#CBJ 2012-13 – A New Hope: Culture change is coming to the Columbus Blue Jackets and why I’m excited

The Country Club

“You try to work hard, you try to do things right and good things will happen for you… I think that’s been my message to the players is that work ethic is so important. If you don’t have that you can have all the skill in the world you’re only going to get to a certain point, you’re not going to get all the way. You might get lucky the odd time, but that work ethic aligned with that skill, that’s what sets the players a part.”

-Nicklas Lidstrom at his retirement press conference

Country Club. You’ve all heard it. At least a thousand times over the last season someone referred to the Columbus Blue Jackets locker room as a “Country Club.” It’s a stigma that’s been with this team for a while. The first reference we’ve found of it being aimed at the Blue Jackets comes from a CBS Sports article from September 2007 (stick tap to @zekebud for finding this). The accusation being that the players in the locker room are too busy arranging tee-times and working on their golf games to be concerned with improving their on-ice performance. That they are here to earn their easy paycheck and go home. It’s one of the ultimate insults that can be lobbed at professional athletes and it was used quite liberally in the midst of this past season, the worst season in franchise history.

I see three ways that hockey teams lose games:

  1. They are out-matched.
  2. They just didn’t try hard enough.
  3. Sometimes it just comes down to bad bounces (like a stick breaking on an empty net or a puck deflecting off of a chunk of ice over a stick on a perfect pass).

The 2011-12 Columbus Blue Jackets suffered from a heavy mixture of all three. Of those three things, the players themselves have control over how hard they work. There will always be bad bounces and there always be games where the other team simply played better. But there should never be an excuse for losing because you just didn’t try hard enough.

Perception is Reality

Regardless if the accusation of a “Country Club” atmosphere is accurate or fair, that’s how fans have perceived this team for some time. It doesn’t help when through the first 41 games of a season your team loses eight games after taking a lead into the 3rd period. All too often this past season the team would seemingly crumble in the final minutes of a close game. We saw it in games versus Colorado, that debacle in Ottawa, and the blown 4-1 & 5-2 goal leads in Nashville. The Blue Jackets seemed only capable of playing a solid 45-55 minutes a night.

Fans weren’t the only ones making these claims either, even former #CBJ player Anson Carter had this to say in a tweet following Arniel’s firing:

CBJ, firing your coach isn’t the answer. Ur whole org needs a culture change. Treating young guys like vets and vets like rooks equals #fail
-@AnsonCarterLA – [link]

Here you have a player that was in the locker room for 54 games during the 2006-2007 season saying it’s a cultural issue. I didn’t take much stock in Anson Carter’s comments at the time and dismissed them as former player bitterness. However, when you look at his comments as a piece of a much larger picture, that picture becomes pretty bleak.

Another damning quote came via a quote from former #CBJ player, Andrew Murray, now with the San Jose Sharks:

“It’s a different situation here for me, but I’m really enjoying it. It’s been good, watching these guys in practice, seeing them prepare. You don’t realize it just playing them, but some of these guys — guys who have scored 50 goals and put up numbers every year — they’re out 30 minutes before practice shooting and working on stuff.”
Blue Jackets notebook: Ex-Jacket Murray thriving with Sharks - BlueJacketsXtra

Taking the liberty to read between the lines it appears he’s trying to make the point that these behaviors, such as spending extra time practicing, were radically different from what was happening in Columbus.

Another, albeit less credible, tweet with a possible look into what was going on in the locker room came following the Jeff Carter trade from Dennis Bernstein, of The Fourth Period, who regularly covers the LA Kings:

“NHL source at Preds-Kings ‘Jeff Carter probably needs to get in better shape. Inmates were running asylum in Columbus’”
@DennisTFP – [link]

You are welcome to draw your own conclusions from the quotes above. What I see when I read some these quotes is a situation where leading up to the firing of Scott Arniel there was no one holding the players accountable for their actions. Be it someone in a suit and tie or in a #CBJ jersey, whoever was supposed to be leading this team simply wasn’t doing a good enough job.

