As we head into the final dozen games of the season, thoughts inevitably turn toward the off-season. What trades will be forthcoming? What might the draft hold? What new faces are on the inside track to reach the big time? Who might be moving on for other reasons? The questions abound, and no matter how much we would like to formulate answers for these, the fact remains that nobody -- not even Jarmo Kekalainen or John Davidson -- knows the answer at this point in time -- at least not to any reasonable degree of certainty. While some educated guesses can be made as to existing players who might be vulnerable to a move, that is a slippery slope, as virtually anyone can move, given the right circumstances, and dwelling on such speculation is unfair to both the players and the organization.
If we can't know the specifics, perhaps we can approach the same topics from a different angle. When discussing the James Wisniewski trade, Kekalainen referred to "the plan", and noted that the trade was in keeping with "the plan." While Jarmo provided no further articulation of what "the plan" might entail, we can take the few hints he did drop, utilize our own powers of observation of what has worked -- and what has not -- on the ice, add a dash of inference from past activities, and perhaps derive a high level impression of "the plan" in terms of the themes it will incorporate.
This isn't a "numbers" piece. While statistics -- advanced and otherwise, salary cap and related details will play a role in how "the plan" is implemented, they are relatively meaningless at the high level. The Blue Jackets have plenty of salary cap room to implement any approach they care to adopt, I'll throw precious few statistics (advanced or otherwise) around in this one, as the use of such statistics improperly connotes an air of certainty that simply does not -- and cannot -- exist at this point in time. Rather, it is an exploration of the larger themes that likely give "the plan" its form and substance. Those themes are considerably different today than many thought they would be at this point in the season, and that fact alone is worth some exploration. While inevitably some specific player references need to arise, those should be taken with a large grain of salt, viewed more as examples of what could be done rather than necessarily what will be done.
Theme 1: Refine, Not Rebuild
Some have viewed "the plan" as simply a euphemistic, fan-friendly term meaning "rebuild". My reading of the tea leaves is entirely different. While an injury-plagued season has left a bad taste in the mouths of many, there are many good things at the core of the club, and I think Kekalainen and Davidson recognize that fact, and want to capitalize on it.
Over the past several months, Columbus has taken some dramatic steps to lock up the "core" of the player base going forward. The resolution of the Ryan Johansen off-season melodrama, combined with his continued stellar play, virtually guarantees that he will be signed to a long-term, big dollars deal sooner than later. The contracts given to Brandon Dubinsky, Nick Foligno and Sergei Bobrovsky sent a signal that dedication, hard work and skill will be rewarded within the organization. At the same time, the firm stance taken with Johansen, and the balanced contracts inked with him and Cam Atkinson also send the very real signal that results count, as does consistency of production. In Cam's case, the message appears to be "You can be part of the core, but we need to see more."
You have to add Scott Hartnell to this mix, given both the remaining term of his contract and his performance on the ice. He has been an emotional leader on the ice, and has proven to have more speed and skill left in the tank than the disgruntled Flyers' fans led us to believe. He is quick to stand up for his teammates, and provides that veteran presence that a young team such as the Blue Jackets needs. On the blue line, Fedor Tyutin plays a similar role, just in a different style. Tyutin is simply quietly effective. While he is not as young or as fast as he used to be, he has the veteran's ability to play smart and stabilize what has been a mercurial defensive unit.
Boone Jenner and Ryan Murray are clearly also part of the longer term core -- provided they can stay healthy -- but more on them later. The point is this: despite a hellacious year of injuries, line shuffling and the like, the Blue Jackets have a substantial talented core in place, and a host of others that can quickly become part of the mix -- or not. The facade is not crumbling, and "brick by brick" is intact. Some bricks might be replaced by others, but the foundation is in place.
Theme 2: Strength in Net
It's one of those hockey adages that teams are built from the goal out, and it certainly seems that the Blue Jackets have signed on to that philosophy. Sergei Bobrovsky has been signed on for the goalie-appropriate long term contract, which also sends a signal that it's his net as long as he can hold it. The Blue Jackets' amazing December run was premised primarily on some outstanding play in net -- as well as a similarly impressive knack of winning OT/SO games.
