Players To Watch Part Three - Mike Commodore

A little surprised to see "Deuces" up here as a player to watch for next season? Someone we have high expectations for?

It's not that strange, if you think about it. 

Pick a player on the Blue Jackets with more reasons to succeed this year that Commodore. Show me someone with a greater need to redeem himself, both in the eyes of his team and the fans. Commodore hasn't shied away from criticism of last year, saying that he didn't handle his injuries or his recovery well, and recognizing that his attempt to use an unorthodox offseason workout last year backfired badly.  

He's been the brunt of criticism from the National Media, local media, and everyone else on down since coming to Columbus, particularly over the size of his contract (5 years at $3.75 million - not exactly Wayne Redden money, but he still was (and is) the highest paid defenseman on the team) and a certain ill-timed photograph getting leaked on the internet, but after his first year in Columbus, where he put up numbers that nearly matched his career highs with Carolina in 2006-2007, it seemed like he might have a chance to silence his critics.

2006-2007

82GP

7G

22A

+/- 0

113PIMs

19:53 ATOI

2008-2009

81GP

5G

19A

+11

100PIMs

22:54 ATOI


Then came 2009-2010, where nothing seemed to go right - from dealing with a bout of Swine Flu during training camp to a charley horse in late November, to a knee injury that kept him off the ice for much of the first half of the season, Commodore attempted to come back on several occasions early on, clearly struggling, only to aggravate his injuries and before long, then head coach Ken Hitchcock ordered Commodore to stay off the ice and concentrate on rehab, telling him that he would not play until Hitch and the coaching staff were satisfied with Commodore's conditioning and recovery.

For a player with a reputation as someone who left it all on the ice,  it had to be a painful and embarrassing conversation. For a player who has built his career on being a shutdown defenseman, the -9 rating he ended the year with must have been equally galling. 

Despite that, though, when looking at his stats...outside of the -9 rating, it wasn't such a bad year, despite the fact that most of the fanbase was baying for his head and demanding he be traded out of town.

2009-2010

57GP

2G

9A

-9

62PIM

19:00

Don't get me wrong - I'm not going to claim that -9 rating is anything to be proud of, and 11 points in a season is the lowest total of his career in a season where he played at least 40 games at the NHL level, but consider what Commodore's game is - he's a big, sizable defender who blocks shots, hits, and plays a very physical game. He isn't there to be a quick puck mover or a powerplay quarterback. Outside of his two "career" years in Carolina and Columbus, Commie generally averages 3 goals and 11 assists a year, a -2 rating, and 100PIMs. Even his 22:54 ATOI average in 2008-2009 was a bit unusual - all things considered it's usually closer to 19-20:00.

Let's also be honest - as much as the entire defense's struggles made life worse for Steve Mason, Steve Mason also made life worse for the defense.  How many stats, Commodore's included, were skewed this year by far too many losses that looked more like baseball scores than hockey games? How likely is it that in a better year for Mason, Commodore would have finished a more reasonable -2, or even possibly in positive numbers? It seems likely that in that case, we'd likely be talking about Commodore as the guy who wanted to play for this team so badly that he kept pushing himself back out onto the ice despite his injuries and illness. 

So, what to expect in 2010-2011?

Beyond mere psychological or monetary motivations for Commodore to improve, I actually see a few reasons to expect a better season out of the big guy.

