The past eight days have seemed like a bad dream to everybody associated with the Blue Jackets -- front office, coaches, players and fans. From the inexplicable 1:17 collapse in an otherwise solid effort against the Rangers to entirely listless efforts against Ottawa, Buffalo and Toronto, the gulf between the known talent and the actual performance is vast. Technical analysis of the play reveals a series of flaws -- frequent passes to nowhere, excessive puck watching, allowing too much time and space in the defensive zone, poor gaps between forwards and defensemen. Sergei Bobrovsky -- the literal and figurative last line of defense -- has not lived up to his usual standards. Sure, he's been hung out to dry by the skaters in front of him, but he'll be the first to admit that he's also surrendered some softies in each game thus far.
For his part, Todd Richards has enumerated a variety of purported causes for the perceived disarray. "Turnovers" is the recurring theme in his discussions, and after the Toronto game he acknowledged that something "weird" was going on. He is clearly mystified by the recent unpleasantness. The problem is that the discussions of gaps, turnovers, etc. really amount to nothing more than a listing of symptoms, rather than a discovery of the disease. It's not really a solution to go to practice and yell "Don't turn the puck over!!" Similarly, it's not an issue of talent, as everyone on this roster has shown that they can play more than capably at the NHL level, and most were part of the season-ending winning streak that proved a healthy Blue Jackets team could beat anybody. The addition of Brandon Saad in the off-season only enhanced that fact.
Instead, I think that Sergei Bobrovsky may have unwittingly pointed to the problem -- not only for him, but for the entire team -- when he said:
I have zero confidence right now.
Confidence. That ethereal quality that separates champions from also-rans, that comes and goes in an instant, and confounds those who try to harness it. More problematic is the fact that it really comes in two flavors. There's the self confidence that comes from knowing you can do something, and is reinforced by actually doing it time after time. Then there's the confidence that others around you will do their jobs and/or have your back. Both are in play here, with equally devastating impacts.
We'll start with the latter aspect first. If you're about to go under anesthetic, you want to have confidence in the surgeon looming in front of your face with a scalpel. More to the point, if your huddled in a foxhole with another soldier, you have to have confidence that a covering line of fire is coming when you charge out of the whole. In either case, if your confidence is misplaced, you're dead. If you saw your foxhole buddy fail to fulfill his responsibility a week earlier, you probably are a bit more hesitant to go charging out of that foxhole. We call that "doubt." Doubt is what starts the cascade of falling confidence that destroys performance. Doubt begets hesitation, and hesitation -- more often than not -- is fatal to successful execution.
Doubt insidiously undermines self-confidence as well. One of the things that separated Tiger Woods from the rest of the field for years was his confidence, bred of doing the seemingly impossible over and over again. It never dawned on Woods that he could not hit that 206 yard draw over the water to a pin tucked behind the bunker . . . with a six-iron. That allowed him to swing freely . . .and to succeed where others failed. As age, injury and off-course intrigue entered the equation, so did doubt. As a professional golfer, there is nobody else to blame or turn to in times of crisis. You either make the shot or you don't, and once you don't, the doubt that you can increases. Then you can't swing that six-iron so freely, which means you have no chance of making the shot That begins the inexorable tumble down the confidence ladder. Ask Ian Baker-Finch or David Duval, who fell off the proverbial cliff once doubt crept into their games.
The confidence in others can creep into self-confidence as well. Using Sergei as an example, he has been unable to trust his defensemen to be in the right place at the right time, or to clear the inevitable rebounds. That leads him to try to do the impossible -- anticipate the miscues. That takes him out of his normal great anticipation of the play, and forces him to do things he normally wouldn't. Now he's out of position, and vulnerable to shots. A few of those go in the net, and now he's doubting himself. There's really not any room for doubt when you have a small disk of rubber heading your direction at 100 mph. Bad things are bound to happen, and happen they have.
The same holds true for the skaters. A miscue occurs, and panic sets in. The opposition throws a forecheck and neutral zone trap at them, and they get the deer-in-the-headlights look and freeze. They make a bad pass that results in a goal, then try to double up and atone for the error. That gets them gripping the stick tighter, which means that the chances of bad passes and missed shots actually increases. That puts them further behind, which gets them pressing more, etc. etc. etc. This is precisely the vortex of uncertainty in which the Blue Jackets find themselves. Mistakes are going to happen, but should not, in the ordinary case, result in the panic that the Blue Jackets are showing.
This brings us to coaching. With the inevitable drum beats marking the time to Todd Richard's demise getting increasingly louder, the opposing camps have been stridently advocating their positions. The anti-Richards contingent points to three years of awful starts, despite consistently improving talent, and says he must go. The Richards defenders note that Richards is not the one turning the pucks over or wearing the goalie pads. Both positions have merit -- and loopholes -- but really beg the question when it comes to the question of confidence.
Let's face it, an NHL head coach is a temporary employee. Longevity in any given position is the exception, not the rule. This is due in no small part to the fact that it is the rare human being that can display the broad spectrum of attributes required of a head coach over time, and apply those attributes to ever changing circumstances. For every Barry Trotz, there are five Scott Arniels. It doesn't mean that they are not good coaches, but rather that the circumstances and the attributes no longer mesh.
