Friday, October 28, 2011

CBJ at Buffalo: Painful Regression

Sometimes... there are no words.

At least, none that can be said within earshot of children.

I know a couple people who probably need to get a sitter for their kids when they watch the Ohio State Buckeyes football team. At home. And that was when Jim Tressel was coach and the Buckeyes were winning.

I pray that when that time comes... I don't have to send my children elsewhere while I watch the Columbus Blue Jackets. Then again, maybe they'll figure out how to win consecutive games by then.

This team beat the Detroit freakin' Red Wings two nights ago (yes, the second-rate backup was starting, but they beat the rest of the team, too). Hell, they even battled back from down 2-0 to tie up this game.

Overall, though, they just... seemed to regress back to the team that started the season 0-7-1. Defensive breakdowns. Big rebounds that left Steve Mason vulnerable. Again. It wasn't for a lack of effort, and it wasn't for a lack of offensive opportunities... hell, the Jackets put 43 shots on net. The defense reverted back to pre-Tuesday levels, though. And the PK... cripe, how many power play goals have the Jackets given up in the last few road games now? I'm trying to block out those first eight games, so I'm not looking it up... but they gave up two tonight. In what, three tries?

The power play regressed to 0-for-6, snapping the five-game streak with a power play goal.

Man, this Arniel system of aggressive, attacking hockey sounded so exciting when the team hired him. I can understand the Jackets didn't have the personnel to pull it off last year. This year, there's no excuse. Sure there are a few guys out, but we still have yet to hear from certain guys on the team who are part of that "core."

Guys who signed lucrative extensions.

Guys who are here another four or five years, as the Jackets' payroll sits within a million or two bucks of the Salary Cap.

This team can NOT be this bad.

Not with a back-to-back against Chicago and Anaheim this weekend.

Please...?

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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Detroit at CBJ II: It Starts With One...

"The CBJ was just waiting to win so they could make a statement. They are so forward-thinking. Stanley Cup Finals, I see it now."
-- Kate (@hockeydarling), San Jose, Calif.

Kate is a Sharks fan. In San Jose. I've never met her. However, like the hundreds of CBJ and NHL fans that I follow on Twitter, she watches hockey in what I've described previously as the World's Largest Living Room. As her Sharks have rid the Playoffs of the Detroit Red Wings the past two years, we both generally have nice things to say.

Anyway, I see this, and I inform her that I like her thinking. To this, she replies with my nomination for Quote of the Night:

"CBJ is that stoner in class that's really, really smart."

So... after I stop laughing heartily, I start trying to think of what that person looks like, so I tried to think of stoners in movies that fit the bill. Spiccoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High? Stoner... yeah. Smart... meh, not quite.

Slater from Dazed & Confused? Stoner, absolutely. Smart... well apart from the discussion of George Washington and aliens....

Realizing of course, that this has nothing to do with the CBJ win or even hockey... I settled on that really smart pothead from Road Trip. However, I found the stoner quote too hilarious not to share, so I asked her if I could share it, and she agreed.

So... thanks for a good laugh, Kate.

Now I wouldn't say the Blue Jackets by any means smoked the Red Wings (last stoner joke, I promise), but they sure as hell played a damn good hockey game against a damn good hockey team.

They didn't wait long to jump all over the opportunities they got, either. R.J. Umberger came out of the corner just 21 seconds in, found a rebound and put it past Ty Conklin for his first. Dude kinda looked like he was convulsing in that celebration, but man, emptying that kind of frustration had to feel good.

Even after a game-tying goal and a brief scare involving Steve Mason, the Blue Jackets didn't seem fazed. Then Ryan Johansen scored his first career NHL goal from behind the net and the place went crazy. From there, the Jackets did something they hadn't done yet this season: They played 60 minutes of hockey, and played well with the lead. They even added to it, as John Moore tallied his first career NHL goal from long range in the second period.

The special teams... solid. Sure, you always want more power play goals with seven tries, but the Jackets have now tallied with the man advantage in five straight games. The recently abysmal PK was perfect in three tries. And, hey, Derek MacKenzie's empty netter was even a shortie.

And then there was Steve Mason. It has often been discussed that he needed help in front of him, in order for him to get some confidence. He got it, and he did. He looked damn good... and we saw flashes of just what kind of hockey we can look forward to if the Jackets keep this up.

Which brings us to the unheralded man of the hour, James Wisniewski. Was he on the scoresheet? Nope. Was he a presence? Oh hell, yes. What did he get, 27-plus minutes of ice-time? Hockey may be a team sport, but Wiz proved to be just the kind of infusion this hockey team needed. The puck moved, and in the right direction much of the time.

Now, to put it all in perspective, the Jackets are now 1-7-1. This was just one win. The Jackets need 40-something more of these in the next 73 games to play in mid-April.

That said... this was a win against the Detroit Red Wings, which makes any night sweeter. More importantly, 15,000-plus fans in Nationwide -- whatever sweaters they wore -- and thousands more on TV saw a different hockey team from the one that had been getting mercilessly panned by outsiders for the first eight games.

They saw hope... and what we hope is the future of this team this season.

It's just one game, and it's just one win.

But it starts with one.

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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Starting From Zero... Still...

Here we go.

Time to find out if James Wisniewski is an answer the Columbus Blue Jackets' current mess.

Note I said an answer… not the answer. Frankly, at this point, I'd be fine with just having a couple fewer questions about this team right now.
That's what an 0-7-1 start can do to a hockey fan.

Sure, there have been some bad bounces. Sure, maybe the Jackets are just who born unlucky. However, I don't think we've seen a game yet in which the Jackets have truly outworked their opponents. This team has the ability to score. This team has the talent to score.

What they seem to be lacking is the will. Motivation. The Blue Jackets can talk all they want about staying positive, but the only way to snap out of their current funk is to shut up, go out there and hit some people, outwork everyone else on the ice and get a win. Not wait for bounces, look for opportunities and hope.

