Tag Archives: Cleveland

Why Jackets Fans Need to Step Off the Ledge

This has definitely not been the season that Jackets fans had hoped for in September or even the season it seemed like it would be in late October.  Sitting outside of a playoff spot with a week to go before the trade deadline is less than ideal.  With the Devils now seven points ahead of the Jackets with 23 games left, the only spot left for them in the playoffs may be the eighth seed and a first round matchup against Tampa Bay, a team they have struggled mightily against this year.

Even if they went on a tear and somehow got the sixth or seventh seed, they would likely find themselves playing the Penguins or Capitals in round one, two other teams they have not played particularly well against.  The loss yesterday to Pittsburgh was not encouraging–a team built around speed looked slow and lethargic compared to the Pens (even more amazing when you consider the Jackets are the younger team) and the Jackets’ Vezina-winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky again struggled to solve the Penguins.

Many fans are frustrated.  They want results and are tired of waiting.  I certainly understand this, but I also think that perspective is needed and last year’s unexpected season probably had us thinking the team was closer than it was just as the prior season’s disastrous performance had us thinking the team was further away that it actually was.

I’m going to take you back in time to April of 2016 at the end of that disastrous season when I wrote the following on another site:

So, a Jackets team that is capable of winning the Cup has those basic ingredients–an elite defenseman, an elite center, solid goaltending and forward depth.  The Jackets do not possess all of these things, clearly and you could argue that the 2015-16 Jackets had none of those things.  So, what is a reasonable timeline to get to the destination?

I am going to argue that the Jackets are closer than you think, but that the timeframe to get there is longer than you want it to be.  I believe this team can compete for a Cup in three years.

Three years.  This is year two.  Yes, it seems that the team has taken one step forward and one step back since then, but things are still on schedule.

Let’s start by looking at elite defensemen.  Zach Werenski and Seth Jones is as good of a pair as any in the NHL.  In 2016, this was still a question mark because we hadn’t seen Werenski.  This has been solved.  Beyond the top pair, there are some issues that will need to be addressed, but this could be resolved through players in the pipeline.  Markus Nutivaara has really shown his worth this season.  Gabriel Carlsson is still in Cleveland.  Vladislav Gavrikov will spend another year in the KHL–shout out to the NHL for deciding not to go to the Olympics!  Before he was hobbled with injuries, Ryan Murray was solid.  Beyond Jones, the right side is the weakness.  Savard has had a horrible year.  David Savard will get another chance next year likely paired with Nutivaara or Carlsson as Jack Johnson will not be back.  Maybe a new partner will reinvigorate him.  If not, one of the lefties will need to take that spot.  Either way, keep in mind that Jones and Werenski will play monster minutes in any future playoff run and the bottom pair will play minimal minutes.  They just need to get a top-four that works consistently.

Pierre-Luc Dubois has exceeded expectations.  His even-strength CF% within 1 is second only to Artemi Panarin for Jackets’ regulars (Zac Dalpe is the statistical anomaly at #1 due to small sample size).  His size, speed and willingness to drive to the net could make him a player in the mold of Ryan Getzlaf.  He’s the center the franchise has always needed.  There may be growing pains, but the potential is there and the work ethic also seems to be there.

Forward depth.  Let’s start with the positive.  The Jackets have a wealth of options on the right side.  Josh Anderson, Cam Atkinson and Oliver Bjorkstrand can all be scoring threats and they do it in their own unique ways.  Anderson’s size and speed make him a tough guy to defend.  Atkinson also possesses speed, but has more agility and creativity.  Bjorkstrand is a sniper who is also become a solid defender despite his size.  Meanwhile, Vitaly Abramov has picked up right where he left off last season in the QMJHL.  It is unclear if he’ll make the team next year or spend a year in Cleveland, but Abramov has a high upside.

On the left side, Panarin has been everything he was billed to be, but he has also impressed me with his play away from the puck more than I expected.  Matt Calvert always gives 100 percent.  Other than those two, this has been part of the team’s struggles this season.  Before yesterday’s injury, Nick Foligno has not looked as quick as he has when the team is at its best.

But, there is some good news.  For one, I don’t think Sonny Milano has been as bad as some would have you believe and I think maybe Torts needs to relax with the kid just a bit and find line mates who can cover for his deficiencies as he works on them.  This team was at its best this year when Milano was in the lineup.   The Jackets either need to give Milano another chance at second line left wing or they need to find someone else to fill that role so that Foligno can slot in on the third line.

