An Evening At Nationwide

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As a season ticket holder, I was very interested to get an invitation to come down to Nationwide and attend a Q&A with Scott Howson, Scott Arniel, & Mike Priest. There was a reasonably sized crowd for a Tuesday night with horrible traffic and a fair bit of rain, and everyone was encouraged to ask questions from a pair of microphones set about midway up section 114, where the fans were seated.

 

First, a disclaimer: I did NOT attend this as a credentialed member of the media. I was not recording the session, and I did not attempt to ask any questions privately. I attended as a season ticket holder, and as a fan.

The questions and tone of the crowd were an interesting mix - while everyone tended to wish Scott Arniel a warm welcome to Columbus, and Mike Priest was generally given a respectful line, mostly with how the team would be marketed this year and the state of season ticket & suite renewals, more than a few had a hostile tone when addressing issues to Scott Howson, with several season ticket holders bringing prepared questions and a laundry list of grievances against him, ranging from the obvious (why no big free agent signings) to the surprising (one STH used his time at the mic to ask why the team wasn't bringing Danny Gare back, then went on to criticize the team for making a patch to celebrate the 10th anniversary when the team "hadn't done anything worth celebrating in that time!")

If there was a central theme to the fan reaction, and the comments from the men who now drive the team, it was a need to see the team improve next year. In the words of team president Mike Priest: "We disappointed. We underachieved. We took a step back. Everything we do around the business side comes down to one thing: We need to put butts in seats, and the only thing that puts butts in seats is winning."

To the question of if the team had any limits financially, there were several questions put to both Mssrs. Priest and Howson - here's a few of their answers.

Howson:

We have committed to building our team through the draft, and finding players through trades or free agency when the right opportunities come up. We pursued several free agents in 2008...that process lead us to Mike Commodore and Kristian Huselius. This offseason, when you ask about that (a top line center), there were only two real candidates...(Patrick) Marleau and (Tomas) Plekanec, and for what we needed, Marleau was the only player who we were interested in trying to add if he became available. Unfortunately, he resigned in San Jose. 

Right now, we're comfortable with the team, but I am continuing to pursue a few teams...nothing is imminent, but things can happen.

Priest: 

I won't deny that we have to always look at the financial situation for the team - it's a business. But one of the things which drive that business is for the team to succeed. If Scott (Howson) comes to us, and wants to add salary to acquire a player that can put us over the top for the playoffs, we'll say yes. We said yes each time he's asked to add salary through trades or free agency, and that will continue.

Howson also took some "questions" (ie: abuse) on not resigning some fan favorites like Jody Shelley, Manny Malhotra, and Curtis Glencross, especially after answering a question about how the team is being built by explaining that they are (like most of the NHL) trying to use the Detroit model, and using veteran character players to help develop the younger players. 

I'm incredibly happy for Jody and Manny. We didn't "dump" Jody Shelley. We traded him to give him the opportunity to play for a winning team after he wasn't getting ice time in Columbus. He went to San Jose and got to experience a lot of success - to learn about winning, and I think that the leadership he showed in New York, which helped him to earn his new contract for Philadelphia, came from that. Jody used it as a chance to unlock his potential...and I know it's my goal, and his (Mike Priest)'s  that once Jody chooses to end his playing career, we can bring him back to the Blue Jackets and keep him as a big part of our organization.

In Manny's case, he had a hard decision to make, and I'm really impressed - he went to San Jose, took a lot less money that we had originally offered him, and worked his (tail) off. He played very well and earned a very impressive contract from the Canucks. But in both their cases, I don't think either of them could have been the leaders we needed in the dressing room without getting a chance to experience the success they did in San Jose and New York, respectively.

Another topic addressed early was the arena issue. Here's what Mike Priest had to say:

I'm actually very pleased to say that there's good news on this front - we have had some great results from our partnership with Ohio State. I can't give any specifics yet - maybe not for another 10-20 days - but there's been some significant progress on the issue that came out of that partnership, and showing that we were willing to work with the community by partnering with them. That opened up some new avenues and by working more with OSU, we made some big inroads with the public side of the issue, including the local government...there have been some really exciting new ideas to bring this to a solution, and I expect you'll be seeing them very soon. The Blue Jackets aren't going anywhere. (Emphasis mine)

Reading between the lines, it seems like the rumor that Light The Lamp reported last weekend has some legs, at least in regards to the arena situation. I think the "10-20" days comment was a slip, too. That makes me think that solution is at the point where all parties are working to hammer down their final changes, and making sure the agreement is acceptable between them. Wouldn't it be nice if we never have to hear the phrase "arena lease" again?

