By Rick Gethin
The lights have been turned off on another disappointing season for the Blue Jackets. The fans have all retreated to their homes for the summer to agonizingly wait for yet another season filled with hopes to start.
While thoughts have turned to where and who Columbus will pick in the NHL Entry Draft in June, the players on this club have felt the sting of a once again disappointed fanbase. A season that started with high hopes and expectations came off the rails on November 21st, 2009. In the 24 games that began that night in Nashville, the club went 3-14-7. This culminated in Head Coach Ken Hitchcock being fired.
There was no one thing that can be blamed as the culprit for the woes of the Blue Jackets this season. From the youth regressing or having epic slumps, Nikita Filatov bolting to Russia to play in the KHL and the message getting lost or tuned out, the meltdown was painful for all. It seemed as if a perfect storm of disappointment had descended on Columbus.
A lack of confidence was a big issue with this club for almost two thirds of the season. What changed within the players to get their confidence back? Mike Commodore said, “How that change comes about, I’m not exactly sure. For the majority of the year, the first 50-60 games, whenever we had a lead it wasn’t safe. If the other team scored the first goal it was almost surely game over. The team had no confidence at all.” Commodore had his own issues with his conditioning level and his play and he was candid about discussing that. He goes on to say, “That’s changed (confidence). Now, when we give up an early goal, it’s not the end of the world like it was for the majority of the year where everybody’s ready to mail it in. Now we feel like we can battle back or at least put the effort forth. I think it shows better results on the ice. It’s a better game to watch, that’s for sure.”
As the confidence came back, so did the threat of multiple scoring lines. After Hitchcock was fired, Assistant Coach Claude Noel was named as the Interim Head Coach. Rather than bounce players up and down the lines, he allowed chemistry to develop between the players. No one line exemplified this more than the 2nd line of RJ Umberger, Derick Brassard and Jake Voracek.
While both Umberger and Voracek had career seasons, Brassard is still trying to find his game from before he was injured in the 08-09 season. With the stability that Noel provided in the lines, Brassard has begun to regain that form and confidence. “Although I don’t know what the turning point was, I feel better.” On playing with Umberger and Voracek he said, “I think we’re playing good. RJ works hard every game and he’s very strong on the puck. His experience is good for us. For me and Jake (Voracek), we have to make sure we play a north/south game. We try to play fast and make plays (with the puck). We try to put the puck on the net, because RJ’s always there.”
Many players started to show positive strides in their game under the tutelage of Claude Noel. He brought a more relaxed atmosphere to the locker room and an unambiguous message to the players to just have fun. Is he the right coach to carry this team through the next steps? I think he’s earned a quality look from the Blue Jackets management for the head coaching position. He’s paid his dues and knows how to relate to all the players. If he’s not hired by Columbus, I don’t think he’ll be out of work for very long. With Tampa Bay firing Rick Tocchet on Monday, could this be a destination for Noel in the event that Columbus goes in another direction? Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinick said “Our hockey operations department needs a fresh start to help us fulfill our goal of being a world class organization.”
Finally, the team placed an advertisement in the Sunday edition of the Columbus Dispatch. Blue Jackets Captain Rick Nash holds an open letter to the fans. It says:
“Dear Blue Jackets Fans,
Thank you for supporting us this season. You stuck with us through the good and bad times. It’s not the season that we had all hoped for expected. You want a winning hockey team. You and the city of Columbus deserve a winning hockey team. Your support of us has never been taken for granted in the locker room. We appreciate it at each and every game.
We look forward to serving you again in the fall for the 10th season. Thank you for being behind us.”
It’s signed by all members of the team and they know they have to take this team to the next level. Not doing so would be unacceptable to them and to the fans.