The Blue Jackets System: Fact or Folklore?
Since the trades that effectively swapped rosters with the Rangers, the message has been one of grit, hard work and grinding, with the implication that the club is not built for speed . Is it time to question that premise?
First, let me say that it is a pleasure to be part of the team here at The Cannon, with a terrific group of writers and all of the resources of SB Nation. Hopefully my inaugural effort here will not scare folks away.
There have been few constants over the Blue Jackets' tenure in the NHL, which is not terribly surprising for expansion clubs. (Barry Trotz in Nashville being a notable exception) However, one theme that has transcended MacLean-to-Howson-to-Davidson transitions and the King, MacLean, Gallant, Agnew, Hitchcock, Noel, Arniel and Richards administrations behind the bench is the notion that the Blue Jackets are a "grinding" team -- a team that cannot rely on speed and skill, but instead must out-grit the opposition into submission. While this concept was elevated to art form levels by Ken Hitchcock and his neutral zone trap, it is a characterization of the club that has persisted, despite manifest changes in personnel, coaches and general managers. The roster of today has almost no connection to that of just two years ago, yet Todd Richards preaches the "bump and grind" ethos of the club as ardently as Hitchcock. The question at hand is simply . . . is this correct?
I started contemplating the other night as I watched the Blue Jackets play a very solid game against the Boston Bruins. (One brick at a time folks -- things are improving, and I'll deal with that in due course). The impetus for this was an inspired and exciting interlude in the third period, when the Blue Jackets stretched the play, created some odd man rushes, and almost converted a few chances in a row. Those Blue Jackets looked confident, assured and talented, in contrast to the club that spends too much time along the boards, circling back in the defensive zone, and holding on to the puck for that extra second before passing -- by which point the opportunity has vanished. It was reinforced last night against Montreal, when success followed speed, and inertia bred failure.
To be sure, I understand that good clubs need to have the capability of playing different styles at different times. Sometimes the opponent makes a particular style more desirable than others. Sometimes changes need to occur within a game, either to present a new challenge to the opposition, or to create opportunities where they otherwise were not being found. I also understand that the Western Conference is materially different from the East in this respect. In fact, I found it interesting (and a little unsettling) that Todd Richards, at a season ticket holder Q & A session a couple of weeks ago, seemed to express some level of surprise at the up-tempo difference in the Eastern Conference game.
While I'm not suggesting that the Blue Jackets can -- or should -- play 60 minutes of fast-break hockey every game, I am suggesting that the "grind it out" concept is perhaps a bit of folklore that has been handed down from generation to generation, and not critically assessed. It's a bit like the women who cuts a chunk off the end of the roast before putting it in the pan. When her husband asks why, she says simply that her mother did it that way. When her mother is asked, she says that her mother did it that way. When her mother is asked, she says that her pot was too small for the roasts her butcher made. Get the idea?
The late success in a strike-shortened season made folks forget that this is a "brick by brick" story, and that there are a lot of new pieces on the club, searching for true chemistry. This season, injuries have impacted that chemistry even more. However, which is more difficult to play for a team still trying to learn each other's games -- an up-tempo, fast breaking style, or a methodical, possession game? Observation tells me that the latter is the bigger challenge.
Watching the squad last night during the "horse race" interlude, it occurred to me that what was missing was the extra moments of thinking and hesitation. The guys were playing with their speed, their skill and their instincts -- likely developed from the time they pushed the puck around a pond. They created real chances. Even Comeau's goal was the result of speed -- Letestu getting to the puck to defeat the icing, drawing players low, and Comeau trailing to the scoring area.
Again, I understand that there are down sides to this style, primarily in the form of counter-attacks, but I don't think you can play the game from the perspective of fear. When the club plays poorly, it's largely because they are tentative and more worried about making a mistake than they are committed to making a play. When you listen to the players talk about the "hard work", "grinding" aspect of the club, it comes across as more of a rote recitation of a mantra, rather than an expression of conviction.
Certainly, every club has to work hard, battle for pucks, etc. But it seems that the Blue Jackets, over time, have engendered this philosophy that up-tempo, skill-based offensive pressure is somehow contrary to that "hard work" ethos. Marian Gaborik plays much better at high speed (but is now sidelined with a bum knee). So do Cam Atkinson, Boone Jenner, Ryan Johansen, Nick Foligno, Artem Anisimov and Brandon Dubinsky. Ditto for Matt Calvert, and Nathan Horton is no stranger to the rush. So, why do we see it so little?
I seriously don't expect the Jackets to become the new Washington Capitals overnight. However, I do suspect that the club has perhaps imprudently foreclosed the speed game, based more on folklore than fact. They have the talent. They have speed. Why not use it?