As the Blue Jackets approach the start of their 10th anniversary season, the mood in the fanbase is a strange mix of anticipation and tension. The fans can be broken into two camps - those who are mistrustful or disappointed with the team, waiting to see better results before they choose to come back to Nationwide Arena, and those who have decided to give Coach Arniel and GM Scott Howson the benefit of the doubt.
It's an understandable divide, and one the team has recognized. In Howson's own words, "The only way we can prove anything to our fans is that we have to win. We have to do it on the ice."
However, that task is compounded by concerns around the team's financial state, particularly with the news that season ticket renewals dropped from 10,200 to 7,800.
Though some, including national media and the Dispatch's own beat writers, have been quick to point out that this is a result of a franchise that disappointed last year, and question the team's long term survival, I couldn't find anyone asking what that 7,800 meant in context to other years.
So, I decided to reach out to the source: Blue Jackets Vice-President of Business Larry Hoepfner.
Larry was good enough to give me a few minutes of his time at the first day of training camp on Saturday, and while the news wasn't exactly cheerful, I think it's interesting - and there are some reasons to be optimistic.
Here's a few bullet points:
- The team's previous average for season ticket holders from 2005-2009 was around 9,700. While that still means that the base dropped by 1,900 season ticket holders against that average, it also means that 5-600 of those lost season ticket holders were fans who signed up to secure access to playoff tickets in the 2008-2009 season. It also makes it reasonable to expect that if the team can fight their way back to the post-season once again, a similar number of tickets are likely to be sold.
- While the team will not discuss the financial situations of other NHL franchises, Larry was willing to say that Columbus' 7,800 season ticket base was "about the middle of the pack" for teams based in the US, and that their renewal numbers "weren't atypical" when compared to results reported by other teams. He also went on to mention that they did expect some improvement with the single game tickets going on sale, as it's a weekend where they usually get a "late rush" of people looking to buy smaller 6 and 10 game packages. Hoepfner expected that by the end of the first weekend of training camp, based on the sales they'd already seen by noon on Saturday, the team was likely to bring their season ticket base up to around 8,000.
- In other encouraging news, the team actually brought in 400 new season ticket holders this off-season, helping make up some of the lost renewals. As a way to say "Thank You" to these 400, they were invited to a special breakfast Q&A with coach Arniel before the start of camp.
- When I asked about the team's corporate partnerships, which team President Mike Priest had previously noted were looking to increase, Hoepfner confirmed that they have indeed seen "single digit" growth in partnerships - that doesn't sound like much, but consider that growth still represents businesses choosing to put their support, and a considerable amount of advertising dollars, into the team. In an economy still struggling to turn the corner, it says a lot about the strength of the team's ties into the corporate community. Hoepfner also mentioned that there are still some deals in the pipe which might be closed before the start of the season, further improving that number.
- Specific examples of new partners include Miller Brewing Company sponsoring a new premium section of the party towers, new partnerships with Scotts landscaping products, and the University of Toledo, who have purchased new signage in the arena and online advertising with the team. Several existing advertisers, such as the Dispatch Media Group and Ohio Health have also invested into additional or remodeled advertising which will be featured around the arena.
- When asked about activities in the community and marketing around both Columbus and the State, Hoepfner confirmed that they're planning to continue popular events like the annual Season Ticket Holder night at the Columbus Zoo, Game Watching Parties when the team is on the road, and some new events that will be unveiled during the season. "We're working hard to respond to fan interest," said the Jackets' VP, "and working with the feedback we get from you. If an event gets a lot of good feedback and interest, we'll keep doing it. If people didn't like it or had stopped attending, we've taken a different direction and we'll try something new."
Meanwhile, in matters on the ice, the buzz focuses around the injury to speedy D-man Kris Russell, and what his injury may mean.
Russell suffered a mild sprain to his knee on the second day of training camp, and is expected to miss between two and four weeks. If he rehabs well and heals quickly, he'd likely make the trip to Sweden and could use the team's game against the Malmo Redhawks as a chance to get some ice time before having to face NHL level opposition.
Should he need more time, even a worst case of four weeks of rehab would see Russell skating the week of October 18th. That would mean he'd missed only four NHL games, and if he felt comfortable returning to the lineup by mid-week, he could be activated to play at home vs. the Ducks on the 20th or the Flames on the 22nd. Even if he needed some time to get back into game shape, it's still likely he'd be ready to face the Flyers at home on Monday, the 25th - missing all of seven games. If I had to gaze into a crystal ball, I would expect the team to keep a close eye on Russell's rehab, and use those games as a chance to get a better look at a player like Grant Clitsome, John Moore, or David Savard. The team has already mentioned they'd take an expanded roster with them to Sweden - while the team will miss Russell's mobility and puck moving skill, it is a situation which has a solution thanks to the plans for the European opener.