The seeds of change are planted

On January 9th, 2012, Scott Arniel was fired by Scott Howson after coaching the team to a 11-25-5 record through the first 41 games. That day, former Minnesota Wild head coach and then Blue Jackets assistant coach Todd Richards took over the team as interim coach. Richards immediately stressed the need to bring accountability back into the locker room.

Richards said he plans to stress accountability with the players. But this will not be an easy turnaround. The Jackets, at 11-25-5, are last in the NHL and 20 points out of the playoffs with half the season to play. The injuries. The late-game collapses. The endless string of bad news. Richards said he has never seen anything like it.

“I don’t think you could have thought up or created a scenario that got us to this point,” Richards said. “I don’t think you could sit and dream this up. The things that have gone on — how we lost games, how it snowballed and manifested itself and turned into bigger things.”
Richards a coach again after Wild fired him” – BlueJacketsXtra

Under Richards things started slow and the team went 2-7-1 in their first 10 games following the coaching change. However after those 10 games the Blue Jackets finished much stronger, going 16-14-1 in their final 31 games including winning 10 of their last 14.

The most mind blowing statistical comparison between the tenures Todd Richards and Scott Arniel? Under Arniel the Blue Jackets had a 9-6-2 record when leading after two periods. 8 losses in 17 games. Their record when leading after two under Richards? A perfect 14-0-0.

Whatever Richards was doing to hold the players accountable seemed to be working.

Fresh faces

In addition to the interim promotion of Todd Richards there was another big deal made at the trade deadline that had #CBJ fans buzzing. Center Jeff Carter was traded for the second time in 7 months to the Los Angeles Kings for defenseman Jack Johnson and a 1st round draft pick. For whatever reasons (I don’t have the heart to go into it) things just didn’t work out with Jeff Carter in Columbus. When one anonymous player was asked when they thought Carter would be traded they responded “from day 1.” Meanwhile, Jack Johnson showed up on our door-step saying all the right things and with an attitude that couldn’t have been more different than the one Carter showed upon being traded to Columbus:

“I’m excited by this,” Johnson said. “I’m excited to go a team that wants me and to play in a great sports city.

“I want to be part of the solution there. I know they’ve had some bad breaks and some tough seasons, but it’s going to be great when it turns around. Really, I don’t think there is anything sweeter in sports than being part of a team when they get it turned around.”
Jack Johnson Excited to Play in Columbus” – Jackets Cannon

This attitude was something we’d seen only a few months earlier when our other big defensive acquisition, James Wisniewski, was signed. It was only fitting that the two formed instant chemistry while sitting next to each other in an area of the locker room they dubbed “The Corner.” The two formed the self titled “Controlled Chaos” or “Gunslingers” pairing. Both guys like to play a loose/fast offensive game (which can get them in trouble from time to time) and both are from the Midwest. Johnson is from Indiana and Wisniewski from Michigan (Johnson played NCAA hockey for The University of Michigan).

Johnson quickly became a fan favorite in Columbus and following news that Rick Nash had requested a trade from the team whispers had already began about Johnson potentially being the next #CBJ captain. While all of that still needs to be sorted out, Johnson certainly made a case for himself after being named captain of Team USA at the most recent IIHF World Championships.

Immediately following the Jeff Carter trade announcement came word that rookie Cam Atkinson would be called up from the Springfield Falcons, the Blue Jackets AHL affiliate, to add offensive firepower in Carter’s absence. Cam had recently been named to the AHL All-Star team in his first professional season. While in the Springfield Atkinson also lead the league in goals scored. Cam quickly made an impact on the team offensively. The stat sheets may not have reflected his performance every night but fans could sense the potential waiting to be realized. By mid-March even notoriously negative Dispatch beat reporter Aaron Portzline had this to say about Atkinson:

I’m no scout, but I feel comfortable with this forecast … Cam Atkinson is going to be one hell of an NHL player/point producer.
@Aportzline – [link]

Atkinson’s offensive firepower finally came to fruition in the final two games of the season where he scored a total of 5 goals including a hat trick in a game in Colorado that eliminated the Avs from a possible playoff spot.