The Jackets have center depth, it just seems that, outside of Dubois, every center is slotted about 1 spot above where they should be.  Alexander Wennberg‘s 2016-17 performance was inflated by unsustainable power play production.  Once Wennberg stopped producing on power play (January of last year), his overall performance trailed off and frankly, it hasn’t rebounded.  I’ll probably write about this at more length, but despite what you may have read elsewhere, his struggles are real.  The Jackets options are (1) upgrade Wennberg or (2) fix the problem on the second line left wing and hope that improves Wennberg’s production.  Given that Wennberg is never going to produce his own goals and the Jackets’ competition has Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, the first route may be the better route, but it is also the more expensive route.

The other issue may be Brandon Dubinsky.  No, I’m not all that concerned that he has “career-threatening issues” as some have reported.  I’m more concerned that the reporting has created a rift and lead him to want out.  Stan Fischler suggested this on a recent broadcast. Trying to move Dubinsky would be a real challenge.  Beyond that, Dubi playing on the third (or fourth) line is exactly the sort of depth we need.  The team may need to rebuild this relationship and hopefully certain journalists can avoid fanning the flames further.

In the pipeline and under the radar is Kevin Stenlund, who has been playing in Europe. Stenlund could challenge Lukas Sedlak next year for a roster spot or play a season in Cleveland with Abramov, which wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for both players.

While it has been a disappointing season in Cleveland as well, there are still some guys there who could provide the Jackets some needed depth.  Paul Bittner, Calvin Thurkauf and Tyler Motte are still young and could be nice additions to the bottom six.

The drags on the Jackets speed game and possession statistics may soon be moved.  Johnson has reportedly demanded a trade, and I’d like to personally thank him for that.  If reports are true that he could yield a first round pick (or more), that is very good news for the Jackets.  On a sadder note, Boone Jenner is probably in need of a change of scenery.  He doesn’t seem to mesh well with what the Jackets are attempting to do.  He could also still yield a valuable asset in return and could create some cap space for the offseason to address some of the issues raised above and to start dealing with extensions for key players like Panarin and Werenski.

Which leaves us with goaltending.  While I believe Joonas Korpisalo is an improvement over his predecessor, there remains a $9 million (plus?) question with respect to Bobrovsky after next year.  That’s a conservative estimate of what the two-time Vezina winner might seek on his next contract.  At 30-years-old, he’s also likely going to be seeking a six-eight year deal.  That is a large commitment to a player who has yet to come up big when it matters most.  The Rangers and Canadiens have two great goaltenders making $8.5 million and $10.5 million next year.  They are also both out of the playoffs this year with the Rangers having sent a letter to fans breaking it to them gently that they will be deadline sellers.

There is no doubt that the Jackets would be even worse without Bob, but the question has to be asked if the team can afford to tie up that much cap space in one player.  If not, this is the offseason they have to start dealing with the transition.  Does that mean buying out Elvis Merzlikins’ contract with Lugano so the 23-year-old can come over to North America next year?  Does that mean making a deal to acquire a goaltender in case negotiations with Bob don’t work out?  Does that mean getting Korpisalo more playing time next year despite the theory that Bob doesn’t do well on long rest?  Or, does it mean doing the unthinkable–trading Bobrovsky and acquiring a replacement at a lower cap hit?  It is a difficult situation and one that could define the franchise going forward.

While it would hurt to miss the playoffs, I would not be bothered by getting the top 10 pick I fully expected the team to get last year.  That’s another asset that can either be flipped for immediate help or, the better option in my view, kept to sustain organizational depth into the future.

Regardless, the Jackets are closer now than they were two years ago, and still on schedule.  They have the center they needed.  They have the defensemen they needed.  And, for now, they have an elite goaltender though they need to make a decision about his future.  They also have players who can yield them assets at the deadline (and, in Jenner’s case, even at the draft) if they decide to move them.  The Jackets are not far away, if they can use these assets and some cap space to address their issues on the second line, they can be in a position to be a contender next year and beyond.

The Customer Is Always Right—Sports Fans Should Not Be Silent

Just over six years ago, on January 28, 2012, approximately 300 Blue Jackets fans braved bitter cold to hold a protest as a Blue Jackets season that held great promise spiraled into chaos.  Earlier in the month, the team had fired Head Coach Scott Arniel ending a tenure that was probably most notable for Arniel’s infamous quip after a question from Lori Schmidt in a press conference (“so just keep piling on”).  Days later it would come out that the team’s superstar and captain, Rick Nash, had demanded a trade.

