(Note: Thanks to Ryan Holtmann, the Blue Jackets manager of communications, for allowing me to come in and attend practice today as part of the media pool.)
To this point in the season, I've now attended five practices run by Scott Arniel and his coaching staff. The first was during the team's prospect camp, then three in the pre-season, and now today. Throughout all of them, there has been a strong contrast to practices run by Ken Hitchcock - a sense less of work, and more of "Hey, this is supposed to be fun!"
Today was probably the most fun the Blue Jackets have had in a few weeks.
It was evident from the moment a smaller group came out, about 20 minutes before the official start of practice, and started to skate around, taking shots at the open nets. Kris Russell appeared to be testing out a new stick, and getting a bit of ribbing about it from Derick Brassard. Fedor Tyutin and Nikita Filatov began playing "gotcha" games with the puck that lasted through the end of practice, with old age and treachery finally topping youth and experience when Tyutin saucered a pass between Filatov's skates, and the young winger was unable to come up with it, sliding to his knees, laughing, as he lost his footing, then gathering himself back up with a grin.
Goalie coach Dave Rook worked with both Steve Mason and Mathieu Garon, firing pucks at them from around the zone as each set up in one end of the rink, then the two goalies traded time in the crease while several "volunteers" moved around teeing up shots and going after rebounds at Rook's direction.
As the rest of the team (save Derek Dorsett, who took a maintenance day after his incredible shot blocking efforts last night in Atlanta) came onto the ice, the rest of the coaches also joined them for a warm up skate. Every one of the coaches took a few shots at the open net, but perhaps it says something about the personality of Dan Hinote that he was the only one attempting trick shots. (He even put one in, a neat little mid-air lacrosse style move that he whooped up as he skated back up the ice.)
After the warmup skate, the initial drills seemed to address the areas the team has continued to improve - transition, and getting pucks around the net. Coach Arniel set the initial drills up at the board, having one group (most the the defense, but a few forwards as well) practice breaking out of one zone and into the other, while the other group, primarily forwards, set up around Steve Mason in his crease and practiced redirecting shots from just outside the blue paint. Even in moments where things were being taken seriously, there was still a good bit of back and forth razzing from both players and coaches,
One of the more entertaining battles was between Mason and Brass, who spent several drills unable to get anything past the goaltender until finally he was able to roof a shot over Mason's shoulder, leading to a loud "THERE he is!" from coach Bob Boughner.
Other drills involved the team making a contested entry into the zone, with one D-pairing starting the puck out, a forward line taking the puck into the offensive zone, and another d-pair attempting to take the puck away. If they succeeded, the forwards switched directions and the drill was repeated back the other way. If they did not, the forwards were expected to drive to the net and attack, something that the coaches stopped practice to emphasize - a call of "Shoot that puck, boys!" was loud enough that it could have been heard from the upper bowl, let alone from the fans attending practice around the HD Lounge.
When coach Berry took the lead, he had the team work on 3 on 1 and 2 on 1 situations - both improving on the odd man rush for the "attacking" players and working on better ways to break up plays from the D.
Finally, defensemen went to one half of the ice with coaches Berry and Rook, and Hinote and Bougher took forwards to the other. Garon went to the D side, Mason to the forwards, and the head coach skated between both groups to offer feedback.
The defense worked on the ins and outs of point shots - not just getting the puck to the net, but redirecting around the net both to clear pucks away or to score. Defense against the point shot in particular was interesting - nobody was taking an edge off their shots for this, and I don't think I'd personally sign up to stand between a goaltender and a Jan Hejda or Mike Commodore shot.
For the forwards, the first drill began by two players attacking the net, coming into the zone and deliberately shooting a bit wide. One forward would then go behind the net and either flip it to his waiting partner, who parked himself around the crease, or go in on a wraparound attempt. After a few cycles through of this, they changed to conducting faux face-offs against one of the coaches, with the forwards required to beat the coach for the puck and then feed it to a partner so he could drive to the net, while the face-off man had to get around the coach (who didn't make it easy - Hinote in particular did a good job of jostling and blocking to slow his opponents down), and join the play.
Throughout it all, there were clear grins. Guys cheered for good goals or big saves, and the good mood from last night's victory was clearly in evidence.
Afterward, in the locker room, the party continued - though several players were in and out working on their equipment, meeting with coaches, and generally getting on with their day, each player I spoke with talked about the atmosphere with a positive, excited outlook.
"That's the biggest thing," said Marc Methot when I asked him about the team's mentality, "After Colorado, we really have worked on just letting it go and not letting the highs get too high, or the lows get too low. We just come back and we get ready for the next one."
Fedor Tyutin agreed: "All of us knew we had a bad game - we had to forget about it as fast as we can! We had to play the other day (against Montreal), and we knew we just had to play better. It's in the past, over, and we just go. We just gotta keep rolling."
The defensemen also agreed that getting back to basics was a big part of their success in the past two games. "We're getting comfortable playing with the puck more...blocking shots, playing in the transition more," said D-man Rusty Klesla, "It's nothing new - just a few adjustments. The bottom line is to play as a team."
The matchup against the Minnesota Wild tomorrow was also on the minds of a few players, including Chris Clark, who was looking forward to playing against former Washington teammate Jose Theodore. "A lot of pucks are going at the net - last night we had 40 shots - and when we're shooting at the goalie's pads and getting rebounds, its' creating a lot of opportunities. He's another Leftie goalie, so we've gotten pretty used to that," (Mason and Garon are both left-handed), "He's very quick, and you have to beat him - it might not be the first puck, but the second or third that you beat him with. Rebounds are huge."
Clark is also on the edge of a career milestone - he's 2 goals shy of 100 - but that isn't bothering him. "If we keep winning, I can go 0-for-whatever, long as we get two points!"
When the media met with coach Arniel a few minutes after practice, his mood was the picture of relaxed confidence, and he had praise for the entire team's defense: "We haven't spent a lot of time in our end. All five guys on the ice are doing a much better job of coverage and not giving up chances. The blocked shots are part of that, too, but those guys are doing a much better job of getting back to pucks and getting in the holes and finding the right spots."
Though the coach will always have things to work on with players, he was equally glad that the team was working with themselves: "We're working under pressure and we're always on the puck - and guys are talking on the bench - don't forget this, or make sure you come across for the puck. Guys are really starting to get it, and they're making sure they know when they're doing a good job, too. All those things mean they're picking up on what we're trying to preach."
The coach also had good feedback on the continuing development of Nikita Filatov and his return to the top 6: "He understands what the coaches need him to do, and he's playing a regular shift. In the last two games, the games were tight, but he was still out there - I want him to gain these experiences and we're showing him video so he sees when he did things the wrong way, and when he did things the right way...and more and more we're showing him that he's doing it the right way. Last night, he did a LOT the right way."
Finally, I had a chance to ask the coach about today's practice, and how much of it was simply reacting to last night's efforts, and how much was prepping for tomorrow night's game:
"Today was pretty much feeling good about ourselves and flushing out things from last night - we'll get really serious tomorrow. Coaches, we get to do all the work to prepare today, but there was enough thinking in this game - I'd rather they felt good about last night and we'll get serious in the morning skate tomorrow and pick up our pace then."
(You can find a few more picture's from today's practice here.)