Monday, August 30, 2010

Know Thy Enemy - A Season Preview Series

Welcome back everybody. Some big changes have occurred in the Wings' blogosphere, and if you're not aware of them, shame on you.

First, Kyle over at Babcock's Death Stare got an internship with the Grand Rapids Griffins, and he has decided that between work there and school, he won't have time to devote to his blog, so he's shutting it down for the season. I only recently discovered Kyle, but his work was incredible, especially his knowledge of the prospects. That familiarity will serve him well in his new gig, and we wish him well in his endeavours with the Baby Wings (not sure if anyone calls them that or not, but I'm going to).

Next, there are a few new additions to some of the Wing blogs out there. Drew and Chris over at Nightmare on Helm Street have added Sullyosis, a Wing fan who lives out in the desert of Arizona. He's going to be doing a weekly article on Saturdays, but that may expand, and he's going to be talking about a wide variety of topics. Head on over and say hello and welcome him.

Finally, the big news occurred over at The Production Line, where they got some fancy new digs and welcomed a new member, Chris Hollis, formerly of Motown Wings. Chris is one of the best writers out there, and his addition makes a very good blog even better. They are going to be churning out some great stuff this season (as will everyone else), and I am really looking forward to being around for the whole year.

So it appears that all of the big Wing blogs have multiple writers (multiple good writers, I should add). I get it. I really do. So, since I have an overwhelming desire to fit in and be part of the "in" crowd, I guess I need to get a co-writer. Who's it going to be? Hell if I know. Like I said, I just need to fit in. I guess you'll need to stay tuned.

We're going to move forward today, as it's preview season. Rather than focus on the Wings right now, I thought it might be a little fun to scope out the opposition. Normally when I am watching NHL Preview shows, I fast forward until the panel gets to the Wings, and after enduring the inevitable "the Wings are getting old" and "this is the year the Wings come down to Earth" comments, I turn it off, not bothering to worry myself about the rest of the league. However, for some reason, this year is different. There are many different teams who can say they have a legitimate shot at winning their conference, and even more teams who believe they are bona fide playoff teams, and as the Flyers and Canadiens showed us last year, all you have to do is get in and you've got a shot at making some noise. So, 30 teams, 1 goal. We'll get to the Wings later, but let's start with a division rival. A few notes first: I looked at their roster as of the date of the writing, so if there are subsequent moves, I will have to update the post. I am going to use the TSN Off-season game plan as the bulk of my research, because they really detailed what each team needed to do, but I will use other sources such as blogs and team websites for additional information. Obviously, I will be more familiar with some teams over others, but I figured if I can understand each of the teams the Wings will be playing this year, it will be that much more meaningful when the Wings beat them all and end up on top. Let's get this ball rolling.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Ethan Moreau; Nikita Filatov
Departures: Nathan Paetsch

A year after making the playoffs for the first time in their history, the Blue Jackets promptly came crashing back to Earth in 2009-10, finishing 14th in the Western Conference and once again falling to dead last in the Central Division. Some might have thought that would mean the BJs would clean house, but they are staying the course with their youth movement. The off-season did not see a lot of changes in Columbus, with only 1 player of note leaving (Nathan Paetsch, who only played 10 games last year), and 2 players coming in. Let's take a look at the Jackets.

Offense - The Blue Jackets' offense revolves around Rick Nash, my current favourite non-Red Wing player in the NHL. Seriously, I have a bit of a man-crush on him, and it's not just because he and I are from the same hometown. He can do it all; he can score one of the prettiest goals you'll ever see, or he could just use his big frame to barrel to the net and score an ugly goal, then beat you up after for complaining about its lack of beauty. Beyond that, the BJs are going to have to get some contributions from guys that really underachieved last season. Guys like Derek Dorsett and Derrick Broussard are going to be expected to pick up the load, as they both had extremely disappointing 2009-10 seasons. The BJs will also be looking for RJ Umberger and Antoine Vermette to follow up decent years last year with comparable or better numbers this year. The BJs brought in Ethan Moreau from the Oilers, who had really fallen apart after being a catalyst in the 2006 upset of the Wings. He's being brought in to try and jumpstart his career and add a little veteran presence to a forward corps whose oldest player is 34. However, the big move for the Jackets this season was bringing back Nikita Filatov. Filatov is a bit of an enigma, but he is known to have some great offensive talent. However, last year he fell into disfavour with Ken Hitchcock, and only played 13 games for the BJs before bolting the team to play in the KHL. There's no question that he's got the talent to play in the NHL, but it still remains to be seen whether he has the desire to learn the nuances of the game to keep his job. His return should bolster an offense that scored only 214 goals last season, 21st in the NHL. Ultimately, the Jackets need someone other than Nash to provide consistent offense, because without a legitimate secondary scoring presence, other teams can just key on the first line.

Defense - Absolutely nothing changed on defense for the Blue Jackets from last season, minus the departure of little-used Nathan Paetsch. The Jackets are led on defense by Mike Commodore and Rusty Klesla, but are looking for big things from Anton Stralman and Fedor Tyutin this season. The BJs' defense is pretty no-name and non-descript, and truthfully, I didn't see much there. However, they have one player with one of the great unintentionally-sounding dirty names in Grant Clitsome, and together with Marc Methot they form a pair of 25 year old defensemen that the Jackets are hoping can step up. Team defense was definitely an issue, as they finished 24th in the NHL in goals against. Much like the forwards, this is a young group, and this should be another year of development for the young d-men. The checking line is led by none other than Red Wing nemesis Sammy Pahlsson. He provides a legitimate third line center/penalty killing presence that has been missed since Manny Malhotra left the Jackets. Antoine Vermette is another center known to be at least capable defensively, and Rick Nash has shown that he is willing to help out in his own end. Overall, the Jackets look to be better with regards to their overall team defense.

