By Rick Gethin
The Columbus Blue Jackets have reached the mid-point of the 09/10 season and everything is not coming up roses; far from it. They’ve lost 18 of their last 21 games; that is a skid of monumental proportions, any way you look at it. The club currently sits at 15-18-8 for 38 points, 4 points clear of the Edmonton Oilers in the basement of the Western Conference. They are 9 points below Vancouver, who hold the 8th spot in the West. Let’s assume that it will take 90 points over the course of 82 games to secure the 8th and final playoff spot. The boys in Union Blue would have to finish the second half of the season with a record that looks something like this: 24-13-4 to reach the magic number of 90 points. Is this record attainable given this team, this year? Yes, it is.
One of the biggest factors that I believe have led to this slide has been the lack of a veteran voice on this team. While you would think that Mike Commodore and Fredrik Modin could fill this vital position, neither one has done so. Mike Commodores’ game has not been what it was last year and he’ll be the first person to admit that you can’t be an effective leader when you’re not playing well yourself. Fredrik Modin has just recently come back from injury, so has not been in the locker room for the majority of the season to date. This team sorely misses the veteran voice of experience that Michael Peca provided. As I’ve said before, it’s the intangibles that a player like Peca brings to a team. This is not a knock on captain Rick Nash. He does his best to lead by example. Sometimes a team needs that vocal presense to translate the coaches message or just to kick some verbal butt.
On Monday, Columbus GM Scott Howson made a trade that hopefully will help address this issue. F Jason Chimera was traded to the Washington Capitals for F Chris Clark and D Milan Jurcina. Clark was the captain of a dominant Caps team while Jurcina was considered expendable, with 9 defensemen on the team. Clark, oft injured in the past few seasons, brings a veteran voice back into the locker room and should see quality time on the 3rd line. Jurcina, a defensive defenseman according to Howson, was brought in to fill the void left after Rostislav Klesla went down with a long term injury. The addition of these two players are not the “missing pieces”, rather they help to fill voids in the club.
While the expectations going into the season were high, this has not turned out to a “season to remember”. It’s been chronicled here numerous times what has gone wrong so far; from a lack of identity to not playing a full 60 minutes. An emerging trend has been the coach not using “skilled players” in the shootout. The Blue Jackets have gone to a shootout 10 times so far this season. While Kristian Huselius is a Top 6 forward, he’s not shown much of the skill that makes him a skilled player as of late. For whatever reason, Ken Hitchcock loves having Fedor Tyutin in the shootout. This is really an experiment that needs to go away. Three names that come to mind that I would use above these two players? Antoine Vermette, Jake Voracek and Derick Brassard are skilled players that would, I think, have a better chance of scoring than Huselius and Tyutin. But then again, I’m not the coach.
As much as Hitchcock likes his veterans, he needs to drop an under-performing player down the line-up or sit him in the press box. If you remember, it was about this time last season that a “hungry group of AHLers” were brought in because of injuries. They helped to define the blue collar ethos that saw this club make the run to the playoffs. The call-up of Alex Picard shows that the “blue collar-ness” is still there. His physical play on the 4th line is an example for all on the club. Columbus needs to get back to what they do best; and that’s play a gritty, desperate brand of hockey.
I’m not advocating replacing the whole team. But a trip upstairs (press box) might help to turn around some attitudes and maybe make them more “hungry”. In the immortal words of the coach (courtesy of the “Hitchionary”) this team needs to Compete, be Dug In and play All In if they hope to return to the playoffs this season. Is 52 points in 41 games an insurmountable obstacle? The conventional wisdom in the fan base would say yes. My take on this club is this; if they can have fun and play more relaxed, coupled with stringing together a nice run of wins, there’s no reason that they can’t get back to the playoffs. Will they wear themselves out doing this? The answer is most probably “yes”. Right now, playing consistant hockey and winning games will restore their faith in each other and the team. And it will go a long way to restoring the faith the fan base seems to have lost. It’s not the time to give up on the team.