Blue Jackets Beat: Resurrection, Domination, Direction & Drivel

Curtiz McElhinney(Clydeorama/Flickr)

Amid resurgent hope that the NHL and NHLPA are edging closer to an agreement, there are plenty of tidings to report on the Blue Jackets front, so let’s survey the landscape:

The Resurrection

O.K. – show of hands — how many of you predicted that Curtis McElhinney would be dominating the AHL in net this season?  .  . . Put your hands down — you’re lying.  Nobody could have foreseen how the 29 year-old netminder would come out of the blocks this season.  Remember, this is the guy who was theoretically part of the Antoine Vermette trade last season.  Why theoretically?  Well, at the time, McElhinney was on the shelf with an abdominal injury, and the Coyotes were at the NHL limit for contracts.  So, the Blue Jackets took the contract to get the deal done, with no real anticipation that he would be part of the organization.  Fast forward to today and consider that he is 6-1-1 for Springfield, with a 1.61 GAA and a gaudy .945 save percentage.  This is the same player who, over the last seven seasons in the NHL, has had just 69 starts.  That’s life when you make your living backing up the likes of Mikka Kiprusoff.

Sure, McElhinney is facing AHL talent, and the season is young.  But consider this:  “AHL Talent” is an entirely different concept this year, due to the lockout, and McElhinney is just now reaching the average age for starting goaltenders in the NHL.  With years of youngsters defending the blue ice for Columbus, it’s easy to forget that veterans dominate the position.  Will McElhinney break through to the NHL?  In truth, it’s unlikely.  But, particularly in the wake of the goaltending disaster that was the 2011-2012  season — from both performance and injury standpoints — it’s nice to have the sense that options and depth exist.  This will be a story to keep a close eye on.

The Domination

The Blue Jackets’ “AHL Talent” is doing quite well, thank you.  Nine games in, the club is 6-1-2 and leads the AHL’s Eastern Conference.  Jonathan Audy-Marchessault leads the parade with 4 goals, 7 assists and 11 points, with a +11 rating.  Ryan Johansen is 5-4-9 with a +10.  Matt Calvert has posted 2-6-8 and +3, while Cam Atkinson is 4-3-7 and +5.  On the defensive side of the ice, Tim Erixon is 1-5-6 and +7, while John Moore has an impressive +9 rating.   At the time the club acquired Audy-Marchessault (JAM for short), I thought he would be worth watching, and he is not disappointing.  On film, he displays a deft touch with the puck, nice speed and quickness, and appears to be good in all three zones.  Here’s a

Matt Calvert cashes in against Nashville/

thought — pair the 5’9″ JAM with Calvert and Atkinson on the “Midget Line”.   They might be small, but defenses would have to catch them before they could hit them!

While the lockout situation is awful for the game — and for the Blue Jackets (see discussion below) — one silver lining is opportunity for some of the young talent to get serious ice time — including Boone Jenner in Oshawa and Ryan Murray in Everett — and develop some chemistry, hone skills and gain experience. As long as they stay healthy, it can’t hurt.

The Direction

Newly-hired President of Hockey Operations John Davidson has not wasted any time in getting the ball rolling on his side of the house.  Showing his well-reputed deftness for clarity and purpose in communications, he sent the following video to Blue Jackets season ticket holders:

The “one brick at a time” theme has quickly become the foundation for Davidson’s portrayal of his task and the sense of direction he wants to establish.  After years of the showman style of Doug MacLean, followed by the overly-cautious, legalistic approach of Scott Howson, the simple directness of Davidson’s approach is refreshing.  There are no frills in his presentation, but similarly he does not obfuscate the challenges ahead.

For a really remarkable “inside look” at Davidson’s hiring and some of the behind the scenes efforts relating to his debut in Columbus, you really need to watch this three-part video the Blue Jackets put together and premiered today on Jackets TV.  Really a unique portrayal of Announcement Day, with some candid and interesting comments from Davidson and his wife, as well as some interesting outtakes from sessions with the Hockey Operations team.  The Blue Jackets have done a really nice job of keeping the game and the team in front of the fan base during the lockout, and this latest effort — Behind the Battle — is the best product yet.

The Drivel

Into each life a little rain must fall, and in Columbus you can always count on The Columbus Dispatch to provide a downpour when you least expect it — or want it.  The latest comes courtesy of Messrs. Arace and Portzline, who wrote functionally identical pieces (even sharing the catch phrase “Best Lockout Ever”) 48 hours apart.  I guess the burden of originality was simply too much.   Even Ryan Lambert over at Puck Daddy — not a big Jackets fan to begin with — seemed perplexed by Portzline’s piece, calling it an article for Blue Jackets’ fans to “cry themselves to sleep” over.  To be fair, Portzline describes his comments as “a little tongue in cheek” , while Arace throws out no such disclaimer.

Without burdening the reader with the details, which can be ascertained from the links above, the essential point of the pieces was thus:  “Go ahead and trash the season.  Davidson will have more time to analyze and work his magic, the Blue Jackets could end up with the #1 overall pick and land Nathan MacKinnon, and there would be no operational losses for the year. Columbus would likely get an untainted 2015 All Star Game, so no worries.”

While I appreciate satire as much as anybody, there is precious little irony at play in these pieces, based upon the prior writings of those involved.   A few brief points are all that this subject requires — or deserves.  First, Davidson can’t analyze his assets in a vacuum — he needs to see them on the ice, working together — or not — as the case may be.  On the heels of a last place finish, the organization can ill-afford a full year of relative invisibility (despite the best P.R. efforts noted above).  Insofar as the finances are concerned, both writers conveniently forget that much of the red ink was the result of an archaic lease arrangement, which was remedied only this past spring, and supplemented with the infusion of capital from Nationwide — in its new status as minority owner.  It might be nice to see how that new structure is working.  Insofar as the All Star Game is concerned, the chances are overwhelming that the game gets axed anyway, as that time will be needed to cram in as many games as possible, should a deal be reached in the near future.

After last season, and the ensuing labor turmoil, an abbreviated season would occur in an environment of low expectations, which could likely be exceeded.  The proactive hiring of John Davidson has cleansed some of the residual aftertaste of the entire Rick Nash saga, and an abbreviated season could serve as a terrific proving ground for a totally revamped roster.  Not playing carries far greater risk than playing an abridged schedule, particularly in cities that are not Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver, Boston or New York.  Let’s end the foolishness and play hockey.  Stay tuned.