafted defensemen — John Moore, Cody Goloubef and David Savard — await their turn with the parent club.
3. Will the real Steve Mason please stand up…
This would at least qualify as another $900K question.
Although Mason was the victim of putrid defensive support, as a result of the team abandoning Hitchcock’s defense-first, tight-checking philosophy, Mason didn’t contribute to his fortunes either.
During his Calder Trophy winning season in 2008-09, Mason performed in stellar manner without any goaltending coach or consultant, as former consultant Clint Malarchuck was recovering from an early-season accidental gunshot incident. Last year was obviously a different story as his flaws were exposed night after night.
So will Mason correct his flaws and rise back to his rookie-year level, or will he be another “one-hit wonder”?
4. Will Brassard ever be the team’s top-line center?
For now, the answer is ‘no’.
Brassard is currently on the team’s second line, with former top draft picks Voracek and Filatov, currently named ‘The 06-07-08 line’ for the years in which they were all drafted first by the Blue Jackets in the NHL entry draft.
Needless to say, Brassard had a horrible 2009-10 season (9 G, 29 A, 79 GP) after registering 10 goals and 15 assists during his injury-shortened 2008-09 season, one cut short after Brassard suffered a dislocated shoulder during a fight with James Neal of the Dallas Stars.
Brassard’s ability to come back may be as much more a mental one as it is a physical one. Some have pointed to Hitchcock’s system stifling his progress, but Brassard struggled during the pre-season and during the first two games with the same issues as all of last season, in the area of face-off’s won and the ability to be a playmaker who is both creative but strong on the puck.
5. Is Filatov ready for the NHL?
Filatov’s rookie campaign might have been actually more disastrous that than of the Blue Jackets.
From the first day of training camp, Filatov became a regular fixture of Hitchcock’s ‘Dog House’. As a result, Filatov was often either a healthy scratch or had his ice time significantly reduced. Eventually, Filatov left the Blue Jackets to play for CSKA Moscow in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) for the remainder of the season.
Filatov’s departure was believe to have upset the team’s locker room, particularly in relations between Filatov and his fellow young teammates, particularly Brassard and Voracek. To his credit, however, Filatov came to Columbus six weeks before training camp started, as he said he would, and has appeared to have repaired any tattered relationships with Brassard, Voracek and the rest of the team.
A focused Filatov provides the Blue Jackets with a unique skill set, on that no one in the organization possesses and it’s that of a bona fide sniper in the mold of former NHL great Pavel Bure. The big question will be whether he can handle the rigors of the season, particularly if he ‘hits the wall’.
6. Can Rusty Klesla effectively return from another injury-riddled campaign?
Klesla appears to have recovered from the injury he sustained 26 games into last season, when he awkwardly slammed into the boards on November 30th against the St. Louis Blues. However, Klesla appears to be a few steps slow, particularly in adapting to Arniel’s up-tempo system, one in which defensemen are asked to lead the rush into the offensive end of the ice.
Whether it be the increasing injury-filled seasons or by being rushed so early in his career, or by constantly being paired with so many different defensive partners, Klesla’s career has been mediocre at best. If Klesla can play a full-season and adapt to the up-tempo system, he could play a vital role in a return to the Blue Jackets level of respectability.
7. Was Arniel the right choice as the new head coach?
The hiring of Arniel is the latest in a successful trend of hiring former players who worked their way through the ranks of the American Hockey League as NHL head coaches – Dan Bylsma and Bruce Boudreau are recent success stories.
Guy Boucher was Scott Howson’s first choice as head coach; however, when Boucher instead decided to take the Tampa Bay Lightning coaching position, Howson immediately moved on asking Arniel to be his next head coach.
Arniel surrounded himself with his staff of coaches also new to the NHL coaching ranks: Brad Berry, Dan Hinote and Bob Boughner, all former NHL players. While players, all of these now coaches were known for their high-energy, intense style, but have also been very successful at leveraging that intensity at the right time in a coaching capacity.
Although it’s only two games into the season, the early returns have been positive about how well-organized the coaches are and how well the Blue Jacket players adhere to their new, disciplined system.
8. Are the Blue Jackets still ‘a 3 – on a scale of 1 to 10′, conditioning-wise?
While interim head coach Claude Noel was asked to describe the team’s conditioning level, on a scale of one to ten – without hesitation, Noel’s answer was ‘three’. Needless to say, this response didn’t sit well with the team, particularly one of its leaders, R.J. Umberger, who’d asked to meet with the coach over these comments.
One of the first orders of business when Arniel arrived in Columbus was to bring in his own strength and conditioning coach, one who was adept at implementing a strength and conditioning program befit of a team whose plan is to increase the overall pace of their game.
Enter Kevin Collins, who worked with Arniel in the Vancouver Canucks organization. Like any great coach, they are only as good as the trainees or students that they coach or teach. To the credit of the younger players on the Blue Jackets, all of them came into Columbus to train with Collins months before training camp started. Even some of the veterans, most notably Mike Commodore, came into camp in great condition. So, it appears conditioning won’t be an issue with this team.
9. Is Ethan Moreau the elixir for the leadership void in the Blue Jackets locker room?
It was puzzling to most Blue Jacket fans that Moreau was acquired by the Blue Jackets. Moreau had suffered through a slew of injuries in Edmonton — most notably in 2006-07 and 2007-08 — and has suffered with various eye and shoulder injuries. His production had slipped during the 2009-10 season, registering only nine goals and nine assists.
But the ex-Oiler captain was brought in for one specific reason: to bring leadership to a locker room which had a serious void of it.
It was often believed that, if this team had a boiling point, it wasn’t apparent was it exactly was, as the players didn’t seem to be either angry or emotive of any game result, good or bad. While early, the word around the locker room is that Moreau has really been a vocal leader of the team, and if this team is to successfully transition to a new system and hope to return to the playoffs, leadership is critical to those chances.
10. If the Blue Jackets defensive corps cannot succeed with the new up-tempo system, can a trade be expected?
If Howson hasn’t yet made a move in acquiring a puck-moving defenseman — such as the rumored deal with Sheldon Souray — then he’s not going to. However, should the team struggle, or should an injury to one of their few offensive-minded defensemen or should the team even find themselves in a position to make such a move to make a run at the playoffs, Howson will only then make a move.
Howson and patience are one and the same, plus Howson also knows that to be successful in ‘today’s NHL’ utilizing this system and building through the draft are vital. So for now, don’t expect anything to occur in the near future.