Of course, it's almost facile to say that strong play in net is an essential element of the Blue Jackets' game plan -- as every team has that on the drawing board. The point is that the Blue Jackets have a guy who can actually fill the bill, which already puts them in relatively rarified air around the league. Every team needs those stretches when the goalie needs to win games for the squad, and Bobrovsky delivers at a high pace. His numbers may not always look as impressive as you would expect, but that comes primarily from a smattering of "stinker" games, where nothing seems to go right. The intangibles are more significant with Bobrovsky than the numbers, including the confidence he instills in the team in front of him, his focus and work ethic, and the ability to change a game midstream. No better example of the latter can be found than the recent win in Carolina, where he let in two goals early (due primarily to some shaky play in front of him), had a rare display of temper --- and then shut down the Hurricanes for the duration.
The focus of "the plan" in net will focus more on the supporting cast than the star of the show. Curtis McElhinney has put together some very strong sequences this season -- better than most would have expected. That's good news and bad news, as he has certainly played well enough to make himself eligible for consideration for a long term seat, but simultaneously might have attracted some attention from other suitors in his free-agent year. While CMac has played well at times, he has some fundamental issues -- a slow glove, sub-par anticipation, and a tendency to lose focus quickly.
What is clear is that the following tier -- Anton Forsberg, Oscar Dansk and others -- are not yet ready for prime time. Thus, I would expect the Blue Jackets to be dangling the lines for some help in net during the off-season, if not for CMac's role, then certainly to provide some interim help at the next level, while the youngsters develop
Theme 3: Youth Will Be Served
Perhaps the clearest message Kekalainen sent in the Wisniewski trade is that -- all other things being equal -- youth will be served. He all but committed to relying on the development of David Savard, Kevin Connauton and Ryan Murray, and I suspect that Cody Goloubef might have joined that group. While the merits of the Wisniewski trade are not the topic here -- it seems clear that his role as power play specialist was insufficient to overcome his defensive deficiencies. While the debate will rage on that issue, the only thing that matters -- right or wrong -- is the organization's view of the matter. Both in terms of the trade itself, and Kekalainen's statements in its aftermath -- the message again seemed clear. "We are committed to the development of our young players." If you view the defensive shortcomings of guys like David Savard and Connauton as a wash, then you look at how Wisniewski's offensive production can be replaced. Connauton has shown the ability to put the puck on the net consistently from the point, and his scoring pace would rival Wisniewski's, given equal opportunity. In the meantime, David Savard is only one goal away from the franchise record for defensemen, and can produce at both even strength and on the power play.
While, we'll delve into this aspect more in a bit, the emergence of Alexnder Wennberg and Marko Dano (in whichever order you care to place them) has been perhaps the biggest positive to emerge from the Season of Pain. Their performances have validated the organization's draft decisions, and show that the pipeline is strong.
The Blue Jackets have been one of the youngest teams in the NHL since the third or fourth year of their existence, so it is understandable if the fan base rolls its eyes a bit at the "youth movement" concept, which has been the source of many unfulfilled promises over the years. The difference this time is that both the talent selection and development of that talent have been superior to past years. So, this is not a case of "youth for youth's sake", but a rational, pre-meditated incorporation of proven young talent.
Theme 4: The System, Speed & Savvy
"The Plan", like any other plan, is more than the people involved. To be effective, those people need to operate within a cogent system, and this is where the coaching staff and style of play enter the picture. This is not a "Fire Todd Richards" piece -- John Davidson has pretty clearly indicated that the coaching staff will be back next year, as it would be unfair to hold them responsible for the Season of Pain. I get that, and don't necessarily disagree. I would point out, however, that it's easy for a stock broker to look like a hero in a bull market, and that the true measure of skill is how they do in a bear market. Still, you need to have all of your tools available, and Richards & Co. have not had that this year.
What I do think "The Plan" involves is a hard examination of the system on the ice, and some of the assumptions that underlie "Blue Jackets Hockey". The latter is described as gritty, hard-working hockey that makes the team hard to play against. That's the marketing plug, but what it too often translates into in reality is a static system of dump & chase on offense, which moves the play away from the center of the ice to the boards, and a defense that collapses low, surrendering time and space. The result is a massive disparity in shots and scoring chances, which matches up with observation. While their attitude and tenacity are key attributes, they are not unique, nor are they enough. Hitting everything in sight is something to be trotted out at the appropriate time, but it is not the answer for every situation, nor for every player. Columbus has learned through bitter experience that speed beats hitting every time, and Coach Richards himself acknowledged the need to "play faster" last off-season.