That won't work tonight against Detroit. They're a perennial powerhouse. They don't rebuild, they reload, yadda yadda yadda. They're good. Wings fans (or at least people wearing Wings sweaters) will more than likely outnumber Jackets fans tonight. They might as well be playing in The Joe.

But they're not. And damn it all... that has got to mean something.

An 0-7-1 start sucks. The loss at Ottawa has got to be one of the lowest points any hockey team has ever experienced.

However, if it makes each player to a man realize that "Hey, we know we're a good hockey team, but we played like absolute $#!+ Saturday night. I will not let that happen again"...

...maybe that godawful loss to Ottawa could be... worth it?

The Blue Jackets are starting from zero. Again.

Time to think of Saturday as Rock Bottom, get their $#!+ together. They can't count on the Wings letting Ty Conklin get lit up like they did in their own nasty loss on Saturday (7-1 to the Caps).

Take a win. Not only seize... but create opportunities.

To call the ninth game of an 82-game hockey season a "do-or-die" game... well, no "borderline" about it, it's just plain crazy.

It feels pretty damn close to it, though.

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Sunday, October 23, 2011

"Blue Jackets" Are A Seven- (Oops... Eight-) Letter Word...

The next few sentences are going to hurt like hell, but I'm going to say it anyway, because they are 100% true.

These Columbus Blue Jackets are one godawful hockey team. Just how godawful? So godawful that they gave up the game-tying and game-winning goals in the last minute?

No... even more godawful than that.

The Columbus Blue Jackets are so godawful that they gave up the game-tying and game-winning goals in the last minute to a team that by every conceivable standard is likely MORE godawful than they are.

Never mind the great goal that Aaron Johnson scored in the first to tie the game at 1-1... when he patiently stood on the opposite side of the crease and knocked in the loose puck as he was being tackled.

Never mind the gorgeous go-ahead goal by Rick Nash in the third as he wristed it past Craig Anderson.

No one remembers those goals after a game like this. They remember two red sweaters camped out by Steve Mason, waiting for (and getting) the rebound with 36 seconds to go.

They remember another red sweater camped out in front of Steve Mason getting a deflection with less than five seconds remaining.

They remember blowing a game in the last minute to team that will be in Playoff contention no later than January... even in the Eastern Conference.

Oh... and up next is Detroit again. Oh, joy. On a school night, too.

So the 8,000 or so seats Columbus fans didn't buy early enough will be taken up by actual Detroit fans making the trip... plus the local/regional WalMart WingNuts who don't know their ass from their Abdelkader.

But... at least the James Wisniewski suspension is officially over.

One careless elbow. One Academy Award-winning flop.

Eight games. 0-6-2.

Oh, right... 0-7-1... I wanted that OT point so bad.

[edit... damn, that's sad]

So much for the rest of the team stepping up.

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Saturday, October 22, 2011

Damn It To Detroit...

Another night, another seemingly uninspired effort by the Columbus Blue Jackets. Or, maybe the Detroit Red Wings are just that good.

More than likely, it's a bit of both. But once again, the Blue Jackets fell behind, and just never could draw even.

They couldn't match Detroit's speed. They couldn't match Detroit's strength. They couldn't match Detroit's intensity. They just flat-out couldn't match Detroit.

Detroit showed why they're now unbeaten in five, and Columbus showed why they're now winless in seven.

The Blue Jackets lost yet another of their offseason acquisitions, with the apparent concussion to Radek Martinek in the first period. He joins Carter, Dekanich and Wisniewski... although at least the Jackets get Wiz back Monday.

Still, despite this depletion, tonight's game at Ottawa is critical. A game that should have been a breather after Detroit is now a must-win. Sad what an 0-6-1 start does to a team's perspective.

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Friday, October 21, 2011

Catching Up...

First and foremost, thanks for stopping by. I had a bit of an unexpected hiatus, which was actually preceded by a vacation, and a "hockey-free holiday" of sorts for the Mrs. It was her birthday this week, and so it seemed appropriate that I eschew all things hockey for the length of our stay in beautiful New Orleans. (Which was, indeed, quite beautiful this time of year, and one hell of a good time).

Then, I got sick. Originally, I thought, from food poisoning. Needless to say, illness can really put a kibbosh on any sort of vacation-type proceedings. I did make the point of getting checked out once we got home this week, just to make sure it wasn't something much more serious. Thankfully, it wasn't… however, it was viral.

Largely, my last few days have consisted of sleep, try to eat, work (some doctors' orders, sorry, have to be ignored), go home, sleep, try to eat, etc.

Me? Too sick to provide opinionated, snarky and sometimes downright mean hockey commentary?

Hey, sometimes, we still learn a lot about ourselves.

So, everybody... again, thanks for stopping by! What did I mi--

Oh. That much, huh?

Atkinson and Calvert demoted... Carter hurt... even the third-string goalie is injured, meaning a struggling Steve Mason is carrying the entire load... and we're still waiting on other guys to come back.

Oh. And we're still two more games away from seeing if James Wisniewski will be part of the miraculous recovery (or, at least, the stopping of the bleeding) that this team so desperately needs.

So, the Jackets take their battered and bruised, 0-5-1 egos into Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, in what most will dismiss in a "lambs to slaughter" fashion before the game even starts.

Or... this weekend's road trip to Hell and Ottawa is the beginning of the Jackets' "I'm not dead yet!" rally back upward in the Western Conference standings.

Sure, Detroit is 4-0-0, and they are contenders as usual. Yes, the game is in the Joe, which holds even more Wings fans than Nationwide does (and heaven knows, Nationwide holds a LOT of WalMart WingNuts).

But we can also look at the positives... the Blue Jackets have scored a power play goal in two straight games! Plus... ...well, maybe that's the only positive the Jackets have coming into this game.

It's a start. Maybe tonight will be, too.

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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Avs at CBJ: Almost...

Soooo... how'd the Columbus Blue Jackets do last night? Well, from the sound of things (no TV, after all)… they at least took a step. In fact, they almost took a win against the Colorado Avalanche.