The fact that Dispatch Beat Writer Aaron Portzline has begun to declare that Russell's injury will force GM Scott Howson into making a trade for former Edmonton blueliner Sheldon Souray, and likely giving up shutdown defenseman Mike Commodore in the process, seems unnecessary when you consider how short Russell's absence is likely to be compared to the long grind of the NHL schedule. Less than 9 games means the team could give a first year pro like Moore or Cody Goloubef a look without even having to burn any time off their entry level contract. They could also allow a player eligible to return to Major Junior hockey, like 2009 pick David Savard, to play for those 9 games and then re-assign him to back to Juniors with no change to his eligibility.
In the offseason, it's true that Howson was looking for upgrades to his blue line, but he has also stated again and again that he is comfortable starting the regular season with the group they have under contract. Even more, Commodore in particular has been brought up again and again as a player that both Howson and Arniel expect a great performance from this year, as he works to redeem his stock from last year. He's been cited by both players and coaches as a leader in the room, and was elected by his team as their NHLPA representative. Does that sound like a guy who the team is actively looking to move?
Even if you ignore the fact that Souray would mean a higher cap hit and more money up front for the next two years, the two skill sets for these players are vastly different, and I'm not convinced that Souray is such an improvement on that score.
Though many people have fixated on the reports about Souray's powerful shot from the point, and the ability to rack up goals and assists on the power play (when healthy), many scouting reports on the former Oiler go on to state that his lateral skating ability and overall mobility are "questionable." You also start to hear phrases like "tends to get beaten one on one", "coughs up the puck", and of course "Injury Prone."
Let's not forget that Souray is 34 years old to Commodore's 30 - four years which can make an incredible difference on a player's long term durability in the NHL. Souray also would bring a history of concussions, major shoulder injuries, recurring groin, hip, and wrist problems, and of course the two broken hands he suffered last year which would eventually end his season with only 37 games played, 4G, 9A, and -19.
This supposed upgrade over Commodore, then, is older; shows more risk of major injuries, and had an even worse year, defensively, while only scoring two more points. Oh - and as has been pointed out, barring the possibility of a re-entry waiver discount, we'd have to pay him an extra $2 million dollars. While Souray does bring some leadership ability, and the opinion of Edmonton bloggers I have reached out to is he's a "stand-up guy" both on and off the ice, even after this summer's locker room drama, most also responded that counting on Souray staying healthy for a full season was risky for a team that would have to move a big contract to bring him in.
I also keep going back to those concerns about Souray's skating ability - I realize Commodore isn't exactly lightning quick out on the ice, but does "questionable lateral skating and overall mobility" sound like a good fit for a system where defensemen will be encouraged to join the rush and pursue the puck in the offensive zone?
Despite this, however, it seems that the Dispatch's Aaron Portzline has begun a campaign to convince the fanbase that a trade is imminent, similar to how Portzline and reporting in the Dispatch heavily promoted Kevin Dineen as the favored candidate during the team's coaching search this past offseason, even when his candidacy was a distant third behind the leaders.
Saturday afternoon, in their recap of the first day on the ice at training camp, Portzline included a blurb about Souray's availability that ended "...if the Blue Jackets struggle defensively in camp, don't be surprised if it (a trade) happens."
Saturday evening, around 10:40pm, Portzline published a blog piece titled "Blue Jackets Considering Souray" in which he mentioned there have been "internal conversations" about the possibility of trading with Edmonton.
While this sounds provocative, remember that "internal conversations" can cover a great deal of ground. If, say, a member of the team's hockey operations staff raised the idea over lunch with a few of the team's pro scouts to get their opinions, it's an internal conversation. If Scott Howson mentioned the idea while going over the results from camp with Coach Arniel, and the coach said he didn't think it was necessary at this point, it's an internal conversation.
Heck, if one of the sales reps was talking to a member of the equipment staff in the hallway outside the dressing room and said "Hey, did you see some of the bloggers think we should trade someone for Souray?", it's an internal conversation.
Where things begin to get a bit silly is that Portzline deleted his earlier post Sunday morning and re-posted it again, with no editing or content changes, after Russell's injury at camp. He then posted several times on his Twitter feed to promote the idea during the day, and finally began to re-tweet comments from Edmonton Media about Commodore's lack of a no-trade clause and highlighting the defenseman's family roots in Alberta, and how his mother would be able to come to Edmonton to see him play if Commodore were to dress for the Oil. Meanwhile, in Canada, TSN reporter Ryan Rishaug admitted on his Twitter that the Oilers did contact the Blue Jackets about the possibility of a Souray for Commodore trade, but that the discussions were nothing recent - though interestingly the retweets of his report from both Portzline and the Dispatch's Tom Reed omitted his conclusion: "Howson hasn't bitten." That seems to imply that the interest is more from Edmonton than coming out of Columbus, and nothing fresh in the wake of the Russell injury.