On one hand, Jack Johnson’s arrival appears to be one of the major catalysts for a culture change in Columbus. On the other, Cam Atkinson’s offensive potential has given us hope that a Rick Nash-less Blue Jackets team can still have significant offensive firepower.

Dawning of a new era?

Following the end of the 2011-12 regular season, several events transpired that have given me a new sense of hope/excitement for this team going forward. First was the permanent hiring of coach Todd Richards. Second was the re-signing of forwards Derek Dorsett and Derek MacKenzie. Finally was news that Richards had appointed a “leadership committee” to lead this team going forward.

While Richards may not have been the ‘sexy’ choice for head coach I don’t know that there was ever a ‘sexy’ choice out there. I believe Richards was always their guy though they wanted to see if some “can’t pass up” coach would be let go following an early playoff exit (none were ever fired). Following a 10 game adjustment period, the Blue Jackets record/performance under Richards was in such stark contrast to the last 2-3 years of #CBJ hockey that I had no problems with the team giving him another season or two to see what he can do.

The signings of Derek Dorsett and Derek MacKenzie said to me that the organization is willing to reward players based on effort not just talent. Dorsett and MacKenzie are two players who, all season long, were lauded for their strong & consistent effort every night. While some players appeard to have given up, these two guys gave 100% on every shift, every night. I believe seeing them rewarded for their efforts sends a message to the other players that skill alone is no longer enough. I don’t see how this can possibly be a bad thing.

Following the Todd Richards hiring came word that Richards had appointed a sort of “leadership committee” for the Blue Jackets players going into the off-season. This group consists of forwards R.J. Umberger and Derek Dorsett as well as defensemen James Wisniewski and Jack Johnson. Notably absent is Rick Nash. In the days following the news that these four players are expected to be the future leaders of the team a number of great quotes have come out that have given me such high hopes for the future.

“We’re setting a whole new standard”

Coming full circle to the Nicklas Lidstrom quote at the top of this post, several players have said things over the last couple weeks that have lead me to believe that the culture of this team is truly changing.

First and foremost are the words of Jack Johnson as told to The Dispatch:

It started with the coaches; they created an environment where you wanted to be at the rink. They came down on you if you were not performing, but the vibe was positive. Everyone told me it would be completely different — a completely different culture — and if that was the case, the culture was changing, in my view.

And

When we put distractions aside, we were winning hockey games. Some people said, “Oh, those games don’t count, the pressure is off, they don’t mean anything.” I don’t buy that. We were dealing with our share of injury issues — and the teams we were playing, they were playing their best hockey, and the games definitely meant something to them — and we were winning.

Columbus is a great city, and I think everyone knows it’s not even close to where it could be as a hockey market. If we start winning, it could really blow up. Most people understand that it’s not going to happen overnight, but the one thing you can’t be afraid to say is what the goal is. We want to be like the Detroit Red Wings or the New York Yankees and be a contender every year. You should make the playoffs. Half the league makes the playoffs. For the most consistently successful teams, there is only one goal, and they’re not afraid to say it.

From right now, we’re setting a whole new standard. These guys care. A bunch of us have already gotten together and talked about it. We feel like we’ve got things where we want them, emotionally. By the time camp starts, we’re going to be where we want to be in terms of condition. Everyone is working to be in the right place from game one. We want to prove that this is a good hockey team, and not as far off as people may think.
Michael Arace commentary: Johnson’s words give Jackets fans hope” – BlueJacketsXtra

Can’t help but be happy knowing that this guy is going to be one of the leaders of this team going forward.

Recently 10TV’s Beau Bishop got a chance to do a 10 minute sit-down interview with James Wisniewski. He asked him a couple tough questions which Wiz answered openly and honestly. Some of my favorite quotes from Wiz are below.

