Yesterday's Media Day was a chance to catch up with some old acquaintances after the summer, a chance to sneak a peak at a good chunk of the Blue Jackets' roster playing some shinny, a chance to eat some food and talk about hockey, and a chance to pick the brains of both GM Scott Howson and head coach Scott Arniel.
The Two Scotts talked roster moves, addressed some specific players, and talked about the differences between this time last year and today. What struck me about the remarks was the comfort level of Scott Arniel heading into Year 2 as compared to Year 1, but also the focus he has clearly had on specific areas of the hockey team for improvement.
In terms of the summer that was, I wanted to get a sense from Scott Howson as to whether he felt a true sense of urgency. But, in response to that question, it was Scott Arniel who delivered the quote of the day in that respect: "We're not 32 years old." The Scotts struck a delicate balance in that respect: yes, they know it's time to win now, but let's also remember that this team is built not just for the now, but also for a stretch of years into the future.
Howson addressed the specific question about urgency by talking about Rick Nash, who has been the face of this franchise almost essentially since his arrival in 2002. Howson praised owner John P. McConnell for stepping up and ponying up the cash to make this summer's roster overhaul possible, but then immediately turned to Nash when saying that the organization definitely feels a sense of urgency: "I think the root of it all is that we have a franchise player in Rick Nash that just turned 27 in June, and we don't want to waste his prime. He's entering his prime now; the next four, five, six, seven years should be his prime. We want to try to surround him with a better team, and hopefully we've done that."
Howson shed a bit of light into the psyche of the normally mums-the-word Nash, who hardly ever has said anything publicly about the roster. "Both Scott and I talk to Rick all the time," Howson said, "and one of his consistent requests is 'Get us another All Star.' We've got that in Jeff [Carter] now. I think there is a sense of urgency. I think the players feel it, and certainly everybody else does."
This was where Arniel stepped in to point out that, in addition to Nash's age of 27, the bulk of their core is also around that same age. "One point on that, too, is that Rick's 27, and [James] Wisniewski's 27, and [Fedor] Tyutin's 27, and [Marc] Methot's 25... our core group that we've locked up here are all pretty close to the same age. If you talk about expectations right now, or you talk about it one year from now or two years from now, we're real excited about the age of our group. We're not 32 years old. We're not an older team that needs to be great right now because of the age."
It's clear that there is pressure, and there are expectations to win and to win soon. But, there is also a feeling that this group can continue to win for awhile. Jeff Carter is also just 26, and the core is set and signed for a long time. So, while there is that sense of urgency, there is also a sense of comfort and of confidence. The GM is confident in the roster he's put together in the face of those expectations, and the coach is confident that the team can be good, and good for awhile.
So, the organization is urgent to win. How do they get there?
One of the biggest factors coming into this season as compared to last season is the coach himself. Arniel addressed how things are different for him this year as opposed to last year: "This year is so much more relaxing than last year. We were all new. It certainly was a lot of preparation. It was trying to figure out how we were going to handle training camp week. We had our trip to Sweden. Laying out the season. There was a lot of excitement, a lot of expectations."
Arniel noted the differences coming into this season not only with a year under his belt, but also with more time to prepare. "This year, we've done all of our work in June and July," Arniel said. "And, we've changed our team. Things are so much more relaxed for myself and for our staff. We're really looking forward to being able to just let things play themselves out as camp starts on Friday."
As most fans know, the one big hurdle to the Jackets' success last season was getting the consistency from game-to-game and month-to-month. This is where that notion of focus comes in. Arniel was very candid about that need to be focused, and about his own focus going into the season. "Obviously, last year's start was tremendous," the coach noted. "We certainly [then] went through a stretch where our play deteriorated quite a bit." No surprises there. So coach, how do you fix that?
"I think...bringing in five or six new faces will help. Hopefully, [it will] not allow some of that stuff to happen," Arniel said. "I talked about it last year a few times. It's frustrating when everybody talked about December being a tough month, and sure enough we had a bad December. Our message coming into training camp is: it's 82 games, and if you start to look at 82 you're going to have a long year."
So, how does the club maintain the momentum from that hot start? "When we were 14-6, we were thinking about March; we were thinking about April," Arniel admitted. "Coming out of training camp, all we're going to worry about is Nashville for the first game of the season, and then when we're done then we move on to Minnesota."
So, if there's one message to take away, it's that Arniel is focused, and wants a focused bunch in the dressing room. "I talked often last year about staying in the now, not getting too far ahead of ourselves," said the coach. "I think at times last year, maybe I allowed it, maybe it's a little bit of our history here. We get thinking too much about the big picture and not focusing on what you can control, and that's what's happening today."
Arniel thinks the off-season additions will help in that regard, as well. "I'd like to think that a Vinny Prospal that's won a Stanley Cup, Jeff Carter who's been to the Stanley Cup, James Wisniewski who's played on real good hockey teams, that they have the experience to help this group at those times when times start to become tough."
It certainly sounds like a good message coming from the second-year coach. I got the impression that Arniel knows that at times his team wasn't with him last year, and I was impressed that he was willing to admit that perhaps he allowed a little too much wiggle room in terms of their focus. In that respect, it also seems to be very telling of a GM and his head coach who were clearly having open discussions and working well together to make the team better: Howson brought in talented players with that winning experience, and Arniel was open to bringing in a guy like Todd Richards with some head coaching experience to help make himself a better coach.
As is always the case this time of year, only time will tell whether it all pays dividends. But, to listen to the GM and the coach talk on Media Day--when hope springs eternal--they know that the time for finishing at the bottom of the standings is over, and it seems as though they're focused on their mission at hand to make the playoffs not only now, but consistently during the prime-window of their core.
And, to take off the "media" cap and remember that I am also a fan, that's enough for me to get excited.