Who’s To Blame for the Blue Jackets’ Mess? (Part 2)

When I wrote Part One of my two-part article outlining the ills that plague the Columbus Blue Jackets, they possessed the worst record in the National Hockey League (NHL) with a record of 0-6-1.  Since Part One was written, the Blue Jackets have descended to even lower depths, with a record of 2-12-1.  While the Blue Jackets did win two games since that point, more recently they have been pummeled by their opponents by a cumulative score of 19-6 over their last three games.

The Blue Jackets are a team in disrepair.  They are a team with no identity, no direction and no grit, a fragile team who shows no signs of turning around the malaise, this for a team with the fifth-highest payroll in the National Hockey League (NHL).

In spite of these embarrassing losses, few, cosmetic changes have been made:  The Blue Jackets traded a future fourth round pick for former Pittsburgh Penguins fourth line center Mark Letestu and traded defenseman Kris Russell to the St. Louis Blues for defenseman Nikita Nikitin.

Even after the mind-numbing blowout loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, 9-2, no changes were made to any senior management position – President and General Manager (GM) – or to the head coach, which is still manned by Scott Arniel.

So with all that, it begs the question:  Who’s to blame for this mess?

In Part One of my article, I analyzed where the blame occurred on the Senior Management side of the organization – Senior Management: President and GM – Acquisitions, Trades and Player Development/Drafting.

In Part Two, I will analyze the Blue Jackets ills on the player performance side: Coaching, Locker Room Culture/Leadership, Offense, Defense and Goaltending.  So here is who is to blame for the Blue Jackets mess:

Coaching – this category rests with the Blue Jackets head coach, Scott Arniel.  Arniel was selected as the head coach of the Blue Jackets after current Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Guy Boucher opted to take the Lightning head coaching position, leaving the job to Arniel.  At first, the Blue Jackets bolted out of the gate with a 14-6 record; however, a free-fall of 6-14-3 followed as well as a closing thud of 3-12-7 – a 22-game stretch in which the Blue Jackets won one game in regulation – to close out the season began to call into question whether Arniel was the right guy for the job.

Most observers believed that a lack of talent, particularly with a dearth of secondary scoring, an offensive defenseman, one capable of manning the power play and a line mate for the Blue Jackets marquee player, Rick Nash limited Arniel’s ability to lead the Blue Jackets back into playoff contention.

During the off-season, Blue Jackets ownership “broke the bank” and upped the team payroll from 19th in the NHL to its current position of fifth in the NHL’s overall league payroll.  However, the Blue Jackets have been the NHL’s biggest disappointment, possessing the league’s worst record and six points short of the second-worst record in the league, currently owned by the New York Islanders.  The Blue Jackets acquired James Wisniewski in Free Agency and Jeff Carter in a trade; however, Wisniewski was suspended for the first eight games of the season for a vicious head shot to Minnesota Wild player Cal Clutterbuck and Carter has been out of the lineup with an injury for its past 10 games.

But it’s become readily apparent that, in spite of the talent infusion that Arniel has not turned around the Blue Jackets fortunes.  In fact, Arniel has been out-coached in many games – case in point, the Blue Jackets opening-night loss to the Nashville Predators, 3-2, a game in which Nashville coach, Barry Trotz coaxed the Blue Jackets into playing their style of game, thus diffusing any chance of a comeback victory.

And recently, Arniel has made puzzling decisions – deciding to let goaltender Steve Mason remain in net after surrendering 3 goals on Toronto’s first 6 shots on goal; deciding to abandon his up-tempo style after the Philadelphia debacle for a trapping, defense-first philosophy, only to be met with similar results, a 6-3 drubbing at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks.  These decisions speak of a coach who’s desperate and, with a fragile locker room, one who has recently demonstrated a slew of head-hanging, finger-pointing and a lack of overall communication, a coach who appears to have “lost the room” (the confidence and trust of his players).

Locker Room Culture/Leadership – This area has perhaps been the area subjected to the most criticism.  The Blue Jackets have garnered the reputation throughout the NHL as a team with a “country club” atmosphere, a team who doesn’t demonstrate that the embarrassing losses ever bother the players.

Here are three examples of the passive, apathetic culture:

  • Vinny Prospal, a veteran winger with Stanley Cup championship experience, expressed his frustration with the Blue Jackets’ laissez-faire attitude towards hard work and urgency, both in the attention to detail in practice and the carryover during its games.
  • Darryl Sydor, a defenseman with two Stanley Cup championships during his career, could be seen rocking, catatonically, in his dressing room stall while his Blue Jacket teammates were laughing and carrying on, this after an embarrassing 8-2 home loss against the Los Angeles Kings during the 2003-2004 season.
  • Jakub Voracek, former Blue Jackets forward, when asked what he thought was the biggest difference in playing for the Philadelphia Flyers and in playing for the Blue Jackets. Voracek simply replied, “Losing is not tolerated here.”

Rick Nash is the Blue Jackets’ team captain, and while his teammates insist that Nash is a solid leader who leads by example, it never appears that his leadership has much, if any, effect on the team whether it’s a win or a loss.  Nash, who is a quiet person by nature, usually doesn’t drum up images of fiery captains such as Sidney Crosby or Jarome Iginla.

Here’s an example, his comments after a players-only meeting one in which rumblings of changes with the head coach and GM appeared imminent, “The players here love what we’ve got.  Management, coaches…everyone’s very excited and very happy with what we have.  And we wouldn’t want to lose it.”

While I’m not suggesting that Nash or his teammates froth at the mouth, but an indication of some passion, even after a loss or giving up a soft goal, would be appreciated by the fans.

Offense – While Jeff Carter has missed the last 10 games with an injury, the Blue Jackets offense ranks 23rd in the NHL with a paltry 2.27 goals/game.  In fact, the Blue Jackets have only exceeded two goals in a game in only four of their first 15 games.  Rick Nash and Vinny Prospal have paced the Blue Jackets with 12 and 11 points, respectively, but veteran wingers R.J. Umberger and Antoine Vermette have been major disappointments, with one goal and 11 total points between them.  In short, the up-tempo offense has been anything but up-tempo or proficient.

Defense – Radek Martinek and James Wisniewski were brought in during the off-season to not only provide some offensive spark to the blueline corps, but to also solidify a defensive unit that lost the offensively-impaired and plodding yet stout stay-at-home defensemen in Rostislav Klesla and Jan Hejda.  However, Wisniewski and Martinek, the later of who is on Injured Reserve, have been a combined -12 plus/minus (+/-) while on the ice.  But to place blame solely on these two defensemen is not fair:  There’s plenty of blame to go around, defensively.  In fact, the Blue Jackets entire defensive unit is a whopping -34 in 89 total games played.

Goaltending – To analyze the goaltending effort to date, you need to look no further than the performance of goaltender Steve Mason.  Mason ranks 37th in the NHL in Goal Against Average (GAA), which is dead last amongst goaltenders with at least six games played.  Mason also ranks 37th (last) in Save Percentage (Save%) amongst all NHL goalies.  While Mason’s numbers are horrible and while the majority of the goals allowed were due to constant defensive breakdowns, Mason has also had horrid performances (the Toronto game, above) and has exhibited an inability to allow soft goals as well an inability to make a key save, one perhaps to win a game or set the tempo that could result in a victory.

So who is to blame for the Blue Jackets mess?  Be it on-ice or off-ice, the Blue Jackets appear to be a team headed towards one accomplishment:  Careening towards securing the number one overall spot in next June’s NHL Entry Draft.

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