My obligatory mention of “playoffs” is shown above.
On to a few other topics. First off, Jeff Little, who blogs at the Hockey Writers, wrote a good piece that is getting a lot of attention in our area code. Jeff is a decent writer when he is not being smug about his past as a Sharks fan. He has some thoughts that need to be considered. Starting with:
… doses of criticism have been directed at coach Ken Hitchcock, ranging from critiques of his “defense first” strategy to questioning his handling of players, who some say have “tuned out” the coach.
Jeff talks about the Hitchcock system, which is nothing more than a glorified neutral zone trap. For those who don’t know what that is, he defines it as
a technical, demanding style of hockey premised, in Hitchcock’s implementation, upon hard checking, a strong forecheck, tight gaps and a massive presence in the neutral zone. In theory, this promotes turnovers, retards offensive penetration, and slows the game to a controllable pace. Opponents waste time and energy getting into the offensive zone, and the sheet of ice is shortened for your team when turnovers occur in the neutral or offensive zones.
Or when I played hockey, we were told to get in your opponents way, impede him in every way possible, by holding, clutching, grabbing ,etc. and block him at the blue line. A gap is the distance between a defender and an attacker. In your own zone, you stay a stick length away. In the neutral zone, about ten feet. When in the offensive zone, only one player checks because the other four of you are waiting, forming a box, in the neutral zone. I am taking the time to go through all of this because I want you to ask yourself if you see Nikita Filatov, Rick Nash, Derick Brassard, Kristian Huselius, or Antoine Vermette playing an entire season in this manner? Maybe Umberger, Voracek, Chimera, and Dorsett can put their game away and play this style of hockey, but Chimera hasn’t sold me on his defensive skills yet and Dorsett doesn’t have the NHL size to do this.
Veterans will play this way when they are on the downside of their careers. Which makes them beloved by Hitch. For somebody like Freddie Modin, this style of hockey prolongs his career and pays the bills. For Andrew Murray and Mike Blunden, it gets them into the NHL.
I generally liked the post from Jeff and recommend that you read it. But after you read it and think about it, you might ask who else in the NHL plays this way. In the West, all of the teams have changed to the up-tempo, puck possession game exemplified by the Red Wings (prior to this season), the Sharks, Blackhawks, and even the Predators. Sure these teams have rostered big bodies, but the players have to do more than bang bodies and stand in the way. Even Jordan Tootoo is playing a more controlled style of hockey, conscious of where his teammates are and what offensive systems to utilize.
In the East, defense is optional for the Capitals and Penguins. Both of those teams say “Go ahead, see if you can score on us. Because at the end of the game, we are going to put more pucks in the net than you.” Even Buffalo and Boston have quicker teams that attack all the time.
One team to look at, the Atlanta Thrashers. This season they have scored 108 goals, putting them ahead of our local boys and third in the Eastern Conference. Last night, they hung with Dallas through the third period and won 6-5 in OT, trading goals throughout the game. Can you imagine what Ken Hitchcock would say if the Jackets played like that? I’m guessing that when Hitch was a kid, he never liked to play last goal wins.
So in this rambling post, I am coming around to a few points. First, hockey has changed and the teams ahead of us play different hockey. Next, most of the teams in the West have improved, some significantly and others incrementally, but the Jackets have more or less remained the team they were last season. Finally, something has to change for the Blue Jackets.
It has been stated that Ken Hitchcock is here to stay and that removing him is not an option. Fine, I’ll live with that. Scott Howson should also be comfortable, according to Mike Priest. The organization chart shows that the coach reports to the general manager, so I want to see executive leadership from Howson. Don’t get confused, I’m not castigating our GM. But I want him to sit down with his coach and ask him to come up with a better system that uses the current players more productively. The team has a big gun named Rick Nash and I would find a way to use him better. Having him checking all night is not a good use. They have a defenseman with a huge upside named Kris Russell who could be used more productively. And there is a young man in Russia who could really help with scoring, but he is in Russia. If Hitch says he doesn’t have the players to make the change, then look into finding new parts. But we all know that Howson said the answer is in the locker room, so I don’t look for changes.
Teams change, like Chicago and Pittsburgh did last season, by changing coaches. Hitchcock is a brilliant man who has to see that he needs to make changes, or he will be doing a Jim Mora press conference.