Just when everyone thought the worst of the Injury Crisis was over . . . it wasn't. With Brian Gibbons and Boone Jenner now on IR, demonic possession seems to be the only logical explanation.
I had originally slated a piece analyzing the Blue Jackets' struggles with shooting and even strength scoring for this slot. Then, as I was contemplating my morning coffee and catching up on the hockey Twitterverse, I first saw that Brian Gibbons was placed on IR, with Alexander Wennberg and Cody Goloubef recalled. Disappointing, as Gibbons has been bringing a lot of speed and tenacity to the ice during the recent streak, and finally was rewarded with an assist vs. Washington. My thoughts then turned to possible line combinations, and how the Blue Jackets were going to cope with eight defensemen on the big club's roster. After achieving a level of consciousness permitted only by additional caffeine intake, the word came across Twitter that Boone Jenner was lost for one or two months, due to a stress fracture in his back. If the Gibbons injury was a painful body blow, the Jenner news came as a roundhouse square to the chin. After missing 11 games due to a broken hand, Jenner was just hitting his stride, becoming a dangerous presence on each shift. That's when I decided to postpone the other piece. Under the circumstances, it just seemed to be . . . piling on.
There are no more words or numbers that can adequately describe the infernal nature of the Blue Jackets' injury plague this season. Even the national hockey media has been sympathetic in the wake of the latest debacle, with NBC Sports carrying the following headline: "Seriously? Stress fracture sidelines Columbus' Jenner for 1-2 months" When the greater hockey community starts saying things like "Really?" you seriously have an issue on your hands. The 209 man-games seems like a big number, but is hard to get your mind around what that actually represents. Combining the man-games with salary is superficially attractive, but can actually artificially inflate or understate the actual impact. Boone Jenner makes $778K, in round numbers. Is his value much greater than that? Of course it is. The best I can do is this: if you round to the nearest whole number, the Blue Jackets' injury situation amounts to having seven guys plucked out of the locker room before each game. Seven. Each game. Let that loll around in your gray matter for a bit. The missing guys haven't been AHL retreads, either. Jenner, Nathan Horton, Brandon Dubinsky, Scott Hartnell, Artem Anisimov, Sergei Bobrovsky, Fedor Tyutin, James Wisniewski, Ryan Murray, Mark Letestu . . .
So, the fact of the injuries is just that . . . a fact. No matter how unpleasant it may be, in common parlance, it is what it is. The issues then become: 1. Why is this happening? and 2. What now? Let's deal with the latter issue first.
Of course, last night's win over Chicago was a stunner, and a testament to the guts and determination the club can muster . . . as well as the other-worldly play Sergei Bobrovsky can provide. It was yet another game in the recent string where the result defied the optics - the Blue Jackets were significantly outplayed virtually everywhere on the ice . . .except in goal. This streak will convince some that the club is fine, can simply ride Bobrovsky to the Promised Land, and to hell with shot differentials and even strength scoring. That's possible, but highly precarious. Others will grasp onto the numbers, summarily decree the season lost, and entreat the front office to bag the season in favor of one of the top two draft picks. Others will lobby for immediate trades, and still others will take varying degrees of middle ground. Of course, in the final analysis, what any of us think about the situation is irrelevant. The only thing that matters is what the organization does -- and in that regard, the Blue Jackets are at a bit of a crossroads. Their December run has returned them to playoff relevance -- now just one game below .500 -- but walking a tenuous high wire in terms of how the job is getting done. What was already a hill to climb suddenly is now steeper, and the fear is that adrenaline and guts can last only so long.
Let's deal with the extremes first. There is no way that the organization goes into "tank mode" in search of the prized draft picks. The players have too much pride to do that, and Jarmo Kekalainen and John Davidson both understand that even top draft picks are no sure thing, and risking the attendance drop-off and ill will among the fan base is simply not a result that could be countenanced at this point. No matter how the club is doing it, they are a playoff contender, and anything seen as scuttling that effort would be viewed as treason. By the same token, don't look for one or more earth-shattering trades in an effort to salvage a playoff run. Kekalainen and Davidson have made it clear that they will not purge young talent for temporary fixes. Now, to be sure, there are existing situations that will likely need to be dealt with. The Blue Jackets were forced to bring Cody Goloubef back from his conditioning assignment, under penalty of exposing him to waivers. There are no waiver-exempt blue-liners left, so another move there is a distinct possibility. While a waiver move is always possible, I'd expect the front office to be a bit patient. With just one game left before the Christmas break, the Blue Jackets will have a chance to get some of the nicks and cuts healed, hopefully get Scott Hartnell back, and perhaps get Mark Letestu close to returning. Otherwise -- absent a dramatic shift in record . . . in either direction . . .I just don't see a major move on the trade front until the All Star Break.