Goaltending - Steve Mason really hit the wall last year, with all of his numbers falling from his Calder-trophy winning season of 2008-09. Mason will be looking to rebound from last year's sophomore slump, and for Red Wing fans, his fall last season might cause one or two of you to really examine Jimmy Howard and his performance this season. However, unlike Howard, Mason did not have a lot of help in front of him last year, and some of his numbers can be explained by the inexperience and lack of talent that was playing defense. This year is going to be crucial for Mason's development, as it will really show whether his stellar rookie season was a fluke (Jim Carey) or whether he is the real deal. Personally, I think that with the stability of the team remaining strong in front of him and a summer to analyze his issues, he will bounce back and have a very good year. His backup is Mathieu Garon, a very capable goalie who can step in when needed, but who can also assume a starter role for a short period of time to give Mason some rest.

Coaching - The BJs fired Ken Hitchcock midway through the season last year, and his interim replacement, Claude Noel, was not brought back. Instead, the BJs looked to the AHL and hired Scott Arniel, the former coach of the Manitoba Moose. I will be honest in that I know nothing about him, but a quick glance at his resume indicates that he was a very successful coach down there, with a winning percentage of .617 in 4 years as coach of the Moose. I don't know what his coaching style is or what type of guy he will be, but from what I've been able to gather he stresses team-defense and hard work (although really, who doesn't besides Bruce Boudreau?), 2 things that can make a young team successful. From reviewing the BJ blogs, there's an excitement surrounding Arniel's hiring, but I wonder whether that's due to the guy they hired or just the general good feelings of having someone new take the reins.

Player to Watch: This is Steve Mason's bounce back year, and if he can even get close to the form he showed in his rookie season, the BJs could be a pest in the Central Division. I think we all saw in 2008-09 how he was able to almost single-handedly carry the Jackets to the playoffs, where they ran into the juggernaut Wings in the first round. If he can figure out what went wrong last year and turn things around, the Jackets will be a tough team to play this year.

Player with Something to Prove: Nikita Filatov must show that he has put his past issues behind him and that he's ready, willing and able to do whatever it takes to succeed at the NHL level. There's no questioning his talent, but the work ethic and commitment to all facets of the game need to be there. From what I've read about Arniel, he believes in some of the same core values as Hitchcock, so if Filatov doesn't show that he's going to buy in to the team's philosophy, then this could be another rough year. However, if he shows up ready to play, he can really help a team that has very few legitimate offensive superstars.

Why They Can Win the Division: You're joking, right? Wait, you're not? Ok. I guess if every single player on the other 4 teams in the Central all sustain season-ending injuries, the Blue Jackets might have a shot at the Division title. Otherwise, I'm not banking on it.

Why They Won't Win the Division: The Red Wings. The Blackhawks. The Predators. There is not enough talent to compete with the top teams in the division, which is quickly becoming one of the strongest divisions in the NHL. I liken the Blue Jackets to the Blue Jays - they have realized that they are going to constantly be competing with one of the top teams in the league (the Wings) and that to potentially catch them they must develop from within, slowly. They are still years away from competing at this level.

My Prediction: I'm not going to do records or anything like that, but I will give my general impression of the team. The Blue Jackets took a tremendous step backwards last season after finally making the playoffs. Their biggest off-season move was hiring a new coach, and combined with the return of Nikita Filatov, the Blue Jackets will be looking to start fresh this season and put last year behind them. Personally, I just don't see a real ton of talent on this team outside of Nash, Filatov and Mason, and while I think they will be more competitive and a tougher team to play against this season, I don't think that's going to equate to much of a jump in the standings overall. There's been improvement, but not enough for this team to make the playoffs. The Blue Jackets are unfortunately going to spend another year being taken advantage of by the top teams in the division and the conference. However, I do think the Jackets are headed in the right direction, so this year should be about staying the course with their youth and ensuring their key guys are gaining experience and confidence.


  1. Graham,

    First and foremost, this is a freaking great idea. Way to go against the grain and provide us with a refreshing spin on season previews. It gets a lil repetitive reading the same preview on the blogs so I commend your efforts!

    I must confess, I don't really following our entire division closely but it was obvious to all that a major reason for the Jackets failures was somewhat placed on Mason. This proves to me how much psychological factors play into this game; especially between the pipes. I agree their success will in fact weigh heavily on Mason's performance. The addition of a new coach also brings in that excitement and 'newness' feeling just like when you finally go up your new girlfriends shirt. You don't know what to expect, but you have a feeling its gonna be worth it!

    Good read!


  2. Brandon,

    Thanks. As I read the other goaltending previews, I realized that my views and thoughts were pretty much the same as every one else's, and I didn't want to repeat what they wrote. Plus, I figured that these are the teams the Wings are going to facing every night, so it would be good to know something about them.

    Last year for the Jackets sure seemed to be all about Mason. However, some of their younger forwards didn't produce the way the team thought, and that really contributed to their overall decline. The BJs will be looking for other players beyond Mason to raise their game to the next level.

    "The addition of a new coach also brings in that excitement and 'newness' feeling just like when you finally go up your new girlfriends shirt. You don't know what to expect, but you have a feeling its gonna be worth it!" - Absolutely fantastic analogy! I love it!