The preceding offseason looked good on paper.  A team that had only made the playoffs once seemed to have finally acquired the center it had needed for so long when an offseason trade landed them Jeff Carter.  They had also attempted to address their problems on defense by adding free agent James Wisniewski.  The Nikita Filatov era ended as the former first round pick was shipped to Ottawa for the Sens’ third round pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.

However, there was also a conspicuous failure to address concerns about the goaltending situation.  Mark Dekanich was signed to backup Steve Mason with Curtis Sanford, out of the NHL for two years at that point, signed as the primary goaltender for the AHL affiliate in Springfield.  Sadly, Dekanich would never see a game with the Jackets due to injury.

Things quickly went off the rails and never recovered.  Wisniewski would be suspended as a “repeat offender” for a preseason incident with Cal Clutterbuck in a preseason game that meant he didn’t start his first game for the Jackets until Game 9 of the season, which was, coincidentally, the team’s first win of the season.  Carter would get injured and be out for 10 games.  Steve Mason struggled.  Management, desperate to turn things around, made trades for Mark Letestu and Nikita Nikitin.  Rumors started to surface that, grasping at straws, the Jackets might bring back Ken Hitchcock as head coach. Fortunately for Hitchcock, he instead took a job with St. Louis.  Ownership seemed to be questioning management when they brought in former Pens GM, Craig Patrick as a “special advisor.”

Just six months after they enacted one plan to right the ship, they were about to enact a new plan—blow it all up.  And, to that point, it looked like they would let the architects of the prior failed plan—GM Scott Howson and President Mike Priest—carry out the new plan.

With the All-Star Break approaching, on January 23, 2012, the Jackets played a seemingly meaningless game against the Predators in Nashville and got shellacked, 4-1.  In many ways, it was a typical Blue Jackets loss for that era.  The Preds always seemed to have the Jackets’ number.  Mike Fisher had two goals in the game, bringing his total goals that season against the Jackets to six.  Over half of his goals to that point in the season were against Columbus, to which he responded after the game: “It’s kind of a funny stat. I know I’ve got to make sure I keep going and see if I can score against some other teams.”  The Jackets were 13-29-6 after that game. One loss shouldn’t have been any different than the 28 that preceded it.

But the fact that the loss was so typical, so ordinary, was probably what set me off.  It was a Monday night.  With the All-Star Break coming up, the team wouldn’t be in town on Saturday, but, as luck would have it, I would.  I had moved to the West Coast, but I was back visiting family.  That night I was in Northeast Ohio when I went on HFBoards and posted that we needed to have a fan protest to make it known that casual losses and being dead last in the league weren’t acceptable for a team that had been in the league as long as the Jackets had.  I didn’t really expect much to come out of it, but it struck a nerve and soon it was like a snowball rolling downhill.

I was driving south to Columbus the next afternoon when a fellow HFBoards member called me on my cellphone.  One of the local radio stations wanted to talk to the “organizers.”  To this point, no one was really organizing anything.  Suddenly there was a level of expectation.  Suddenly we had to think about things like permits, PA equipment, some sort of riser for speakers, a podium, speeches, etc., on a Tuesday afternoon, for something that was now, apparently, really going to take place on Saturday morning.  In the next 48 hours, somehow a core group of six of us came together to coordinate these things.

I had never met any of these guys in person before.  One of them was a guy I had sparred with over the years on HFBoards.  One was a musician and Day 1 season ticket holder.  One was a fan who traveled up to games from Kentucky.  One was an Iraq war vet and another was a father who brought his kids to games.  Other people volunteered to help in various ways including lending us PA equipment, picking things up where we couldn’t, etc. It was the first experience I really had of how quickly you could organize something with social media and with crowd-sourcing.  The protest would have never happened without the contributions of a number of people, and I cannot thank them enough.

Meanwhile, people debated the protest online, particularly at HFBoards.  Some thought it was a joke or an embarrassment. When national hockey media started to cover it, I think some started to fear that this would make the Jackets and, by extension, Columbus, a punchline.

The Jackets, for their part, were concerned about how this would play and, allegedly, hired a PR firm out of Chicago to address the situation.  On the eve of the protest, owner John P. McConnell wrote a letter to the fans and via the press let protesters know that they would be welcomed with a cup of hot coffee on what was expected to be a blustery day as a way of the organization showing its appreciation to the fans.  A nice gesture by McConnell which pretty much wrote my speech for me since I had a 2/3 replica Stanley Cup at my disposal.  (“You offered us a cup of coffee, but that’s not the Cup we want!”)