If not for a shot from former Jacket Jan Hejda, deflected past Steve Mason by Gabriel Landeskog, the Jackets would have come away with two points instead of one.

However, the point is a point. They all count. Obviously, the Jackets need to snap out of their funk and get more of them. Getting outshot 16-1 in the third period is not how you get two points. Those last-minute goals – like the aforementioned by Landeskog – may not be killers by themselves, but they can certainly set you up for one.

Still, from the sound of it, Mason was a freaking wall in that third, before the freak goal. Again... the guy needs help from the guys in front of him. There's no way a team should be outshot by such a margin.

Anyway, after watching the highlights on NHL.com, I can say it was nice to see Rick Nash score one of those "Dammit, I WILL make this puck go in" kind of goals in the second period ("going right to left on your radio dial," as the great George Matthews says), and that goal from Martinek from the wall was just fun to watch go in.

Still, 0-3-1 isn't pretty. That "1" may be a sign of getting it together, though (late goal notwithstanding). I do think it will behoove the team to take advantage of that second day between games -- maybe experiment with the lines, drill a bit harder, get a good yelling-at or two from Coach Arniel....

"Duh" Statement of the Day: These next two games against Dallas are going to be critical. You know that "If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging" thing? It's a lot like that.

This team has to make people want to come down to Nationwide. Last night's crowd dipped below 9,000, the lowest attendance in franchise history... which also means the Jackets drew more on Opening Night than they have in the other two home games.

Combined.

Time to turn it around, guys.

Go Jackets!

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Monday, October 10, 2011

Vancouver vs. CBJ: Opportunity Knocks... Nobody's Home

Okay, seriously... who does Scott Arniel have to swat with a stick to get a power play goal for the Columbus Blue Jackets?

0-for-5 Monday. 0-for-16 through three games. The Jackets are not helping themselves, and you can't blame all this on James Wisniewski's absence. I keep saying it... missing players are not an excuse. It's called gut check... you step up. The Jackets have the talent.

So what do you do? Start shuffling the lines a little on the power play? In 5-on-5? Maybe send Carter to the second line and bring Vermette up with Nash and Prospal? I'm not a coach (obviously)... just a thought.

Something has to happen, though. We have yet to see the Jackets play 60 minutes of hockey on a given night. That's not to say there weren't high points tonight. That first period was crazy good... even with the Vancouver Canucks' tying goal, they weren't getting a lot of chances on the attack.

Cam Atkinson's wrister past Cory Schneider was a nice way to get a first career NHL goal. Vinny Prospal's wraparound was a beauty, as well.

But Vancouver got a bounce here and a deflection there -- actually, a few deflections -- and seemed to outwork the Jackets, especially late, to get the win. So, the Jackets will have to wait until Wednesday to get another shot at win number one -- and hopefully, a power play goal at some point -- against Colorado.

Hopefully with a larger crowd in the stands, too... 9,100-something? I know it's a school night, but... yikes.

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Sunday, October 9, 2011

CBJ vs. Minnesota: Rough Weekend

To say "disappointing" would be an understatement.

Despite what we would hope is their best effort, the Columbus Blue Jackets fell behind by three goals and just never caught up against the Minnesota Wild.

Power play? Nope, still ineffective.

Top line? Ineffective.

Penalty kill? Not particularly great.

Were the four goals against completely Steve Mason's fault? Not really, but it's not unrealistic to expect your last line of defense to be better on the ice. The great goaltenders do... and we have seen Steve Mason be great, so it's not a question of ability.

I don't know about you, but I'm not sure what's worse... being able to very clearly hear the "Maaaaason... you suck!" chant from a small throng of away fans from the opposite corner, or being able to hear it on the telecast during a road game. It's pretty freakin' awful in both cases.

However, blame where it's due... the whole team in front of him has not looked good. A team whose payroll has eclipsed $60 million over the summer has not played 60 minutes of hockey. The Jackets have not necessarily lost to two teams that were better than them... they have simply played better.

Although my wording last night that Mason should have the night off to be locked in a room and mildly tortured were a bit strong (and I am backing off of that... *wink*), I do think it may be a good time for the Jackets to rest Mason and Curtis Sanford on Monday.

Apparently, there will be a hearing for Pierre-Marc Bouchard with the NHL today, to discuss his whack of the stick to Matt Calvert's face, according to Aaron Portzline at the Dispatch. I'm not sure what to think, as far as what will happen. There are doubts as to whether Calvert unintentionally caused the incident in the process of lifting his stick. It's not that clear from the angles provided that Calvert lifted Bouchard's stick into his own face. I'm guessing that somehow Brendan Shanahan will have some angle that will determine whether Calvert's and Bouchard's sticks just got tangled up during the faceoff.

Guess we'll find out later today....

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Saturday, October 8, 2011

Big Debut, Mixed Review

Well, that wasn't an ideal debut.

The Columbus Blue Jackets opened their season with a 3-2 loss to the Nashville Predators, before a sellout crowd at Nationwide Arena.

Fans (and perhaps some casual observers) got their first glimpse of the new and (mostly) improved hockey team. Most notably, they got a glimpse of the new top line of Jeff Carter, Rick Nash and Vinny Prospal.

That line also accounted for all the scoring. Nash and Prospal got the goals (and an assist each), while Jeff Carter assisted on both goals.

The rest of the team struggled against the Predators' so-good-that-of-course-we-hate-him goaltender Pekka Rinne. The 0-for-5 power play looked sharp at times, and disjointed at others... having problems putting chances together against Nashville's forecheck. On the other end, Steve Mason was busy, and not as sharp as expected. He'll get better... the guys in front of him need to play better.

You could sense that James Wisniewski could have been of some help.

Cam Atkinson was the standout of the three rookies, getting in on quite a few plays in the offensive zone. Ryan Johansen didn't particularly stand out. David Savard looked a bit off... maybe even nervous.

This was one battle. There are 81 more of these. Despite the struggles on offense, the Jackets still played hard and got 34 shots on Rinne, including an exciting flurry at the end.