The reality is that the Blue Jackets are not a terrific team along the boards, which is where they play much of the game when they are in "dump & chase" mode. Individual players have those skills, but as a team, they get bogged down and create few chances from the boards. They are at their most effective when they enter the zone under control, and establish presence in the center of the ice. They are even effective in transition, and will become only more so as they actually work on the transition game.
Of course, speed alone isn't enough -- as it does no good to get to the puck first or create space if you can't do anything with the puck when you get it. Similarly, it's not enough to have a bunch of shooters with speed, unsupported by guys who can consistently get them the puck. (See Oilers, Edmonton). That's where guys like Artem Anisimov come into play -- guys who are terrific puck possessors, good skaters, and deadly passers. Anisimov has proven his value since returning from injury, notching some goals himself, but also creating opportunities and unlocking the potential of those around him.
So, the next theme in "The Plan" is to be a more nimble, complete team -- able to let skill players do what they are best at, while still utilizing a physical tenacity in the proper circumstances. That's when you see what guys like Atkinson can really do -- when they have the opportunity and the tools to finish chances and make those around them better.
Theme 5: Leverage the Logjam
When the season began, I think that most seasoned Blue Jackets observers looked ahead and saw a big logjam on the blue line. With Ryan Murray, James Wisniewski, Jack Johnson, David Savard, Fedor Tyutin, Dalton Prout, Cody Goloubef and Tim Erixon all in the mix -- conventional wisdom had the organization dangling one or more defensemen to beef up the scoring capabilities of a team that looked -- on paper -- like it would have more trouble scoring than stopping people.
In a few short months, all of that changed. Injuries, personal tribulations and simple underperformance conspired overnight to transform the blue line from a source of strength to the object of suspicion. When we turned around, Erixon was gone, Murray remained hurt, Kevin Connauton was on board, and the blue line was in turmoil. At one point, due to the fact that there were no waiver-immune blue liners ready to play at the NHL level, the club played Jordan Leopold at forward, rather than expose anyone to waivers.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the ice, it was a different story. While the forward ranks were decimated by injuries, Ryan Johansen and Nick Foligno proved that they were the real deals. Jeremy Morin came in and showed some promise before being injured. Wennberg and Dano proved that they are long term keepers, and Kerby Rychel showed his mettle in a brief cup of coffee with the team, which some argue should have been longer. David Clarkson -- a guy with a bad contract who can at least play -- was acquired for Nathan Horton -- who couldn't. Even Rene Borque -- acquired as more of a salary-evener in the Wisniewski deal -- has shown he can skate, occupy the tough areas, and score.
Suddenly, Columbus has forward ranks overflowing with possibilities. Johansen, Jenner, Atkinson, Foligno, Hartnell, Calvert, Wennberg, Dano, Anisimov, Morin, Borque, Clarkson, Letestu, etc. etc. And that's only the guys with proven NHL time, not even including guys like Skille, Tropp and Boll. Add Rychel, Milano, Bjorkstand and you have a real logjam at forward.
This means several things. First of all, much of the existing salary cap space will be used up over the next few years as a bunch of these youngsters come off their ELC terms and earn "real" money. This is one of the necessary evils of a young roster -- as considerably more advance planning is required to maintain an orderly flow of talent and money.
Secondly, there will simply not be room at the inn for all of this talent. Instead, some will be leveraged to obtain other assets, most likely some relatively seasoned blue line help to provide experienced depth there. That's as it should be, as every acquisition a club makes has some sort of value -- either in terms of what they can do, or what they can bring in return. This has been perhaps the most stunning organizational reversal, but one that could reap big benefits in the off-season.
So, I think "the plan" is a multi-faceted monster that Kekalainen, Davidson & Company are taming and training. It gets out of its cage once in a while, but in the final analysis is potentially shaping up as a formidable force. Stay tuned.