Today is, for me, is the beginning of hockey
season. I live in Columbus, Ohio
, and naturally decided I would root for the home team, the Columbus Blue Jackets
. The Jackets have a fine arena, an possible future Hall of Fame
winger in Rick Nash
and a loyal, informed fan base. But they are also possibly the least respected franchise
in the National Hockey League
. One reason is that the Blue Jackets are the only team never to have lost a playoff game, as they've never made the playoffs. Most seasons they've been just plain bad, and a winning season little more than a dream.
But to a any true sports fan, each new season brings hope. That's one of sports joys. Each year you have different players, possibly a different coach and perhaps better management. I've been following sports for years, and I've seen good (the Cleveland Browns of the 1960s) and bad (the Cleveland Indians up until the 1990s) management. Teams that are well run win regularly. Teams that are not well run, don't. The Blue Jackets have until recently been poorly run.
Much of the blame is, and rightly I think , laid on the doorstep of ex-General Manager Don MacLean. MacLean did a great job of selling the franchise, and had many talents. But in the end he seems to have been done in by his inability to delegate. No one can do all things. You hire the scouts to scout and the coach to coach. MacLean just couldn't do that. And so he coached the team, spreading himself so thin that neither job could be done well, or consistently undercut his coaches because of a bad night. He interfered in the draft. For example, his scouts wanted to draft defenseman Dion Phaneuf, today is considered perhaps the best defenseman in the NHL. He chose Nikolai Zherdev a supremely talented but mercurial forward whose play for the Jackets was the model of inconsistency. And when he signed free-agents he often overpaid men on the downside of their careers, such as the future Hall-of-Famer Sergei Federov who took ever other game off.
Today the Jackets have a new coach, Ken Hitchcock, a defensive genius and former Stanley Cup winner. They have a new GM, Scott Howson, who cut his teeth with the Edmonton Oilers. Howson is in no way the promoter MacLean was, but the more you see the more professional and thoughtful he looks. And this year, for the first time Jacket fans have this thing known as rational hope.
We have a forward with real talent who can work with Nash, Kristian Huselius make himself a threat. We got defenseman Mike Commodore and Fedor Tyutin. Forwards Raffi Torres and R.J. Umberger. Still, most of the pundits remain unimpressed. Most think the Jackets will be a little better, but the Western Conference is a murderer's row, and the new players do little more than replace the men who moved on for the Jackets, like Ron Hainsey and David Vborny.
I've seen the Jackets in the pre-season and they're wrong. Pint-sized defenseman Kris Russell has a year under his belt and 18 pounds more muscle on his body. He's still small by NHL standards, but fast as light, and his instincts are even quicker. The kid has matured to match my wildest dreams. Rookie Derrick Brassard is a brilliant passer who in practice and pre-season has shown he just might be the #1 center Nash has been waiting for. Rookie Jakub Voracek comes in with more size, real muscle, tremendous speed and passing skills and shot to rival almost anyone. Don't be surprised if both end up in the running for the Calder Cup.
But most of all, what I've seen is two things the Jackets have never had, chemistry and depth. I've seem them play. Our top lines don't depend on 'dump and chase' any more, they bring the puck up. We have two time Selke Award winner Mike Peca anchoring the third line with Torres. We should have a plus fourth line. No more grinders on the top two lines. And those rookies? Well the word is 'keep your stick down because the puck is coming your way'.
The pundits mostly think we'll suck. I saw last years team. It was in the hunt until it got worn down. This team is different. This year the Jackets will be serving the crow instead of eating it.