This is a different playoff year for the Columbus Blue Jackets and their fan base. Sure, it's the second round of the playoffs, and we are all spectators, but it's vastly different from past years. The club made enormous strides this season (dare I say perhaps two or three bricks worth of progress?) both on the ice and organizationally, and provided some indelible images in the stretch drive and that incredible series with Pittsburgh. Instead of the "get rid of them all" mantra that has haunted past off-seasons, people are genuinely worried that moves will be made that would disrupt the chemistry . . . imagine that. The quality of our problems has drastically improved.
As the playoffs have progressed, and the accompanying personnel moves have unfolded, there are some really fascinating prospects shaping up on the horizon. It's too early to tell whether they are storm clouds or rays of opportunity, but they're worth a brief look.
Iron City Fear Factor -- before moving on to other cities and topics, I have to mention that my conversations with friends and acquaintances in and around the Pittsburgh area have been fascinating since the completion of the opening round. Unanimously, they shared that the fan base was genuinely scared as the series progressed, and all reported that the opinion of the Blue Jackets as both a club and organization has soared there. While it makes no difference in results, it's just a bit of validation at the job the team has done to establish credibility and become more than a temporary curiosity. Columbus took full advantage of its debut in the Eastern Conference, and I can virtually guarantee that we'll soon see the benefits of that effort in terms of increased network TV presence and other goodies. That boosts recognition, which boosts ticket sales, etc. etc. Good stuff coming . . .
Singing the Blueshirt Blues -- for a well presented piece on the Rick Nash situation in New York, you need go no further than this article by Greg Wyshinski over at Puck Daddy. For those of us who lived the highs and the lows of the Rick Nash Experience in Columbus, there is much that is both familiar and spot on point. A very bittersweet read for any Blue Jackets fan. Anybody seen Nash lately? Anybody?
The Way Out of San Jose? -- Stop me if you've heard this one in prior seasons, but this was supposed to be THE year for the San Jose Sharks -- the season where they shed the albatross of past post-season collapses and grasped the Holy Grail that is the Stanley Cup. Management and veteran players have been spared the axe in the past, premised implicitly on the assurance that NEXT year would be different. Uh, not so much. In fact, if anything, this season was worse than anything that preceded it, given the fact that the Sharks not only exited in the first round, but that they did so after holding a 3- 0 series lead. Ouch.
GM Doug Wilson, who has held that post for 11 years, has said that he will recommend that coach Todd McLellan be retained going forward. The wild card is that both Wilson and McLellan will be evaluated by new head owner Hasso Plattner -- an individual who does not make a habit of sharing his views in public. So, any predictions as to how things will go in Silicon Valley are suspect . . at best. During McLellan's six years with the team, they have made the playoffs each year. That's good. They made it to the conference finals in back-to-back seasons (09-10 and 10-11), which is good, but got swept by the Blackhawks and managed just one win against the Canucks the next year. Bad. Of the other four years, the Sharks have been playing golf after the first round three times, and after the second round once. Very bad.
"Almost" is a phrase wearing thin in San Jose, and the sun is rapidly setting on the chances for this group. Dan Boyle is 37, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Brad Stuart are all 34, Martin Havlat is 33 and Brent Burns is 29. They have a combined cap hit of just about $35 million, and all have some form of non-movement or no trade clauses in their deals. Niemi has not been the stalwart in goal that they wanted. At some point, you have to at least be playing for the Cup with the talent this club has. Some big Sharks could be on the trading block at the draft, which could have a big ripple effect.
Meanwhile Up North . . . It's almost impossible to fathom that just two years ago, the Vancouver Canucks had the best goal-tending on Planet Earth, the Sedin twins playing at the top of their games, and Coach Alain Vigneault seemed like he might die a Canuck. Now, Vancouver has a pair of battle-weary and beaten up Sedins at age 33, a Lack in goal, and have fired both their GM and the mercurial John Tortorella as their head coach. Fans are standing among the ashes, wondering what the hell happened. Aren't we all? Meanwhile, Vigneault is finding out that maybe New York is not such a heart-warming place after all . . .
Musical Benches -- Speaking of coaches, the annual migration is fully underway. Barry Trotz, the only coach the Nashville Predators have ever known, was shown the door, and is hoping for another chance elsewhere. He was curiously replaced by former Philly coach Peter Laviolette. Having Laviolette, a high-pace, offensive-minded coach, take over the reins of a defensively structured Predators club is a bit like having Lindsay Lohan write the Miss Manners column for your local paper. Who knows? Stranger things have happened. Meanwhile, in the Eternal Hockey City of Toronto, Randy Carlyle miraculously got a two-year contract extension, after leading the Maple Leafs through an epic season-ending collapse. Ken Hitchcock got a one-year extension in St. Louis -- not exactly a ringing endorsement after an early playoff exit. Is Hitch wearing on the Blues' players and staff? Finally, Carolina, Washington and Florida are all looking for new coaches. Rumblings out of Washington all point at Alex Ovechkin. Ovechkin for Umberger and Boll. Done deal.
Cost Benefit Analysis -- Somebody needs to really re-think this trend toward defenses that collapse all five guys to the crease, leaving the points wide open for serial bombing. Sure, there are a lot of blocked shots, but there are also the resulting injuries, and more of those point shots get through than with a "normal" defense. Why? Pretty simple, based upon what I'm seeing. Without pressure, the point men can tee up the puck and pick their moment. With seven or eight guys crammed down low, the net-minder's visibility is nil, and some crazy caroms are far more likely. We saw the Blue Jackets fall victim to this more than once. End the madness.
Essay Question -- The Blue Jackets should trade (provide any name other than Jared Boll) because . . . . . Discuss. Show your work.
That's it for now. Ponder, discuss, criticize, berate. It's all good. Keep tabs on our Prospect Profiles series as we lead up to the draft, and lots more coming. Stay tuned.