It has been a long time since I've seen Nationwide as loud -- or as full -- as last night. Maybe the sellout was just opening night, but the volume was unmistakeable... even (unfortunately) the Preds fans' goalie chant, which could be heard from the opposite corner.

Obviously, there is room for improvement, and not a lot of time to get it together, with the Jackets on the road tonight in Minnesota.

WRANDOM WRISTERS
  • I did get to see a couple of the new Preds sweaters up-close after the game. Good design overall... not crazy about the whole guitar pick thing, but they're pretty sharp.
  • Pretty sure I heard Carrie Underwood's "Cowboy Casanova" playing as the second intermission got underway. As I recall, Mr. Carrie still plays for Nashville. I know, it's not as bad as the "Chelsea Dagger" incident from a couple years ago... but, yikes. Not cool.
  • I was happy to see the curved glass at the stanchions by the benches. I'm glad the NHL adopted that change before this season, after seeing some of the scary incidents that have occurred over the last few years with hits in that area of the ice. Now we just need those Goal Verification Lines, so we can eliminate the randomness of goal reviews in Toronto.

Go Jackets!

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Friday, October 7, 2011

CBJ 2.0: The Reboot

Welcome to the Columbus Blue Jackets 2.0.

Some might argue that it is "Version 11"… and some might wonder why were even using computer terms here.

But the fact is... it is appropriate because the Blue Jackets officially begin their second decade of existence in the NHL. And, since the Jackets theoretically have the top-line center and puck-moving defenseman they have coveted for the entire first decade... I think we can safely say this is finally the upgrade the faithful have been waiting for.

One way to think about this past offseason is that of an exorcism. A tad dramatic, yes. However, the idea of the guys at the top of the organization doing a top-to-bottom audit of the front office and the entire team, just has that certain tone of... finality.

The old guard of (not so much failure, but)... I'll call it "unsuccess," is gone. And I don't mean to characterize Doug MacLean as the "demon" being exorcised, but I guess I sort of am.

Old head of scouting... gone. The wayward status of part-time goaltending coaches... gone. Attitude of "status quo and let's see what we can do"... gone.

This is an upgrade... I think that even includes General Manager Scott Howson, who took this summer and made some bets... put some money out there, and for better or worse, he has definitively put his mark on this team.

That alone is in stark contrast to the Scott Howson who hired Scott Arniel and then stayed largely quiet... on the notion that the CBJ could make the Playoffs with essentially the same personnel. As is, the team got off to a really good start. Then, similar to the previous season, December and January threatened disaster for the CBJ. However, in the tight Western Conference, the Jackets managed to still find themselves in contention at the Trade Deadline. Sadly, even after moves that were designed to jumpstart the team, the CBJ faded down the stretch.

Enter: Scott Howson 2.0.

First, the bold gambit in trading to get Jeff Carter from the Philadelphia Flyers. Then another, getting James Wisniewski from the MontrĂ©al Canadiens just before the free agency deadline, and then finishing the job by getting him signed before noon on July 1.

Then came the moves to get help for Springfield, and the moves to lock in core guys like Clitsome, Tyutin and Umberger for the long term. Now we see some prospects coming up in the offseason and emerging in the preseason... and ladies and gentlemen, we have ourselves a good-looking hockey team.

How good? We'll find out beginning tonight.

Sure, tonight's game against the Nashville Predators and tomorrow's against the Minnesota Wild are only two games out of an 82-game slate. However, needless to say, after yet another long, nearly 6-month off-season... fans expect to see something spectacular coming out of the gate.

It's only natural. We are hockey fans.

Theoretically, the Blue Jackets now have all the pieces in place. Only in April will we know if it's all enough to take the next step into the postseason.

The team has already taken a couple of hits, with Mark Dekanich's ankle sprain and Wisniewski's suspension... but these events are irrelevant.

Sure, it sucks to not have the entire team ready to go, but no excuses. Someone ahead of you goes down, you pull together and get the job done. These first few weeks are a test of character. Teams face adversity all the time... you suck it up and play hockey.

Tonight is the night we've been waiting for in Columbus.

Not to abuse the phrase that has permeated our consciousness since CannonFest, but this is the Jackets' Call to Arms (and if you're not clicking on this link and watching Skraut's video at least once today, you're not yet ready for this season).

Strap in, and keep your limbs inside the car at all times... unless you're standing up and screaming and waving your hands in the air like a fool. Don't worry... it's encouraged.

The ride begins tonight. See you at Nationwide.

Go Jackets!

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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Fearless (Maybe Just Crazy) Western Conference Predictions

The ice is down in the NHL's 30 rinks. Training Camp is over. Puck drops in Columbus in about 24 hours. The time as come for...

(just pretend there's a drum roll here...)

...FEARLESS PREDICTIONS in the NHL for 2011-12!

Or maybe just misguided... and/or crazy predictions.

Let's start out with the NORTHWEST DIVISION...

The question is not who will win the Northwest Divistion... but by how much the Vancouver Canucks will win it.

Oh, wait... make that two questions... will a second Northwest Division team make the Playoffs this year?

(Answers: 20 points or more... and "no.")

The Northwest didn't get any more or less tough. It's just kind of... there.

Vancouver looks to be as strong as ever, still possessing most of the team that was within one win of getting its first Stanley Cup in franchise history. Though the losses of Christian Ehrhoff and Raffi Torres will hurt in the short term, the addition of Marco Sturm (assuming he can stay healthy) will help fortify the Canucks' weapons on offense. In short... in the weak Northwest, Vancouver only needs to be concerned about making it through another deep Playoff run. With Tampa likely giving Washington a fight over in the East's Southleast Division, the Presidents' Trophy is a lock. They might even win the Cup if they put a media gag on Roberto Luongo (sorry, dude... I think of you every time someone gets a flat tire now).

The Minnesota Wild will be very interesting to watch. The team added a couple good offensive players in Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi to try and snap them into some kind of goal-scoring shape. Grabbing Mike Lundin will also be a solid help on defense. Will it be enough to put a second Northwest Division team in the Playoffs? Probably not yet.