On the string of bad bounces and bad performances early in the season:

Following the last minute losses to Ottawa, Nashville, etc. “… we were waiting for bad things to happen. That’s one thing that we have to turn around is to understand that winning is tough winning is really hard. And that’s one thing as a core leadership group we have to change things and understand that we have to work for a whole 60 minutes and not come and play for 45 minutes and thinking in the other 15 minutes we’re going to win the hockey game with pure talent.”

On improved play at the end of the season, getting to play with Jack Johnson and the defensive corps for next season:

“With the D corps that we have I feel like it’s gonna be one of the best in the league as a group. Obviously we don’t have a complete All-Star, a complete #1 stud, but we have 6-7 solid guys that can play top 4 minutes. Right from there it’s going to be really exciting. And we just want to have guys that want to come and play for the Columbus Blue Jackets organization and not come in here and just earn a paycheck. Having Jack come in and him wanting to be here and wanting to turn things around is really exciting.”

On Jack and Wiz wanting to play for the Blue Jackets and be part of the turnaround:

“It’s huge, we have to realize that we have to stop being like the little sister of the NHL where guys at the end of their career come here to get one last paycheck. We have to put our foot down and understand that we want to change things around. We want to be a Stanley Cup contending team. We want to win Stanley Cups here. We have to earn that right, earn that pride. We’re not just going to take whoever wants to come here. We have to specify guys that want to come here and win here and then we’ll bring you into our organization and our family.

Finally on being able to envision the reaction of the Blue Jackets fanbase when the team becomes a perennial playoff team:

“I can. The thing is, which is great, is the support that we still had this year with having the losing record that we did. I mean, the last 5 home games were pretty close to a sellout. You can just see the excitement that they’re just thriving for a winning organization and a winning team. Trust me, we all want to get there. We know that this place will be rowdy. It will be a hard place to play in when we turn things around and we start winning some games.”

I agree, Wiz, I agree.

While I don’t have any direct quotes from R.J. Umberger, I did get the opportunity to chat with him (along with a few other #CBJ fans) for about 10 minutes a couple weeks ago. One thing that was very clear to me right away was that Umberger is not happy to not be playing this time of year. Every hockey player wants to make the playoffs but the look in his eyes and  the tone of his voice when discussing it made me truly understand how much he wants this team to be successful. If there truly was a “Country Club” atmosphere in the #CBJ locker room I have a hard time believing R.J. was ever a part of it.

Final thoughts

At this point in their careers most players (except the younger players) are near their skill limit. How well they play comes down to a matter of how hard they are willing to work each night to reach that limit. In the past I think that effort level did not reach its full potential on a consistent basis. Too many games were lost after sitting on a 1 or 2 goal lead and waiting for the final buzzer.

With a coach in place that finally seems capable of holding these players accountable to themselves and each other combined with the attitude and work ethics of the new leadership group… I don’t foresee this team losing a lot of games due to a lack of effort. I think the culture of this team is finally changing for the better. There will still be games where they get out-played or suffer from bad bounces, it happens to even the best teams from time to time. If they are consistently giving 100% effort and still losing then it simply comes down to a talent issue and it’s up to Scott Howson and Craig Patrick to address that. I’ll let you decide how much you trust them to make those decisions, I’m not going to try to sway you one way or another, that’s not what this post is about.

If you combine the improvements to attitude, effort level and the likely improvements in talent to positions of need in the coming draft & free agency (and possibly via a certain trade…) I think this team is shaping up to be pretty damn exciting in the 2012-13 season.

I’ll leave you with this:

Imagine this team with an improved Atkinson, Johansen & Moore. An improved and more consistent Brassard & Methot. Another potential 55 point season from Umberger. A full season with Howson steals in Letestu & Nikitin. A full season of Derek Dorsett, Jack Johnson & James Wisniewski leading this team. Add in several quality pieces from a Nash trade and just for fun a proven #1 goalie & a top 2 draft pick… Excited yet? I am.

Note: I wrote this post a week ago but decided it was not the right time to publish it. This was prior to the reports of St. Louis Blues President of Hockey Operations, John Davidson, interviewing with the team. If this actually happens it should only amplify your excitement for the 2012-2013 season.

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