At the NHL level, the head coach is not primarily about the X's and O's of the game. Watch an NHL bench during a power play or at a time of crisis, and more often than not it will be an assistant charting out the play, not the head coach. The head coach sets direction, establishes policy and, most importantly, provides stability. We'll focus on this latter role here, as that directly ties to the confidence aspect of the team dynamic. How does a head coach provide stability? There are lots of ways, but some that leap to mind include:
- Establishing an overriding "system" of play
- Putting the right players in the proper roles
- Providing a consistent pattern of discipline and player accountability
- Providing inspiration and a unified public face
- Knowing when to tinker, and when to leave things alone
These are the important high-level attributes that a successful head coach possesses, aside from any hockey "chalk talk" kinds of innovations. There are very few equivalents of a Paul Brown or Bill Walsh in any sport, including hockey, and by the time players reach the NHL level, they know how to play the game. Sure, there are a never-ending series of refinements that represent a career process of learning, but again, that is rarely the task of the head coach. However, if a head coach can do the things listed above well, he will have the respect of his players. With that respect, players will move mountains. Without it, stick a fork in the club, they're done. For those who watched the Michigan-Michigan State football game yesterday, you heard the commentators repeatedly reference Jim Harbaugh and the elements of confidence and respect that he brought to the program. While the Wolverines lost that game on one of the most improbable plays you will ever see, the transformation in that club over the course of a single year is both profound and undeniable. That's what a head coach can provide.
Unfortunately, these are the things with which Todd Richards struggles. Though there are periodic references to "the plan", "work"or playing the "right way", there is no overarching, consistent "system"in evidence. While systems vary in their level of detail and essential structure, their function is to provide a touchpoint to which the team can always return in times of trouble or stress. In Detroit under Babcock, every player knew that under given circumstances, there would be a friendly player in a certain area. Put the puck in that area, and chances are you were good. From that basic structure, thousands of permutations emerged in the fluid course of play, but the core concept remained the same. It is an instinctive, automatic process.
In the Toronto game, the Blue Jackets were facing a club that had six days of rest coming in. Not being a fool, Mike Babcock took advantage of fresh legs and put an aggressive forecheck and neutral zone trap in play. The result was devastating, because the Blue Jackets acted to a man like they had never seen this before. Instead of automatically reverting to a systematic way of attacking the pressure, they froze. Instead of a cohesive team attack against the pressure, it became a series of individual battles, which went badly. The Blue Jackets played a fast, challenging style in Game 1, which worked very well, except for 1:17 of the final period. The club plays at its best when it is fast, assertive and creates pressure. Yet, as the losing streak has gone on, the club has been steered into a more static, cautious game that is ill-suited to their talent. The lack of a consistent underlying approach is a corrosive element to the team's overall confidence.
Sure, there are individual failings. But that's what coaches are supposed to identify and fix. Addressing causes of issues and fixing them is among the most basic coaching functions, and the inability to do that destroys respect and confidence. Richards has been quick to state that he is clueless as to the causes for the current problems. That's candid, but disturbing. Even if that's true, you don't come out in public and proclaim it. You say things like "We have a handle on the problems, and we are working hard to fix it." Note the "we". Richards has an unsavory habit of lapsing into using "they" when referring to the players, especially when times are bad. It's like the pro golf caddy who says "We were doing great. We birdied three holes in a row, then he goes and hooks it into the water." Anybody get the number of that bus? Players notice that stuff.
If you want to find the cause of a problem, you keep things steady, but change one element at a time, until you find the part or process that is failing. Basic stuff. Unfortunately, Todd Richards is a perpetual tinkerer. He changes lines multiple times in game, even when things are going well. This makes it difficult to isolate causes, and promotes confusion among the player ranks. Let the guys play, and play at full speed. You can find the leak in the window with an eye dropper. Put a hose on it, and it will become obvious. Bobrovsky has not been himself, but McElhinney made little difference last night.
For most, the optics are easy to identify. Dalton Prout has been awful, but he remains in the lineup. Players go for line changes on the shift from offense to defense, rather than the opposite. That's basic stuff. Yet there is no accountability, no consistent relationship between playing time and performance. Effort is not the question -- but as noted above, guys who are playing their hearts out are frustrated in having to do their jobs and cover for others. That all speaks to confidence. Yes, it all begins with individual mistakes, but those are going to happen. If a player can't cut it, he sits or gets traded, end of story. But that's not happening, and its eroding the club from the inside. The examples are many, but the simple point is that those fundamental attributes a club needs from its head coach -- particularly at times like these -- are sorely lacking right now.
Some have called for GM Jarmo Kekäläinen's head, arguing that he should have brought in a veteran defenseman in the off-season. I disagree for a few reasons. First, nobody can seriously question that this is the most talented club Columbus has ever fielded. That's just objectively true. Sure, the blue line has more gaps than elsewhere, but in a salary cap world every club has vulnerabilities. Remember, that this blue line corps was the same one that won 16 of 17 down the stretch last year, and promised to benefit from another year of experience. Additionally, while the acquisition of Brandon Saad was a pleasant off-season surprise, it had to disrupt the overall game plan. Jarmo could not rationally turn down the deal, but spending Marko Dano in that deal made it less likely that he would be willing to dip into that pool again for another defenseman, particularly the quality of defensemen that were on the market. Savard started slow last year, but was a star the rest of the season. Connauton has gaps, but can do it. JJ is actually playing better than this time last year.
No, the issue is not talent, nor is it effort. Right now, the poison in the well is confidence, and it is the most insidious problem an organization -- or an individual -- can have. Sure, there might be a trade, and that could help. But by itself, a trade won't address the fundamental problem. Todd Richards is a nice man, and a good hockey coach. But he's proven unable to maintain that critical level of confidence that is essential for a club to function. That's called "losing the room" -- and it happens everywhere. No, he doesn't play the game, but he sets the tone, and that tone is falling on deaf ears right now. I strongly suspect that a different tune will be playing in Columbus before long. It's a sad but inevitable part of the process. Stay tuned.