With two new goaltenders, it almost feels like the Colorado Avalanche is completely starting over. However, they still have much of the core youth that shockingly made the Playoffs two years ago, then shockingly plummeted off the radar last year. Jan Hejda was a good Free Agency pickup who should help the defense. The big questions with the Avs lie in their consistency on the ice, and whether Semyon Varlamov can withstand the attacks of Western Conference teams. Otherwise, the Avs have a more-than-capable backup in J.S. Giguere.

The Calgary Flames got rid of some underproductive baggage in order to keep a core of good players together, but the question is whether they did enough to get themselves back into the Playoffs. Sadly, that answer is also no. In fact, the bottom three of the Northwest will be pretty muddled together this year. Might take a coin flip to figure out whether the Flames or the Edmonton Oilers stay out of the divisional cellar this year. However, don't count the Oilers out too much longer... it's only a matter of time before that infusion of youth and high draft picks puts them back in contention.

The PACIFIC DIVISION... well, the title will be in California, that's for sure.

The obvious frontrunner would be the San Jose Sharks, and though icing a scarily strong team has become one of their trademarks, another less flattering trademark has been their inability to finish the job. The Sharks hope a proven playoff performer like Martin Havlat can help remedy that situation. The bigger question mark is the health of their goaltenders, with Antii Niemi still in doubt after surgery and Antero Niittymaki out for at least another month or so after "lower body" surgery. A stumble out of the block opens the door for L.A. and Anaheim.

Well, well, well... look who decided to show up for work for the Los Angeles Kings. After supposedly playing contract hardball with Drew Doughty, the Kings caved and agreed to pay him more than Anze Kopitar (on average, anyway). So much for taking a stand against the little brat, but it is what it is.

Anyway, the Kings will get some leadership from new guy (and former Philly captain) Mike Richards while Doughty (slowly) grows up and (maybe) starts proving he's worth $7M/year. Richards will get some help from other new guy Simon Gagne, and the Kings will continue their rise. They might even give the Sharks a little heat at the top of the Pacific.

Just watch out for the Anaheim Ducks, who still boast that Ryan Getzlaf-Bobby Ryan-Corey Perry line. They also have strong goaltending returning in Jonas Hiller, and lest we forget... the man who refuses to grow old, Teemu Selanne is returning for another go-round at the age of 41. Hell, if you could still score a point-a-game of better -- including the Playoffs -- at the age of 40... wouldn't you? The Pacific race will be tight at the top, kids.

The Phoenix Coyotes have fought through the distraction of off-ice ownership and arena sagas for the past two seasons, and made the Playoffs both years. This year, Coyotes fans will have to deal with both off-ice and on-ice problems after the departure of Ilya Bryzgalov. Most of the forwards and defense are still intact, but the biggest question mark is still in goal. After years of struggle, Mike Smith ended his tenure in Tampa with flashes of brilliance -- including some incredible work against Boston in the East Finals last year. Now, he's the top goaltender in a town that desperately needs one... and hopes to hold onto its hockey team as well.

Whatever Brad Richards may do in New York with the Rangers in the coming years (and I doubt a Cup will among those things) the Dallas Stars are going to miss him. The Stars will have to rely on young guys like Loui Eriksson and Jamie Benn, and hope veterans like Brenden Morrow and newcomers Michael Ryder and Radek Dvorak can help them along. Offense will be the Stars' biggest issue.

Saving the best for last, the CENTRAL DIVISON is looking strong, and a couple teams on hard times of late are looking to change the guard a little bit. Still, the Detroit Red Wings look to rule the roost, following the departure of longtime goaltender and Cup winner Chris Osgood. The Wings will be formidable in goal as usual, with Jimmy Howard starting and Joey MacDonald serving as backup. The lone notable subtraction was Brian Rafalski, and the Wings reloaded with Ian White and CBJ castoff Mike Commodore in free agency. Not exactly exciting, true, but with their core of forwards intact, unless their goaltending goes to hell early, the Wings will likely be looking down from the top of the Central all season.

The Nashville Predators had a rough offseason. They lost guys like Steve Sullivan and Joel Ward... not huge, but not small losses. Then throw the arbitration nightmare with Shea Weber into the mix, and the typically-frugal Preds were suddenly saddled with a huge paycheck to their captain, who will just be a UFA all over again in the summer. Still, Weber is a vital cog in Nashville... they couldn't afford not to have him this season. Still, even with having to rely on some young players and some tertiary help from free agency... you can never count the Preds out of the Central Division race. I don't know what it is about this team, but looking at head coach Barry Trotz is a good first step. He's not the franchise's only coach going into his 13th season for nothing. It helps to have a goaltender like Pekka Rinne, though they may have to lean on him a bit more this season. If he keeps his form, though, the Preds are a legitimate threat to Detroit.

Now we come to the Columbus Blue Jackets... version 2.0. The top-to-bottom "audit" of the organization resulted in a massive overhaul. When the dust settled, there were new faces in scouting, coaching staff, and of course, on the ice. The roster overhaul (hopefully) brought the Jackets the top-line center (Jeff Carter) and the puck-moving defenseman (James Wisniewski) that the franchise has needed since its inception. It has also brought contract extensions to core players (Clitsome, Methot, Tyutin, Umberger) and an infusion of youth that looks to rise among the veterans and turn this team into a contender. Even with all that talent coming in, the fate of the Jackets' season will still hinge on goaltender Steve Mason rediscovering his rookie form from three seasons ago, and finding consistency.

The offseason moves can be summed up with the two-word mantra "Win now." The payroll numbers say "You'd better."

Like the Jackets, the St. Louis Blues look to return to the Playoffs after a couple seasons of futility. Injuries to their forward lines doomed them last year, so they added to their forward depth by signing veterans Jamie Langenbruner and Jason Arnott. The pair will also provide key veteran leadership in the locker room. Jaroslav Halak transitioned better than expected to the Western Conference, and helped the Blues perform well, even within the tough Central Division. If health allows, the Blues will be the fourth Central team in the Playoffs.