So he won't feel left out if he's reading this, I should mention that new head coach Scott Arniel did get several questions about how he intends to change the team's defensive style, and how he expects the team to play.

Here's a summary of some of his answers:

Well, first, yes, we're going to be looking at conditioning. That's part of the changes we've made going into this season. Everyone at prospect camp had to perform a skating test - and I made sure that  some of the guys who attended camp from the team - Dorsett, Boll, Brassard - I made sure they knew, and that all the players knew, that they'd be expected to do the same things coming into camp. I even offered to print them out some cheat sheets! 

I'm not going to push them so hard that we risk an injury, but it's part of how we need to address this - everything starts at your conditioning. It used to be that guys would be asked to ride a bike or run on a track to show that they were in good shape for hockey. That doesn't make sense, really! This test, and some of the other changes we'll be making, are to make sure players are in the right shape for the demands of playing games, especially late in the third period or in games that go into overtime or the shooutout.

In terms of defense...I can't say that we're going to be a 100% puck possession team - because sometimes you just can't play that way. If you're trying to move the puck across the blue line and some 6' 5" 200 lb. defensemen is charging right at you - you need to chip the puck in deep behind him, get around him, and go get that puck back! Puck pursuit is really what we're going to be about, in both zones. It's all about constantly pursuing the puck, and taking away the other team's time and space around it. Part of how we make sure we don't get in situations where we give up an early lead is that we take away their time with the puck. 

When it comes to guys who are...more defensive d-men than puck movers like Russell, it's going to be a lot of repetition - a lot of teaching. Sometimes it's hard to think to make the pass or change the direction of the play when a couple of forwards are charging at you at 100 miles per hour - it's going to be a lot of going over things in practice, going over video, showing them the alternatives, and helping them get to where they think about it naturally. I've got some great guys - Brad Berry, and Bob Boughner - who were both defensemen in the NHL who did a lot of this. They're going to work with our D to help make them better.

...I've talked to pretty much all of the players now by phone, except for one...ah..European player that I've had some trouble reaching, but I'm hoping to get with him soon. Pretty much everyone is excited - it's funny, I was really excited to come here to work with them, but it turns out that most of them are even more excited to get to work with me! I think the biggest thing, though, is that pretty much all of them have talked about how they want to get better. I think a lot of our guys feel like they let the team down - they let the fans down, and they let themselves down. Everyone's been working really hard this off season to keep it from happening again. 

So, who's the mysterious European who isn't picking up his phone? Before you say "Filatov" - I actually suspect it's Anton Stralman. It's not unusual for an agent to tell a player going into salary arbitration to put his head down and lay low. I wouldn't be surprised if he's been told not to communicate with anyone on the team, including Arniel, unless it's through his agent. If that is the case, assuming he's still with the team either via an agreement or the team accepting an arbiter's decision, coach Arniel should probably be expecting to hear his phone ring sometime around the end of next week. 

Oh - speaking of Filatov, and another European player...

Howson: Tyler Wright just got back from visiting Nikita in Russia - he had quite an interesting four days really getting into the culture there, seeing Moscow, and working with Nikita at the rink. He was very positive - he was really excited about how Nikki's working this offseason - he says that he's put on some weight - up to 187 pounds! Nikki's very excited about coming to Columbus in August, and we're really looking forward to seeing him here.

On a similar note, I have some good news about Rusty (Klesla) - he's flying back and forth this summer to work with a clinic in Vancouver where they did his surgery, and he's been doing week-long sessions of physical therapy with them to help get himself ready. He's skating again, and he described himself as "95 percent." He said that if training camp or the regular season started next week, he'd be able to go. He was really frustrated by his injury last year, and the fact that he wasn't anywhere near being able to come back after the eight weeks they originally projected when he saw a specialist near Columbus. We're all glad that he was able to get the proper treatment, and that he'll be ready for this season.

