Media day is an interesting mix of the packaged and the unexpected for the Blue Jackets, or any sports team. While the team will go out of their way to control the appearance of players, the setting, even the food, once the members of the media in attendance are free to start asking questions, the situation stops being fully under their control, and often begins to head in different directions.
In the case of today's media day, many of the questions - and the answers given - weren't terribly unexpected, but the attitude underlying them was a real surprise.
After serving up an impressive lunch spread (Maryland crab cakes, chicken & waffles, nacho potato skins, even a "fall salad" that had the amazing but evil addition of potato chips) to both the media and several tables of lucky season ticket holders, the press conference portion of the afternoon was convened by Jackets VP of PR Todd Sharrock, and GM Scott Howson began by informing the media that newly acquired d-man Radek Martinek will miss the first day of training camp due to attending the funeral of friends lost in the Lokomotiv crash.
Talk soon turned to a happier note, however, as Howson talked about the renewed energy and enthusiasm among the fans and the team - "But the hard part", Howson cautioned, "is transferring that into wins."
Both Howson and Arniel were equally pleased with the progress of the team at Traverse City, and the performance of the prospects, who will return back to Columbus on Thursday following the close of the tournament.
The first question of the press conference went, in a wonderful nod to longstanding tradition, to former Columbus sports fixture Larry Larson, who called in from Southern California to ask Scott Arniel about how things had changed from his first year as head coach to entering his sophomore campaign.
Surprisingly, his general theme was that this season is actually more relaxing than the previous - it's clear that the work of assembling a staff, getting to know the team, and the compressed schedule for opening the season in Sweden did take a toll, and this offseason offered much less stress.
When asked about the jobs up for grabs in training camp, the repeated theme was that there are spots up for grabs, regardless of seniority - with the #6 and #7 d-man slot mentioned explicitly, and "one or two" forward spots equally in flux, but returning to the theme that if players show them in camp that they are ready for the NHL, the team will give them the opportunity.
While names like Ryan Johansen, Cam Atkinson, David Savard, and Tomas Kubalik were addressed as possible candidates (if, Arniel cautioned, they can not only perform well in camp but excel above and beyond the level of players who they hope to "jump" in the lineup), players like Alexandre Giroux and Martin St. Pierre were also brought up as part of the competition. It would seem that they are hoping for "surprises" out of camp, similar to Kyle Wilson or Derek MacKenzie last season.
Goaltending, unsurprisingly, was another hot topic. "It isn't just the technique or the skillset", Scott Arniel said, "but the mental side - there's so much pressure thrown at you." The addition of Ian Clark to the coaching staff was brought up, and the way Ian Clark has worked to build a relationship with Steve Mason, something that Mason agreed with when he was interviewed later in the day, and certainly feels the responsibility of his role.
"I think that with any hockey club, no matter how good the offense or defense is, at the end of the day it all comes down to your goaltender. If your goaltender is playing well, you're in the game...for myself, if I can get back to the level of my first season, or even better than that, yeah, I think we're a playoff team, and this is a better team. It's up to us (the players) to put everything together now."
The feeling of this being a better team was echoed by Scott Howson and Scott Arniel in their press conference, and resonated with the players as well.
"I think we all feel pretty excited," said Antoine Vermette, "it tells a lot about the orientation of the organization and brings a can't wait feeling...you don't want to wait. You want to make things happen."
As one of the players who lives full time in Columbus, R.J. Umberger has been very aware of the way the fanbase has responded to this offseason - and shares their desire to see the season get started. "It's been good to see the way people care and that they're so excited about what's been done, it's been fun to see the reactions - you get really excited and ready to get going."
"Our first goal is to make the playoffs", said Jeff Carter, one of those additions generating that excitement, "And once you're in the playoffs, anything can happen." With his experience of going from needing a shootout win on the final day of the season to reaching the Stanley Cup Finals, Carter is the poster child for unlikely postseasons, but he continued to focus on needing to be in the top 8 as the main priority, which the club is aware can be extremely challenging.
When asked about that possiblity, R.J. Umberger agreed. "...some people have been doubting us, picking us as out of the playoffs, but nobody in the room believes more than us, and that just motivates us more. You add a 30-40 goal scorer, you add a right handed shot on the blueline, you add a guy like (Vinny) Prospal who has won a cup...pieces like that make you feel better about your chances. This is a better team up and down, and more guys could come into the lineup. It's pretty good."
When asked about the possibility of three scoring lines, Scott Arniel seemed quite interested, but cautioned that it depends on what is seen in training camp. "A lot of that relies on our young players - Johansen, Kubalik, Calvert, Atkinson...if they're making it difficult on us when we get down to cut down time, the players will decide."
When asked where he saw himself, R.J. Umberger said he believes the team could put together three scoring lines, and sees himself in a top six role, but he cautioned about getting too far ahead in training camp or when the regular season begins, recognizing the other side of the coin with the team's new attitude: "We can't be thinking about December in October or you'll come out terrible. We've just got to take care of business when it's in front of you. We'll be aware of it, but if we lose a game or two, it's not the end of the world, we regroup and go after it the next game. There's a lot of hockey to be played - we just can't get caught up into it."
The belief that this is a better team radiated throughout the afternoon, coloring every answer - it's an undercurrent that seems to be flowing through the building, not just in the press conferences, but even as they gather to play a bit of shinny hockey in "unofficial" scrimmages out on the main ice. Don't think we're for real? Watch and see.
It's a dangerous double edge - one side is the confidence this team so badly needs as they go into the new season, to keep them on their game regardless of the score, to give them the drive to come out swinging at every challenge. But if the accomplishments on the ice can't back up the talk, it's also easily turned into a weapon that opponents, the media, and the more skeptical sections of the fanbase can use to bludgeon the team down, replacing adjectives like "aggression", "swagger", and "winning attitude" with "Hubris", "delusion", and "overconfidence."
On paper, this is a better team. In the locker room, they believe that they have become stronger and stronger. But the real test is going to come not in training camp, or even at the opening of the regular season, but in seeing how the confidence and poise translates onto the ice game after game, through both success and adversity.
Check Out Our Video Interviews:
Scott Arniel / Scott Howson Press Conference