The rest of the hockey world is going to think I'm crazy, and that's okay... I may be the only person who thinks the Chicago Blackhawks will actually regress this year. A season after the Hawks had to break up the team that won the Stanley Cup, they went out looking for some grunt, and got it in guys like Sean O'Donnell and former Philly goon Danny Carcillo. I'm all for grit, but the rest of the Central Division needs to watch its back with Carcillo on the ice, because a hit from behind is about all he is able to contribute. On the positive side, the Hawks also snagged Andrew Brunette. Though entering his hockey twilight, Brunette is still a good goal scorer. The biggest question mark is whether Corey Crawford is the man in net. If not, the Hawks could struggle to find a "go-to guy" with Ray Emery or Alexander Salak.

With the divisional breakdowns done,  I give you:

FINAL WESTERN CONFERENCE STANDINGS
1. Vancouver Canucks
2. San Jose Sharks
3. Detroit Red Wings
4. Nashville Predators
5. Los Angeles Kings
6. Columbus Blue Jackets
7. Anaheim Ducks
8. St. Louis Blues
9. Chicago Blackhawks
10. Minnesota Wild
11. Colorado Avalanche
12. Phoenix Coyotes
13. Dallas Stars
14. Edmonton Oilers
15. Calgary Flames

Here come the men in the white coats... see you Friday.

Cheers.... Go Jackets!

See the picks for the "Other Guys" in the Eastern Conference Preview...

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Fearless (Maybe Just Crazy) Eastern Conference Predictions

The ice is down in the NHL's 30 rinks. Training Camp is over. Puck drops in Boston in a matter of hours. The time as come for...

[just pretend there's a drum roll here...]

...FEARLESS PREDICTIONS in the NHL for 2011-12!

Or maybe just misguided... and/or crazy predictions for the Eastern Conference.

We'll start with the SOUTHEAST DIVISION...

The Washington Capitals will look to contend for the Presidents' Trophy this year. They should probably keep looking. The days of breezing through the "Southleast" Division are over, with the emergence of the Tampa Bay Lightning as contenders. Yes, Alexander Ovechkin is very good hockey player... and I'm sure he's relieved to be getting some help via free agency from Troy Brouwer and Roman Hamrlik. However, the factor that continues to plague the Capitals come Playoff time is goaltending. Tomas Vokoun was the top free-agent goaltender available this summer… which I don't think says too much for the crop. The Caps likely realized that and only signed him for a year at $1.5 million. Michal Neuvirth is the goalie of the future in Washington, but could be the goalie of the present again... essentially, expect another goaltender controversy. The front office can say all they want how they're comfortable with playing three good goaltenders (throwing Braden Holtby in, too). Problem is, you need one who can win a Cup... which is why they will struggle for another year to come up with excuses to explain why Ovi won't hoist it again this year.

The Tampa Bay Lightning promise to be a team to watch this year, taking the eventual Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals last year. The Bolts are still loaded, with a cast lead by new hella-millionaire Steven Stamkos. Despite the loss of Simon Gagne's offensive skills, this team will be tough to beat. Dwayne Roloson was insane for the Bolts down the stretch and in the Playoffs, and aims to match that level as he turns 42 next week. Mathieu Garon should provide a capable back up when he needs rest. Expect the Bolts to be breathing down the Capitals' necks in April.

After Washington and Tampa, the rest of the Southeast is quite up in the air. However, the Carolina Hurricanes stand the best chance of at least making progress this year. Jeff Skinner brought a solid rookie campaign to the Canes in 2010-11, and young guys like him and Brandon Sutter will be relied on to step up and support veterans stars like Eric Staal and Jussi Jokinen. If they overachieve and a couple other teams run into problems, this team could even make the Playoffs this year.

Believe it or not, I truly believe there will be a team in the Southeast Division worse than the very non-Southeast-based Winnipeg Jets... even with the hellish commute. But we'll get to that in a sec. The Jets can at least say they have a number one goaltender, some scoring ability on defense in Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom, and a cadre of experienced guys with potential at forward who can score goals, such as Andrew Ladd, Evander Kane and Blake Wheeler. The question is, can they score enough? To win more than the next team, yes. To get in the Playoffs, no.

However… at least the Jets seem to have a plan. The other good news: They have a rabid fan base that could make the MTS Centre a very interesting place to play this year.

I'm not sure that the Florida Panthers have either of those things. Or a plan, for that matter.

The Panthers make me wonder if that whole space between the salary cap and the salary floor is too small. I mean, how much does it suck to be a team forced to overspend on a bunch of random guys just to meet the floor? Think of this year's Florida Panthers team as a lower-budget New York Rangers… with even less return on investment.

One thing is certain: I do not envy Claude Noel or Kevin Dineen – both of whom are still well-liked and respected here in Columbus – in their first full time head-coaching positions.

In the ATLANTIC DIVISION, the Philadelphia Flyers and the Pittsburgh Penguins look to have a fun fight brewing for tops in the division (and a fun fight, period). It is hard to say for how long, but Philly has the advantage as long as Sidney Crosby is sitting for the Penguins. While goaltending problems have haunted the Flyers for the better part of the last two decades (at least), they may finally have their answer in Ilya Bryzgalov. Their acquisitions in free agency or trade were certainly interesting, as they added Jakub Voracek and Brayden Schenn… and of course the acquisitions of Jaromir Jagr and Max Talbot will certainly spice up the series against the Penguins this year.

However, depending on how quickly Crosby gets into contact, practice, and NHL games, the Pens could be making a case very soon in the Atlantic. Steve Sullivan was their only major addition this off-season. Keep in mind that even without Crosby for about two months and Evgeni Malkin for longer, the Penguins still managed 49 wins... the most since Crosby came aboard. If Crosby and Malkin stay healthy, the Pens could contend for tops in the East half-asleep.

Brad Richards is ready to take the New York Rangers to the Stanley Cup. Yeah … not so fast. You can only fit so many clowns in that SmartCar. Sure, Richards is incredibly talented, and will be able do a lot of great things for the Rangers, but the fact remains that Glen Sather has not managed to build a contending hockey team in New York for quite some -- well... ever.

