The Times That Try Men's Souls
The Blue Jackets are going through one of those hellish streaks, and while the bodies need to heal, the minds are more important. It's a principle that applies to the fans as well.
In December 1776, the Continental Army -- such as it was -- faced a crisis in confidence. There were few professional soldiers, and the volunteers were prone to flee once exposed to the rigors of army life and the awful realities of battle. Enter Thomas Paine, a fledgling writer from England, who authored a series of pamphlets, entitled The American Crisis -- designed to buoy the spirits of the troops, and the citizenry as well. His his first installment began with the following words:
These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.
While the Blue Jackets' fortunes in this young NHL season obviously do not approach the perils confronted by the fledgling republic 238 years ago, the underlying principle that Paine was trying to convey is precisely the same. Namely, it is in times of greatest adversity that the true measure of people is found. That's true for players, for coaches, and for fans, as the Blue Jackets try to withstand a horrific spate of injuries and avoid creating an unrecoverable deficit in the standings. While the bodies will heal and return, it is the minds of those involved that create the biggest dilemma, and merit the most immediate attention.
Starting on the ice, it's clear that Nick Foligno has been the example for all others to follow in terms of stepping up in a time of crisis. One day, he's being wheeled off the ice in a stretcher, and a few days later is back scoring, hustling, changing positions and taking face-offs. In short, he's done everything anyone could possibly want or expect. The other top liners -- Johansen, Hartnell, Atkinson -- are not far behind. They have been ridden hard and have posted huge minutes -- particularly Johansen. That's fine in short bursts, but over a sustained period of time you reach the point of diminishing returns. The combination of pressure, stress and fatigue result in a loss of focus, mistakes creep in, stupid penalties are taken, and the cycle worsens.
The point here is not to microanalyze individual players to determine who are the "summer soldiers" and who we should all be tipping our caps to. Close your eyes and picture the game -- you'll know who was there and who was invisible. By definition, many of the guys on the ice are playing way above their pay grade, and some are doing better than others at responding. It's not a matter of fault, it's a matter of reality. And that's where the coaches come in.
Coaches are not impervious to the pressures of the moment, particularly when your troops are depleted to the extent the Blue Jackets ranks have been over the past few weeks. Todd Richards and the rest of the staff are faced with a series of choices that can only be viewed as the lesser of the evils. Still, they need to avoid the knee-jerk responses that are easy, and look for the solutions that are perhaps less obvious. The six game losing streak proves two things: a) that the Blue Jackets have a series of devastating injuries to deal with, and b) that the methods of dealing with them to date have not worked. Continuing the same process in hopes that things will change is easy, but ineffective. Hope is not a strategy.
It's a fact that the Blue Jackets have not played well in front of Curtis McElhinney. It's also a fact that McElhinney himself has been poor in goal. We can argue for days about cause and effect, but resolving that issue does nothing to alter the reality. The Blue Jackets played their best hockey of the recent unpleasantness in New Jersey the other night, with Anton Forsberg in net. Is Forsberg the savior of this squad? Unlikely. The point is, however, that the club played better in front of him, and he made some key saves. A scrum that was permitted to last far too long is the only thing that separated the club from at least a point. Why not give that combination another try, particuarly now that Jenner and Calvert are back? A couple of stolen games from the goaltender is just what the doctor ordered right now, and nothing in McElhinney's play to date suggests that he's capable of that right now.
As noted above, the top guys are getting worked to death, and it's easy to see how you would want to keep going to the well that is proven to provide water, rather than test a new hole. However, wells dry up if overused, and the ice time allocations suggest that the Blue Jackets are heading down this path. Brian Gibbons and Jack Skille were a couple of the bright spots last night, providing speed, tenacity and skating that was otherwise absent. At 12-something and 10-something minutes on the ice, respectively, there's a lot of upside room for them to participate, and perhaps temper some of the other minutes. Ditto with Jack Johnson, who is pulling insane minutes, despite playing really poorly since the beginning of the season. We all know what JJ is capable of -- as he showed in the playoffs -- but the reality is not matching the ideal. Again, there's that whole hope thing. Sure, Murray, Wisniewski and Goloubef are out, but Erixon and Savard have room for more TOI, as does St. Denis.
We've all been through stressful times, and the toughest thing to do is avoid the paralysis that can come from pressure. The coaching staff needs to guard against that paralysis, just as the players do. Conversely, the front office has done a nice job thus far of avoiding over-reaction and making a bad deal. Desperate teams do not make good deals, and that applies in spades to the Blue Jackets right now.
Finally, a word about the fans. We were surrounded last night by some who apparently missed the last interstellar transport mission. These were the "sunshine patriots" -- those who jump freely on the bandwagon when the times are great, but are the first to head for the hills in times of trouble. Fortunately, those are becoming fewer, as the Blue Jackets drew a respectable crowd of just under 16,000 for a mid-week Carolina game, and are averaging just about 16,000 in a season that has seen just 2 home victories. The loyalists seem to understand that no matter how unpleasant this may be, it is temporary, and better times are ahead. Pat yourselves on the back, folks.
In troubled times, sometimes form and appearance can mean everything. Did the publication of The American Crisis in 1776 improve the army conditions or abate the horrors of battle? Of course not. What it did do was provide a rallying point and a cause for optimisim. You know what? It worked. The same thing can happen here. Why not reward Foligno with a contract extension and the "C"? Why not give Forsberg, Gibbons and Skille the keys to the car for a few nights? While you can't replace the important pieces that Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Nathan Horton, Mark Letestu, James Wisniewski, Ryan Murray and Sergei Bobrovsky bring to the table for the long term, you can perhaps survive for the short term through creative use of the youngsters and some well chosen rallying points. It can't be worse than 0-6, and if it breaks the cycle of stagnation resulting from misfortune and stress, isn't it worth a try?
It starts again on Friday. I'm no Thomas Paine, but let's all show that were not summer soliders, eh?