Last but not least, there were also a couple questions about the draft, and Ryan Johansen.

Going into the draft...Friday, Ryan was at #1 on our board, but there was another player, a defenseman, who was coming up again and again. We decided to have them both in for one last interview that afternoon, and we decided after some soul-searching that Ryan really was the right guy - that he was what we were looking for. Originally, I planned to explore trading back a bit - 7, 8, maybe 9 - and taking him there, but it became clear after talking to other GMs that if we traded back - if we waited - both the players we were interested in would have been gone. With that in mind, Ryan was our #1 guy, and we made the decision to take him.  

With that in mind, and knowing that I'm probably missing three or four other tidbits of info that I didn't catch, here's a few quick takeaways:

  • The arena lease issue is moving forward and appears to be close to resolution.
  • Brassard is apparently one of the players who has been coming into town to train this off season. (Was this the first time anyone from the organization mentioned that? We knew that Dorsett, Boll, and Moore were all in town, but I think that's the first I heard about Brass.)
  • Filatov has been working out and bulking up - if he really is up to 187 that means he's added about 15 pounds since last season!
  • The team will carry an expanded roster for the trip to Sweden, including any younger players and any "AHLers" who perform well enough in camp to warrant being included.
  • The team is currently discussing if they  want to work on contract extensions this offseason with the agents for Steve Mason and Jake Voracek - the decision will probably be made in the next week or two.
  • When asked who he felt had the biggest motivation to improve for next season, Scott Howson answered "Steve Mason." Scott Arniel answered "Mike Commodore."
  • When asked how he'd get players to "buy in", Arniel answered: "It's people skills. You need to work with each player - you can't be a dictator. It won't work and you'll start losing guys very quickly. It's about seeing how they see themselves, and how they want to play, and figuring out the best way to work them in."
  • CBJ ticket sales are down - from an all time high of over 10,000 season ticket equivalents last year (1 full season ticket, 2 20 games, or 4 10 games) to about 7,300 this year. Priest said it's "an area we're under pressure, but we're working on it."
  • The team is working to improve radio broadcast coverage around Ohio.
  • After being asked if they'd do a "Meet the Team" luncheon this year due to all the new coaching staff, Mike Priest said he'd look into it and see what kind of feedback they'd get from fans. If you're interested, make sure you contact the team about this!
  • Suite renewals are down this year due to the local economy, but they expect them to come back around as the economy improves. Interestingly enough, corporate partnerships / sponsorships are actually up - the strongest they've ever been.
  • The team intends to market themselves based on the team and their players, which Priest called "their greatest strength", but doesn't intend any kind of targeted marketing at the expense of other teams like the Cavaliers. "We don't play those kind of games. We're going to take care of our business - we don't need to get involved with anyone else's."
  • Players will be subjected to the same heart rate monitoring, skating tests, and skating coaching that our prospects were given in July. Conditioning is going to be the foundation for the team.
  • Expect to Rick Nash move away from the half boards on the PP, and more in-between the circles and around the crease. "He doesn't need to be right on top of the net, but he's got the talent to be really dangerous out there in front of the goalie."
  • Arniel expects players like Brassard, Dorsett, and Voracek to all step up this year. "It's not their rookie season or any sophomore stuff. They're NHL players now. They're NHLers and they need to be leaders."
  • Some of the veteran players Arniel expects to be leaders on the team as it stands included Chris Clark, Rick Nash, Ethan Moreau, and Mike Commodore. "He's won a Stanley Cup! We need to push him to get out there and really show the younger guys what it takes to win."
  • Though Howson wouldn't comment on any specific trade talks, it would appear he's still keeping talks open with several teams - and I don't think it's a coincidence that when he talked about teams who would be forced to make moves later on in the offseason, Vancouver kept coming up as an example.

I hope that you've found this interesting! If you're a Blue Jackets season ticket holder, they'll be holding another Q&A session Wednesday, July 14th, at 6:30pm at Nationwide Arena. Contact your ticket rep for information on how to attend!

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