Any fool can write Brad Richards a huge check... and any fool did. Still, the Rangers should look a little better this year with Richards in the lineup. They've cut a large salary or two, and have some decent guys in the lineup, but some of those guys have really underachieved, for all the significant money the Rangers are paying (looking at you, Marian Gaborik). Henrik Lundquist is a pretty good goaltender, but he's not a $6.9 million, Cup-winning goaltender. Give the Rangers time. Just don't expect them to do anything relevant this year.

The New Jersey Devils could push New York for third in the Atlantic, and possibly for a playoff spot. There are no excuses for how New Jersey played last year. Now, since "Crazy Lou" Lamoriello essentially kept the same team intact, it is clear that the Devils are not panicking after last year. However, it also means it's much more important for them to get it together, especially with Martin Brodeur getting ready to ride off into the sunset. And heaven knows, the Devils have treated their goaltending situation as if Marty was always going to be there. They don't have a backup plan.

They had better find one soon.

The New York Islanders are… pleading the fifth. This team is so bad that if they don't plead the fifth, they just might manage to finish sixth in the Atlantic.

But seriously... prodigal goaltender Evgeni Nabokov looks to be the man in net (or will be, when that pesky torn cuticle in Week 2 sidelines Rick DiPietro for the foreseeable future). Or... maybe the man is Al Montoya. Or maybe... you know what, it's a mess. The Blue Jackets rescued Radek Martinek from the Island. Let's leave it at that.

Last and certainly not least, the NORTHEAST DIVISION...

The Boston Bruins look to be the first team to repeat since Detroit won back-to-back Cups in 1997 and 1998. They have most of the team intact to do it as well. Negotiations with Bard Marchand ended on a positive note, and at a reasonable rate so if Marchand builds on last year's breakout season, it's going to look like a steal. The only major piece missing is Tomas Kaberle, who signed with the Hurricanes in the off-season as a UFA. In an interesting coincidence, the Bruins signed Joe Corvo, formerly of the Hurricanes, to fill Kaberle's puck-moving defenseman slot. The big question lies in goal, as Tim Thomas, now 37, tries to repeat the mind-boggling goaltending spectacle he put on throughout the Playoffs. The question is not whether Thomas can do it, but how the Bruins will distribute the workload between Thomas and heir apparent goaltender Tuukaa Rask.

Looking to threaten the Bruins at the top of the northeast are the Buffalo Sabres, who upgraded their defense by adding Christian Ehrhoff and Robin Regehr, and added Ville Leino to bolster their top six forwards. Factor in the steady goaltending of Ryan Miller, and you have a formidable challenge for the top of the Northeast.

The other team painting at target on the Bruins' backs are the Montréal Canadiens. Though they lost James Wisniewski's playmaking abilities on the blueline, they still have a solid defensive corps, and P. K. Subban still provides an impressive offensive boost. They also snagged Erik Cole away from the Hurricanes, to help them add scoring at forward. If Carey Price continues to improve, the Canadians could make the Northeast race very interesting this year.

A lot of people in Toronto watch the Stanley Cup Playoffs: people that live there, people in the league office that work there, guys in suits who call back legitimate goals. Sadly, the Toronto Maple Leafs also watch the playoffs a lot. At home.

The Leafs have been on the sidelines in April for the past six years. We probably shouldn't expect that to change this year. However, this team could be a couple deals away from contention for a coveted playoff spot. The Leafs added Tim Connolly and Philippe Dupuis to their forwards, and John-Michael Liles to their blueline, and those are definite improvements. However, since Jean-Sebastien Giguere has moved on to Colorado, the team looks to lean heavily on James Reimer, who had a decent showing last year. The question is whether he can carry the load, and how much the Leafs expect him to carry. Still, if Toronto manages to be in it at the trade deadline, maybe Brian Burke will swing something.

The Ottawa Senators will at least be not as bad as the Islanders. They are making progress, and have made moves that they hope will kickstart them back into an upward trend. Craig Anderson is a decent goaltender, but the Sens need a lot better then a 2.83 GAA for their starter, to make up for the lack of offensive firepower. Their hope is that Nikita Filatov will get a fresh start with a new team, and that their young guys can step up and give players like Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson some much-needed help.

With the divisional breakdowns done, I give you:

FINAL EASTERN CONFERENCE STANDINGS1. Washington Capitals
2. Philadelphia Flyers
3. Boston Bruins
4. Pittsburgh Penguins
5. Tampa Bay Lightning
6. Buffalo Sabres
7. New York Rangers
8. Montreal Canadiens
9. New Jersey Devils
10. Toronto Maple Leafs
11. Carolina Hurricanes
12. Ottawa Senators
13. Winnipeg Jets
14. Florida Panthers
15. New York Islanders

With that having been said, let's get this season underway already.

Game on!

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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Dude... Where's My CBJ Swag? (Part II): Bringing "Snapback" Back?

Again, I recently found myself in a mall, this time on an emergency memorabilia run for Mrs. Martini. After settling the emergency, I wandered into... well, in the interest of protecting the innocent (and they were nice enough to let me take pictures to illustrate my point), let's just call it a... "sports-centric haberdasher."

Reds, Tribe, Bengals, Browns... college, obviously very Buckeye-centric, but plenty of stuff for real and bandwagon fans of the major college football and basketball programs. Plenty of NBA stuff, even with seemingly no season on the horizon. Plenty of "brand" stuff... Nike, Adidas, Kangol, L.A. Gear (okay, I'm kidding about the last one).

Three walls... searching... searching... ah-HA!!!!

Two...

small...

miniature rows of NHL hats.

And... not a CBJ hat among them ("We're supposed to get a bunch soon," I'm told).

The good news is, I was just browsing in the first place, because I had already made an "impulse swag buy" last  week, when I discovered there were CBJ "Draft Hats" with the Cannon logo and third-sweater colors at the Blueline. I was not passing that up -- that 2011 design is awesome.

