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The Columbus Blue Jackets were to feast on Sunday evening, going to owner John P. McConnell’s house and having their annual team dinner.
It’s been cancelled. But then again, many of the best laid plans of this team have gone awry in this disastrous season.
Six games, six losses, none of them in overtime. The Blue Jackets are the only team in the NHL yet to register a point in the standings. They’re the only team in the NHL that’s given up more than 30 goals this season.
It’s not exactly hard to pinpoint the team’s largest shortcoming when it has an .831 save percentage through six games and a goalie that says his confidence is shot. But Sergei Bobrovsky isn’t getting traded. And the fact is that when the team is surrendering 15 shots and managing three, like they did in the second period against the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday night, then it’s not exactly just about the goalies.
“That doesn’t happen because of one person,” GM Jarmo Kekalainen said of his team’s defense last week. “We have to start defending at a unit.”
The general manager is frustrated, as are his players.
“This is getting frustrating. It’s embarrassing. A lot of people picked us to be there at the end, to make the playoffs, and we’re doing a pretty good job of ruining that right away,” Blue Jackets left wing Scott Hartnell said.
“This is getting old.”
Yet as we’ve previously written, it’s not getting old – it’s actually the same old story under coach Todd Richards, whose teams have stumbled out of the gate for the last three seasons, though not this epically.
When Kekalainen talk about Richards, he does so without giving shallow votes of confidence or talking around his future. “I have a good communications with Todd Richards every day. He’s working as hard as anybody to figure out how to get us back on the rails,” he told Hockey Central last week after falling to 0-4-0.
But if there’s one theme with Kekalainen in discussing this team, it’s that their heads got too big reading preseason praise and their commitment to playing their aggressive, fundamentally sound style was lost.
“Maybe we thought we were something that we’re not. Maybe we were thinking that we’re good instead of going out there and working on our fundamentals,” he said. “When you don’t play well, you don’t play to your identity, you don’t work and you don’t compete, you’re off the rails. It’s as simple as that.”
So the question becomes how the Blue Jackets get those back.
Stay the course and risk starting this season 0-10-0 or some such? An early season trade? Firing Richards to change the messenger?
Addressing causes of issues and fixing them is among the most basic coaching functions, and the inability to do that destroys respect and confidence. Richards has been quick to state that he is clueless as to the causes for the current problems. That's candid, but disturbing. Even if that's true, you don't come out in public and proclaim it. You say things like "We have a handle on the problems, and we are working hard to fix it." Note the "we". Richards has an unsavory habit of lapsing into using "they" when referring to the players, especially when times are bad. It's like the pro golf caddy who says "We were doing great. We birdied three holes in a row, then he goes and hooks it into the water." Anybody get the number of that bus? Players notice that stuff.
If you want to find the cause of a problem, you keep things steady, but change one element at a time, until you find the part or process that is failing. Basic stuff. Unfortunately, Todd Richards is a perpetual tinkerer. He changes lines multiple times in game, even when things are going well. This makes it difficult to isolate causes, and promotes confusion among the player ranks. Let the guys play, and play at full speed. You can find the leak in the window with an eye dropper. Put a hose on it, and it will become obvious.
Starting the season without a point in six games isn’t a lost season but – to use a Kekalainenian term – it’s on the rails to becoming one.
Something has to change for the Jackets. It’s hard to imagine that the changes wouldn’t begin behind the bench. Question is, who can come in and fix this if Richards is turfed?
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