The Anger of the Gods
Despite all of the bravado to the contrary, injuries do matter, as the Blue Jackets are discovering. It's early in the season, but the challenges must be met now.
Ask any coach or general manager about a team's prospects before the season -- in any sport -- and you'll likely hear a response that begins with "If we stay healthy . . . " Ironically, however, when the team doesn't stay healthy, that same GM or coach will dig deep into the rhetorical goodie bag and come up with "Yeah, but injuries are no excuse." I beg to differ.
Sure, the nicks and scratches, and even the loss of an isolated player now and again are the normal slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that professional teams have to endure. That's why you have substitutes, after all, and at that level, 80% of the clubs will share the misfortune at some point during a season. But when the wounded roster goes from "injury" to "INJURY", it's another matter entirely. As Todd Richards mused after last night's 5 - 2 loss to Ottawa, perhaps he or someone else did something to anger the hockey gods.
Entering this season, the top nine were slated to be Ryan Johansen, Scott Hartnell, Nathan Horton, Boone Jenner, Cam Atkinson, Matt Calvert, Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky & Nick Foligno, in some order. As we wake up this morning, only three of those nine -- Johansen, Hartnell and Atkinson -- are among the living in terms of ice presence. Keep in mind that Atkinson just returned, after a scary encounter with Ryan Kesler's skate that nearly cost him his vision in an eye, but ultimately resulted merely in an early Halloween mask.
Of course, when your forwards are decimated, you simply turn to your goalie and blue liners to hold the fort, right? Well . . . not so fast. Sergei Bobrovsky and James Wisniewski are the most recent patients in the M*A*S*H unit, both sustaining fractured fingers that will sideline them for 1 - 2 weeks. (They join Artem Anisimov, who underwent the concussion protocols last night, and is likely lost for some period of time.) If that were not enough, Mark Letestu is now down with a groin injury for 2-4 weeks. Need me to repeat that? Fortunately, Corey Tropp evaded supplemental discipline from the NHL after his major/game misconduct last night.
The politically correct sports response to injury questions is the above-cited "Injuries are no excuse", usually intoned with a profound sense of bravado and machismo. The problem is -- it's just not true. Injuries are an excuse -- at least at the levels we're talking about here. Organizations spend thousands of hours and hundreds of millions of dollars selecting and grooming talent at all levels of the organization. Even then, the vagaries of young talent derail some plans, and other dark horses emerge as unexpected stars. The entire process takes time, or "brick by brick" in John Davidson's lexicon. You can't simply remove 80% of the top skill and talent pool and say "no excuses, win." While you can't use injuries to excuse a lack of effort, you can't rationally expect the same calibre of results with a decimated roster.
Of course, belaboring the plight of the injuries is a pointless task. The critical issue is how the organization . . . and the fans . . . respond to the challenge. There is a fair amount of hand-wringing going on, with some going so far as to throw in the towel on the season. That's absurd. They are nine games in to the season, and the club is one game below the .500 mark. A win vs. Toronto on Friday and they are back to even, with 7/8 of the season remaining. The Blue Jackets were 5-5-0 after ten games last season, incluiding a four game losing streak, and then went 2-6-3 over their next eleven games, capped by that hideous 7-0 loss in Edmonton. We all know how that season ended up.
Columbus is on a Tuesday-Friday-Saturday schedule for the next several weeks, so the two week (worst case)absences of Bobrovsky and Wisniewski will account for only six games. By that time, Jenner and Calvert should be back, and hopefully both Anisimov and Foligno will also have joined the fray by then. Dubinsky should be skating by that point as well. preparing for his return. So, true challenge is how the club responds in the near term.
The six thousand pound elephant in the corner of last night's post-game presser was Curtis McElhinney. While not all of the goals last night were strictly his fault, he turned in an overall really poor performance He was slow, had trouble tracking the puck, and reacted poorly to the situations around him. While the first goal was a ping pong shot that he had little chance on, he was poorly positioned and/or slow on the remaining goals. For his part, Richards tip-toed around the issue last night like he was navigating a minefield. He understands the dilemma, and he's not thrilled with his choices. I wasn't a fan of simply awarding the backup job to McElhinney in the off-season without bringing in some real competition, and what we saw last night is the reason. One way or the other, the opposition finds a way to park three or more goals behind him, and that's something the club simply can't afford with its forward lines decimated.
Objectively viewing last night's game, the Blue Jackets played perhaps their best period of hockey this season in the first. They were confident, crisp, speedy and tenacious. They posted a 14-5 shot advantage, and the fact that the frame ended with a 1-1 tie was more a matter of Robin Lehner's good play and some misfortune than any specific shortcomings for Columbus. However, as the game wore on, and Ottawa was able to adjust and get more shots on goal, the Blue Jackets' game reflected the lack of confidence behind them. It becomes a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the club does not play as well in front of a goalie they have less confidence in. When they play less well, the other side gets more chances, which reinforces the lack of confidence in the goalie, etc. A move to Anton Forsberg for a game or two might be worth the effort, simply to create some energy and remove the bad mojo from the blue paint.
Many have talked about a trade to add a top six forward, and I'm sure that is something being actively discussed. The problem is coming up with the assets to offer. The club has theoretical depth on the blue line, and a bit of a waiver issue with Prout and Goloubef. However, the injury to Wisniewski, combined with Jack Johnson's awful play, makes the dangling of a defenseman problematic in the short term. Add the fact that every GM in the NHL knows the injury situation and the pressure that is exerting, and the Blue Jackets would not be dealing from a position of strength. In this situation, better to make no deal than a bad one.
While there are no easy answers, trotting out the Boll-Chaput-Cracknell line for extended duty is not one of them. The effort is fine, but there is simply not the skill there to finish. I'd rather see Brian Gibbons brought up to provide some more speed and skill, and maybe Kerby Rychel, with Cody Goloubef and Tim Erixon put on the ice for the same reason. Sitting JJ for a game might send a message that he is more of a liability than an asset at this point. If there is no institutional confidence in McElhinney, and if Forsberg is not ready, then a picks for a backup goalie might be the best move in the short term.
Whatever the specifics of the reaction end up being, the response to the current crisis must be measured and rational. The club can emerge from this quagmire better than they were at the same time last year, with a more galvanized squad and with some youngsters notching important minutes that will pay dividends down the line. In the meantime, the Hockey Gods must be appeased. Anybody know a sacrificial virgin? . .. Anyone?