Equally important to the discussion is how the organization responds in terms of its utilization of the existing players on the roster. For example, recalling Alexander Wennberg makes a lot of sense. The kid has a world of talent, and just needs the game to slow down a bit for him before the main engine is ignited. Last night, he showed some real skill, a presence in all three zones, and just missed on a few chances. On the other hand, the recall of Sean Collins to replace Jenner has me scratching my head. Collins is 6'1", 195, and will turn 26 in nine days. He has a single NHL point in 13 games played, and has been largely invisible in his prior auditions with the club. In the other corner is Kerby Rychel, age 20, 6'1", 205, and with three points in five NHL games played. After being the last cut in camp, Rychel played well when recalled, and looked very comfortable on NHL ice. Then he was scratched and demoted. It makes no sense.
In the not-too-distant past, there was a club in the NHL that was struggling on the ice -- and at the gate. They had the good fortune of some good draft picks, and their competitive situation and injury status provided the opportunity for these kids to see regular NHL ice time. The club decided to swallow hard and let the kids run. The club was the Chicago Blackhawks, and the kids were Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and a few others. That turned out pretty damn well for the club, I'd say. If you watched them last night, these guys can play. The analogy is clear. There is a window of opportunity here, and the Blue Jackets should take advantage of it. Take guys like Rychel, Wennberg, Dano and Goloubef -- give them minutes and tell them to go get it done. Sure, mistakes will happen, but the seasoning will be invaluable, and I suspect the club's overall competitive level would not take a hit . . .and could get a significant boost. The club just lost some skill and speed, and it's not going to be replaced by Sean Collins or Jared Boll. The club is going to need to start scoring at even strength and put up more than two goals per game, and the injection of young talent might just spark that transition. Just my view . . .
To briefly touch on one other point, the reaction of the coaching staff in terms of on-ice strategy will be interesting to observe. (I'll examine this in more detail in the article originally scheduled for this slot.) Coach Todd Richards is not particularly adventurous when it comes to offensive zone play, and tends to err on the side of caution and reserve. Note the increased reliance on the "collapsing" defense and the curious allotment of ice time among the forwards. (However, the club showed a mores active defense against Chicago last night.) The loss of Jenner and Gibbons could incite him to climb deeper into the hole, and play an even more defensive game, relying on his goaltender to stop the incoming pucks, and the power play to provide a 1 - 0 or 2 - 1 victory. (Last night was another example) As noted above, that can work for short stretches, but it's dangerous as a long-term strategy. From my seat, I think precisely the opposite tactic is called for -- let the young guns loose, play tough in the neutral zone, and put the pressure on the other team. If you do that, your margin for error increases. Using last night's game as an example, the Blue Jackets were much more dangerous when they pushed the play pro-actively, and showed they could pin other teams in their own zone using their own speed. So, keep a close eye on the ice time provided and the forward momentum on the ice. It could speak volumes about where the club is headed. If you're given lemons, you better make lemonade.
Turning back to the question of "Why is this happening?" First and foremost, there are not always reasons or blame to be handed out for everything that happens. A wise man once noted . . . "Shit Happens." Truer words were never spoken. There's truthfully not much anyone can do -- within the bounds of reason -- to prevent things like broken hands. A certain amount of the other injuries are also part of the bargain -- particularly when you have a team that prides itself on hitting everything that moves. Watch a lot of those noisy checks along the boards, and the hitter frequently comes out of the exchange worse than the target. Similarly, when you play a collapsing defense and rely on blocking shots, guys are going to get hurt. As Sam Snead once said -- "You gotta dance with who you brung . . . " So, there's a certain injury risk that is just part of the territory when you play the style of game the Blue Jackets do.
Another potential issue getting some play is the role of the medical staff and the strength and conditioning staff. Again, you have to avoid the knee-jerk tendency to find blame for every ill, but this one is at least worth a look. The number of abdominal/sports hernia issues has been problematic, and those kinds of injuries can be at least minimized by exercises designed to strengthen the muscles at the pelvic floor. You also have to wonder about some of the delayed response time seen in certain injuries. Ryan Murray is a young guy, and his most recent MRI was reported as clean. Why so long? Brandon Dubinsky was out longer than anticipated as well. It's worth a look.
While these explain injuries in isolation, neither of these come close to a rationale for the epic scale of injury that the Blue Jackets have suffered this season. As Sherlock Holmes observed :
When you have eliminated the impossible, then whatever remains -- however improbable -- must be the truth.
Hence, my conclusion that only demonic possession could be responsible for the injury scourge at Nationwide Arena. (If you run into me at the Arena, ask me about the horrific trick we played on the RA in our college dorm after a group trip to see the movie. The 1973 original -- not the inferior remake.) So, if none of the other things mentioned above help, it's time to hit Google for exorcists. It couldn't hurt, right? (Note: No actual demons were harmed in the writing of this article.)