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The night before the core group of six of us and my always patient wife met up at a bar in the Arena District to make our final arrangements as to order of speakers and what we wanted to cover.  Who happened to walk into the same bar?  John P. McConnell’s son!  You really can’t make this stuff up. We finalized our plans in hushed tones about 10 feet away from him.

The next morning, the rumors about the Jackets being awarded an All-Star Game were everywhere.  I showed up at Nationwide at least an hour before the start time for our protest.  The Arena District was dead quiet.  It was bitterly cold.  I wasn’t sure if, after all of this, anyone would actually show up.  It didn’t look good 15 minutes before start time.  Then, suddenly, people started spilling out of the various bars and restaurants in the Arena District.  Probably 10-20 people at first.  With minutes to go before the start time the courtyard was nearly filled.  With only a few days’ notice, approximately 250-300 people had showed up on a cold day.  They showed up with signs supporting the team, but questioning management.

As we kicked things off with Bush’s “Machinehead,” the Jumbotron across the street carried the news that the Blue Jackets had been awarded an All-Star Game.  It was a bittersweet moment given the state of the team, but it was the first sign that maybe things would get better.  Over the next year, Rick Nash would be traded to the Rangers in a blockbuster deal, Mike Priest would be “promoted” and replaced by John Davidson, Scott Howson would be fired, and current GM Jarmo Kekalainen would be hired to replace him.  I don’t know if we influenced any of those decisions, but I’m glad the decisions were made.

In the aftermath, a lot of people who had been skeptical about the protest felt that it was well done and that it wasn’t the embarrassment they feared it would be.  At All-Star Weekend, Gary Bettman was forced to address the protest, doing so in the way you’d expect Gary Bettman to respond to such a question:

I saw that somebody was trying to organize a pep rally. But that’s a good sign.  It’s kind of like when you get booed when you go out on the ice, it’s better than when it’s quiet. I know about that firsthand.”

It was interesting to see the Browns Perfect Season Parade last month.  I heard a lot of the same things I remember hearing when we were planning the protest about whether it should be done, whether it would be an embarrassment.  You had another element that we didn’t have—players taking to social media to voice their anger over the parade.  In the end, Chris McNeil and the organizers deserve a lot of credit.  They raised over $15,000 for a good cause–wish we would have had the time and forethought to do this.  McNeil and his fellow organizers should be very proud in what they did, bringing out over 3,000 fans on another cold Ohio day.  Hopefully the Browns ownership and management takes the frustration of their fans to heart.  Bettman was right:  having 3,000 fans show up to voice their anger beats having 30,000 empty seats in your stadium.

That is the challenge for fans of dysfunctional sports franchises.  Some would propose boycotts as a way motivate teams, but boycotts can backfire.  Sometimes a boycott isn’t an option.  Witness the situation with the Columbus Crew where, once again, a dedicated fan base is speaking up.  In the case of the Crew, the issue isn’t as much the team’s performance as it is ownership’s desire to move the team and mischaracterize the fan base in the process.  Columbus was the first team to have a soccer-specific stadium, but the old house is starting to show its age.  Instead of sitting down in good faith with officials of the City of Columbus, team owner, Anthony Precourt, is more focused on moving the team to Austin and is doing everything he can to paint a picture of a franchise that no longer has local support from fans or businesses.  While John P. McConnell did all he could to show that he heard the fans concerns, Anthony Precourt is content to thumb his nose at Crew supporters, area businesses and local government officials.

Morgan Hughes and others behind the #SaveTheCrew effort have done a brilliant job of attempting to disprove Precourt’s anti-Columbus narrative by getting support not just from fans, but from businesses in Columbus.  They’ve put up billboards and have developed a “community kit” complete with a corporate sponsor.  We still don’t know how the story will end with the Crew, but I applaud the creative efforts of all of those behind #SaveTheCrew and I hope it shows other fans of troubled franchises in other cities that they don’t have to be hopeless, that they can attempt to do something about it instead of just accepting the loss of their franchise.  Show them some support in their efforts even if it is a little thing like sending them a few bucks.

I don’t know what the future will hold for fan advocacy, but I think fans are better off speaking up than being silent.  For years, fans of teams were the one group without a voice.  Fans have been used as pawns in disputes between players and owners over labor matters and in disputes between owners and government officials over financing matters.  At the end of the day, the fans are a team’s consumer base and they shouldn’t be silent about an investment of hundreds or thousands of dollars any more than they would be silent if they went to a restaurant and were given the wrong food, much less if they got the wrong food every time they went to that same restaurant.  Remember the words of Gary Bettman—it is better for owners to hear your “boos” than silence. Sometimes that means you need to hold a “pep rally.”