  • Going Back To What Works: Commodore has stated in several radio interviews and his own Twitter page that he's ditched the workout routine from last offseason that got him in so much trouble. He'll be working out with the same trainers and routines that powered him to such a stellar season in 2008-2009.
  • Coaching Changes: Everyone's been talking about how big a deal it is that Arniel will be instituing a more up-tempo and aggressive style of hockey (and with good reason), but something which flew under the radar was the fact that new assistant Brad Berry coached Commodore at UND during his college career (in addition to regularly working with Commodore in the offseason during his NHL career). Berry knows how to get good performances out of the big guy, and there's every reason to think that he can help him return to form.
  • No Man Is An Island - Commodore's struggles didn't occur in a vacuum. As mentioned above, goalie Steve Mason had a wretched year, while Commodore's normal defensive pairing, Jan Hejda, struggled with his own injuries, including a knee injury that would end up shelving him for almost as many games as Commodore. Rusty Klesla went down, and Fedor Tyutin had difficulty dealing with the increased pressure of suddenly going from the second pairing to the top line. There's every reason to believe that the rest of the team will also be working to rebound coming into 2010-2011, and little improvements from each player can have a big effect on the team as a whole.
  • Lead From the Front - Commodore was brought in to be a leader for the team both on and off the ice. Off the ice, he's clearly settling into that role, being voted in as the team's NHLPA rep after Jason Chimera's departure to Washington, and later being named by his peers to the NHLPA's competition committee. On the ice, Commodore frequently has spoken about wanting to set an example for the younger players on the team, and has always tried to be the first guy out on the ice for practices, and the last guy to leave at the end of the day. He knows that those same players are now watching him to see how he responds to last year, and that the example he sets in training camp and beyond will matter a great deal.
  • Momentum - The end of the season seemed to be a return to the 2008-2009 form for Commodore. By his own admission, he didn't really get back to 100% until the Olympic break, and in those 18 games from March 6th on, he went back to averaging 20:00 minutes a game, scored the two goals he'd record this season, and finished with an even or positive +/- in 15 of those 8 games, and no worse than a -1, even in notable drubbings like a 6-3 loss to the Devils and the 6-0 loss to LA. (Would it shock you if I told you Commodore played 19:38 in the LA game, and finished with a clean +/- and only 2 PIMs? It certainly did me.) What I think we're going to see by the end of next year is that a healthy Commie is a very good player, and an unhealthy Commie is not.
  • The Twitter Factor - Commodore is one of several NHL players to maintain an official Twitter account. Unlike many of them, Commie seems to actually carry his blackberry around and tweet quite regularly, including talking back and forth to fans during the offseason. While he does discuss quite a few non-hockey topics, Commodore has also used his twitter account to communicate with members of the media (including the Dispatch's Aaron Portzline and TSN's Bob MacKenzie) and fans at large, following local events in Columbus, showing a great deal of interest in the team's offseason moves, discussing his training plans, and excitement at working with Scott Arniel. He's shown clear signs that he's invested into both the city and the team and dedicated to taking them back to the playoffs.
  • Last But Not Least - One last thing to consider is that even in "good" years, Commodore can be a bit of an up and down player - in Carolina, he seemed to follow up an average year with a very good year, and after a very poor half-season following his trade to Ottawa, he really turned in a great year in Columbus. I think Commodore tends to take poor or average seasons as motivations to improve himself, and uses them to help fuel his performance. I don't think anyone will question that he's got quite a bit of fuel banked up this offseason.

2010 / 2011 Prediction: 81G, 4G, 20A, +6, 98PIMS, 20:45 ATOI.

Not much of a stretch here - in normal years, Commodore usually dresses for 79+ games. I think we'll see "Sniper" account for a couple of more goals next year with Berry and Arniel's help, but I doubt he'll match his career high of 7. Likewise, I'm expecting we'll see him account for a decent level of assists, but not quite breaking his personal record. A +6 similarly seems a more reasonable expectation than thinking he'll leap back up into positive double digits.

As for the PIMs, Commie may not be a Derek Dorsett or Jared Boll, but he is a guy who will get into a scrap to stand up for his teammates, and it's not unusual to see him take two or three fighting majors in the course of a season. Frankly, I'd almost be more concerned if he -doesn't- bring in a fair bit of penalties - some of his best seasons have seen his PIMs in triple digits, including Carolina's Stanley Cup run. Finally, in the time on ice, I still expect Deuces to be asked to log quite a few minutes every game, but with the emergence of Kris Russell as a solid top-4 player, and the shift in defensive philosophies, I think it's likely that we'll see Commodore's ice time shift down a bit as they attempt to spread the load a bit more evenly.

The real question for me is who will Commodore end up pairing with on defense? Will he be reunited with Jan Hejda, or will Berry and Arniel experiment with pairing him with a partner who can move the puck up ice to help round out the pairing? At one point, the team experimented with pairing Commodore and Kris Russell, but nothing much came out of it. Is it an idea whose time has come?

At the end of the day, Commodore had his name dragged through the mud last season. Some of it was deserved, some of it really wasn't. But nobody knows better than he does that the best way to fix that damage is to go out, compete hard, and show that the 2008-2009 Mike Commodore is the new standard, and the 2009-2010 model was a fluke.

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