I was drawn to the Bruins hat, though, so I figured I'd take a closer look. It was a nice design, more or less. Nice front, nice brim...

...then I turn it over, and to my shock (read: horror)...


The old, retro, plastic adjustable straps. Apparently the kids call them "snapbacks" now.

Cue that noise from The Price Is Right. You know, the "fail" one... boomp-boomp-ba-bmmmmm... BOWWWWWWWWWWwwww...

I look at the employee... "Really?"

"Oh, yeah... the snapbacks are huge now. Think it started with a rap song about them... now they're making them again."

Mind you, his body language seemed to indicate he didn't get the appeal either.

You  know those things that you remember from your youth that you liked, right? Certain bands or musical genres... clothes you wore...

...McRib...

...Crystal Pepsi...?

Well, I don't know about you, but snapbacks... not on my list. And you can probably guess why.

You don't even have to abuse those hats at all, and the stitches that hold the plastic on start popping after a month or so. Then, the little pegs start peeling away from the strap, and heaven forbid you adjust the thing and the things separate and stay in the hole. So you resport to athletic tape to hold the darn thing together, and you know how quickly anything wrapped in athletic tape attracts dirt and crud. Then you get sick of it and just toss the damn thing.

That was a little less annoying when the hats cost 13, 14 bucks.

But these suckers cost thirty.

I don't even wear my favorite alumni hat from college (yes, it's that long ago) because I know that damn thing's going to break if I do.

"So, these are like some kind of industrial-strength plastic, then. right?"

"Nope... same old."

"When does some CBJ stuff come in again?"

"Couple weeks."

"Cool. Thank you."

Wow.

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Grow The F*** Up, Part II: Legislating Class

Stand together… with Sean Avery.

Did those two phrases just make you throw up in your mouth a little bit? I am a bit taken aback myself, because the sound of those two phrases in the same sentence just sounds... out of place. Very out of place.

This is Sean Avery, who had his own NHL rule named after him in 2008. This is Mr. "Sloppy Seconds." The list goes on, but those are the two most incriminating hits on Avery's hockey resume.

But now, just for fun, lets see what the entire sentence in question looked like. Someone tweeted (and someone else retweeted) one day last week: "Stand up with equal marriage rights supporter Sean Avery and tell the NHL that homophobic slurs have to stop."

You'll recall… Sean Avery did something over the summer that actually seemed… human.

Avery spoke out this summer in support of equal marriage rights for homosexuals.

Regardless of how you may feel about the issue politically... you have to give some credit to the fact that Sean Avery -- yes, that Sean Avery -- actually stood up for something that wasn't completely about himself.

Now, does that make any of his previous irritating, unsportsmanlike, chauvinistic, allegedly racist actions/statements on and/or off the ice any more excusable, and does it make Sean Avery any less of an a**hole?

No.

However, it also doesn't make him a f****t.

Unless you ask Wayne Simmonds, of course (allegedly).

Last week, the NHL declined to punish Simmonds for his alleged homophobic slur on Avery, citing a lack of definitive evidence of what was said. Simmonds was vague about what happened, saying that "[Avery] said stuff I didn't like and maybe I said stuff he didn't like," but could not recall exactly what he said.

However, the next day, he was a much more committed in denying he used the slur, and shared that Avery had been running his mouth and threatening Simmonds' teammate Claude Giroux, a monologue that was apparently captured on-air.

Ummm... okay.

Since the Simmonds/Avery video seemed to have disappeared within 48 hours, we can't look at it anymore. What is interesting, however, is reading subsequent coverage. A couple players commented on the incident essentially said guys do stuff like that on the ice all the time out of habit, and you wouldn't expect guys to be "tattling" about it in most instances.

Aaaah, I see... this is the "schoolyard taunt" argument. With so many wonderful four-letter words to choose from that you can call a person or say to a person, "f****t" is the first thing that pops into a professional athlete's head?

Wow... that's makes me feel better, how about you? Anyone?

Yes, Sean Avery is an a**hole, and his threat against an opponent before the slur further proves it. However, Avery could have actually attacked Giroux, and that wouldn't justify calling him a f****t.

Wouldn't a simple "f*** you" suffice? Where's a good "your mother" joke when you need one? Better yet... just freakin' hit him. Sure, it's not much better, but you get the point.

Here's an unfortunate fact... because Colin Campbell did such an inconsistent job when he was in charge of discipline, that the fact that he did nothing while standing in for Shanahan (who is understandably busy) is not surprising. Sure, the "strong statement against racial and homophobic slurs" is admirable, but it's still after the fact, and it doesn't really resolve a damn thing. The video of Simmonds saying it seemed pretty damning... ESPN wouldn't blur his mouth for nothing, right?

The other unfortunate fact... it has become apparent this "gentlemanly" sport is no better than its counterparts in the "Big Four" sports. Instead of sending a message that this stuff will not be tolerated by actually taking action...

...the NHL sent a memo. A copout that says, "Meh... we can't really legislate class in pro sports."

Sad, but probably true. If pro sports could legislate class, maybe John Rocker's career might have been shorter. Maybe it wouldn't have taken a second accuser to make Ben Roethlisberger think to himself "Gee, maybe I should make a switch to a consensual relationship."

Despite the fact that I'm really looking forward to the season starting on Thursday and Friday, I am relieved that preseason is over and there are a few days this week in which someone isn't doing something to embarass themselves, the league and the sport. Slurs... targeting the head... mashing guys into the glass from behind... this all comes from a blatant lack of class in the game.

I'd bet money Brendan Shanahan never imagined he would be this busy in the preseason. You would have thought the public outcry over guys getting away with dirty hits in the Playoffs... or Aaron Rome's missing the rest of the Stanley Cup Final after his cheap shot on Nathan Horton... or having to re-clarify the rules on cheap shots and hits to the head would have made a difference.

It's a sad commentary on the game.

However, maybe by the weekend, players will have learned something from the past couple weeks.

The puck's dropping. Grow up, shut up, and play hockey.

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