By Rick Gethin
Less than four days into the “Claude Noel Era” of Columbus hockey, the Blue Jackets are playing with more confidence and having fun. After getting the anticipated bounce from having a coaching change happen mid-season, they shut down the 3rd place (Eastern Conference) Buffalo Sabres Saturday night at Nationwide Arena. Still undefeated at 2-0, new (interim) head coach Claude Noel has brought a more relaxed atmosphere back to the locker room and, more importantly, is gaining the trust of a club that had very little over the last few months.
The new look Blue Jackets are playing a style that seems to fit right in with the make-up of the team that GM Scott Howson had in mind when he started extending the contracts of the youngsters last summer. They are showing that they can play at a skill level that seemed stifled under the former coach. The last two games, while anything but perfect, were more free-flowing. The most evident change has been the confidence that they are showing in each other which would seem to be a direct result from having a coach that shows trust in them.
Yes, they still make mistakes; that will happen when you play young guys. But Noel trusts them to learn from that. He doesn’t seem the least bit afraid to use all four lines on the ice for the entire game. Consequently, their collective level of play has risen. These boys know it’s an uphill battle to make the playoffs this season, as they are still 9 points out of the 8th and final playoff seed in the Western Conference. If they were in the East, they would be 2 points out of the 8th spot. Who says the West isn’t the best? Re-alignment anyone?
Columbus has three more games (all at home) prior to the Olympic break, with one more home game the day before the trade deadline. This has to be seen as very favorable for a new coach. While conventional wisdom would have you think that the Blue Jackets will be sellers on March 3rd, IF they win the next four games then all bets are off. Raffi Torres would seem the most likely to be traded and many scouts from other teams have been seen waiting like vultures in the pressbox lately. Freddy Modin has yet to waive his NTC even though he’s in the last year of his contract.
The available trade bait coming out of Columbus is not a long list. Torres leads the list, with Modin, Milan Jurcina and Jared Boll filling it out. Milan Jurcina, arriving in late Dacember via trade with Washington, will be a UFA at the end of the season. He brings to Columbus a booming shot from the point that heretofore was unseen on the blueline. Paired with Kris Russell, they have become the Blue Jackets best defensive team. Knowing that Jurcina “has his back” allows Russell to really standout as the puck-moving defenseman that he’s been expected to become. This is one contract that should be signed post-haste, as this pairing will only get better with time.
While two wins in a row does not make a playoff team, the important thing to remember is this. The culture in the locker room was changed on the afternoon of February 3rd. Confidence breeds success. The club is rallying around the message that Claude Noel is preaching. And that message is to have fun.