This, I feel, is where Portzline and the Dispatch have begun crossing the line from a responsible member of the media to fans trying to promote their personal ideas on how to run the team. As a fan, it's easy to speculate on how the team might make changes. It's fun, sometimes, to look at players around the league and look at what pieces and parts might be moved around to bring that player to your home team. I'd be lying if I said I didn't have a few daydreams about what a player like Duncan Keith or Mark Streit might look like in Union Blue. I'm sure there are fans of teams in the Eastern Conference who would love to see Rick Nash or Jake Voracek suiting up for their clubs.
The difference is when a fan speculates on a blog, it isn't published by a major media outlet, and it doesn't suddenly become a news story to be followed by other hockey media in the US and Canada. Many CBJ fans and outside media consider the Dispatch's Puck-Rakers blog, and Portzline and Reed's associated Twitter feeds, as the primary outlets for breaking news on the team. When these are used to raise rumor and speculation without proper explanation or clarification, fans will begin to assume that the team's situation is worse than it actually appears.
This begins to create more uncertainty in a fanbase that doesn't really need any additional headaches, thank you. By casting a minor injury to a player as a major incident that might demand a trade, you begin to reduce the confidence of the fans, and harm the team's ability to try to draw some of those disaffected CBJ faithful back to the rink.
Worse, some of the language used to describe the team itself is rather misleading - the entire Dispatch team continues to refer to the Blue Jackets using phrases like "budget team", "cash strapped", or "bottoming out."
First, let's address the money issue. While the team is losing money due to their arena lease, the term "budget team" doesn't really fit to a team like the Blue Jackets, whose payroll is currently at 91% of the salary cap. The Jackets currently have almost $54 million dollars committed to payroll and bonuses, not including the potential extensions for Jake Voracek and Steve Mason that the team will need to commit to some time before July 1, 2011.
A cash strapped team does not spend $54 million dollars. A cash strapped team generally spends to around 75-78% of the cap, like the New York Islanders. Cash strapped teams generally are worried far more about the cap floor than the cap ceiling.
Budget teams, like the Nashville Predators, the Phoenix Coyotes, and the Carolina Hurricanes, still generally keep their payrolls in the $47-52 million range, and the Blue Jackets are still above that range. (We can certainly argue if the Jackets have gotten full value for that payroll, but that's another discussion.)
The McConnell family has always said that they would foot the bill to ice a winning team, regardless of cost, if the general manager gave them good reason. The Blue Jackets have, as a result, become a cap team. They may not be spending right up to the cap ceiling as the Flyers, Red Wings, or Sharks have in the past few seasons, but they're clearly willing to make an investment into their players, in hopes of seeing dividends at the gate.
As to the "bottoming out" of attendance, I point you back to the start of this post. Though I'm sure there will be some bad nights in Nationwide if the team doesn't get off to a hot start, the Jackets have never had more than 10,200 season ticket equivalents. That means that on average, 5-6,000 tickets are being sold outside of season ticket packages every night. Even if individual tickets suffer a similar 20% drop at the gate, the team should still see average crowds of between 12,000 and 13,000 fans.
13,000 isn't great, but it's still comparable to last year's surprising Colorado Avalanche, who only averaged 13,900 despite their surprising run to the playoffs, and far better than the 11,000 reported by the Phoenix Coyotes.
I don't have a good explanation for why the Dispatch team are using such a negative tone and charged language when discussing the team. Could it be a sign that Dispatch Media Group owner and CBJ minority owner John Wolfe is displeased with the recent results of the team, and has directed the writers to express that displeasure in print? It's certainly possible - many felt the final straw in the firing of former GM Doug MacLean was a series of scathing editorials and articles on his failures and the poor condition of the club published in the Dispatch in the last months of his tenure, and that the demand for those articles came directly from Wolfe's office.
What I can say, though, is the perception of the team both nationally and locally will be shaped by such negatively toned reporting, and I cannot see how these types of reports serve any productive purpose. If the team plays poorly, it's fair to say that. If the team does things well, it's worth noting that, too. But it is not responsible reporting to bury the positives and enhance the negatives (or vice versa) to push specific agendas and to drive the fanbase to inaccurate conclusions.
This team will have enough challenges in front of them in the 2010-2011 season. The last battle they need to wage is an undeserved war against their own press.