Three Periods: All-star spotlight on Columbus; Vanek's vow; NHL notes

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Columbus, Ohio skyline. (joseph a via Flickr) (joseph a via Flickr)
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Nicholas J. Cotsonika’s Three Periods column appears on Thursdays. This week’s topics include how far Columbus has come as a hockey market and how much room it still has to grow; why Thomas Vanek needs to be more selfish for the Minnesota Wild; and notes on Mike Yeo, Zach Parise and Nick Foligno.

FIRST PERIOD: Columbus has come far as hockey market, can go much farther

As recently as the 1990s, when it came to pro sports, Columbus was a minor-league town. It had the Chill in the ECHL, and hockey had a small niche. An abandoned prison crumbled on West Spring Street, where no one went for a good time.

Today, Columbus has the Blue Jackets in the NHL, and hockey has a growing niche. The prison has been replaced not only by a beautiful arena, but by the Arena District – bars, restaurants, offices, homes, hotels – a model of urban renewal other cities hope to emulate.

Columbus hasn't had a lot to celebrate since joining the NHL in 2000-01. (AP)
Columbus hasn't had a lot to celebrate since joining the NHL in 2000-01. (AP)

This weekend, fans will skate on the outdoor rink at the All-Star Winter Park and pack the NHL Fan Fair. Saturday night, the arena will host the NHL All-Star Skills Competition, and Sunday, the NHL All-Star Game.

“It’s going to be huge for the city,” said Blue Jackets winger Nick Foligno, who will captain one of the all-star teams. “I think it’s going to open the city’s eyes to how great the game is but also show the NHL world how great of a city Columbus is.”

The market had tons of potential when the NHL awarded Columbus an expansion franchise in 1997 and the Blue Jackets began play in 2000-01. For better and for worse, it still has tons of potential that has not been realized.

Columbus has the 32nd-largest metro area in the United States, bigger than NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL markets like Indianapolis, San Jose, Nashville, Milwaukee, Jacksonville, Memphis, Oklahoma City, New Orleans, Raleigh, Salt Lake City and Buffalo. It has 15 Fortune 1,000 companies. Central Ohio has more ice rinks and hockey players than ever before.

But the Blue Jackets have ranked near the bottom in NHL attendance for eight seasons now, averaging less than 15,700 fans a game since 2007-08. The reason is simple: They have been bad.

They made the playoffs once in their first 12 seasons and got swept – same as the Atlanta Thrashers, who began play one season earlier and became the Winnipeg Jets in 2011-12. The face of the franchise, Rick Nash, got fed up and requested a trade. He will represent the New York Rangers this weekend.

“As far as the marketplace with business and everything, it’s very good,” said John Davidson, the Blue Jackets’ president of hockey operations. “They’ve been kicked around.”

The Blue Jackets aren’t going anywhere. They’re trying to build the organization the right way. They hired Davidson in October 2012. He had experience as a player, broadcaster and executive, and he had the PR savvy to promote Columbus and the know-how to hire good people. Davidson hired general manager Jarmo Kekalainen in February 2013. Kekalainen had a strong track record in talent evaluation.

It hasn’t been easy. This season began with a bitter contract battle with young star Ryan Johansen and went off the rails because of an injury epidemic. The Blue Jackets almost certainly will miss the playoffs for the 12th time in 14 years, while Ohio State football – the dominant team in town by far – just won a national championship. The Buckeyes will celebrate their title at their stadium on Saturday, right in the middle of the NHL festivities.

The Blue Jackets' Nick Foligno will be front and center as one of the captains for the All-Star Game. (USA Today)
The Blue Jackets' Nick Foligno will be front and center as one of the captains for the All-Star Game. (USA Today)

This All-Star Game will be the biggest NHL event Columbus has ever held, competing with only the 2007 draft and five home playoff games – all in the first round, all but one a loss.

That one home playoff victory gave a glimpse of what Columbus can be. It was April 23 when Brandon Dubinsky tied the game in the final minute of regulation. The sold-out arena was so loud, the players could hear the fans cheering and chanting as they sat in the dressing room before overtime. When Foligno scored early in OT – beating the Pittsburgh Penguins, 4-3, tying the series, 2-2 – defenseman James Wisniewski said it was “ear-splitting.”

“I remember driving out,” Foligno said. “There were crowds of people still in the streets. I’m like, ‘You know, that’s what we want.’ ”

There were crowds of people still in the streets two hours after the game, when goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky walked home to his apartment in the Arena District. He remembers one group chanting, “C-B-J! C-B-J!” Then another group. Then another group.

“They didn’t scream because they saw me,” Bobrovsky said. “They just were so excited after this win.”

Imagine if they had more for which to cheer.

“We need to bring a winning team here,” Foligno said. “We really started something special last year, and we want that to continue. Obviously not off to the best start this year, but we’re working our way through it. We’re still a young team. There’s going to be growing pains. …

“If we can get a winning team in this city, it’s going to be an unbelievable city for a lot of years, and I think the fans will really jump on board, which they already have, really. I’m excited to see what we can do with a winning franchise in this city.”

SECOND PERIOD: Vanek needs to be more selfish, shoot more often

This is what Thomas Vanek can do. This is what he needs to do more for the Minnesota Wild. On Tuesday night against the Detroit Red Wings, he gathered the puck in the left circle, curled toward the slot and avoided the stick of a defender. He went to the net with traffic in front and lifted a backhand shot under the crossbar.

It was a gorgeous goal. But it was only his ninth goal of the season – not enough for a guy who has scored at least 20 goals eight times, at least 30 goals four times and at least 40 twice; not enough for a team that signed him to add offensive punch.

Thomas Vanek needs to shoot more – and pass less – in Minnesota. (AP)
Thomas Vanek needs to shoot more – and pass less – in Minnesota. (AP)

“I’ve got to do more what I did tonight, sometimes not look to pass and be a little bit more selfish and finish myself,” Vanek said afterward. “I know I can score. I’ve just got to start doing it.”

Vanek sees himself as more of a playmaker, always has, and he can be a brilliant passer. On Nov. 22 against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Zach Parise pounced on a turnover and sent the puck across the offensive zone. Vanek was all alone with all kinds of time, but he didn’t shoot. He waited, and waited, and stickhandled, and threaded a pass through two defenders for Parise to tap into an open net. He has 20 assists this season.

“He’s such an unselfish guy,” Parise said. “I’m starting to learn you have to expect passes from him when no one else in the league is going to pass it. Sometimes you think he’s got a wide-open shot, a wide-open lane, and he finds a guy back door.”

But Vanek can also be unselfish to a fault – comically so. On Jan. 10 against the Nashville Predators, he had a partial breakaway, at least a step on defenseman Shea Weber. As he streaked toward the net and Weber swung his stick at the puck, he didn’t shoot. He tried a behind-the-back backhand pass to Parise instead. The puck skidded away.

“We have the relationship in here where we can give him a little [bleep] for it,” said defenseman Ryan Suter. “Yeah, we gave him [bleep] on that one, told him to shoot the puck. He’s such a creative player. He thinks the game so well. He’s overthinking.”

Vanek spent eight seasons with the Buffalo Sabres. Last season, as a pending unrestricted free agent, he bounced from the Sabres to the New York Islanders to the Montreal Canadiens. He was excellent with the Isles playing with John Tavares and Kyle Okposo, but not as good with the Habs, especially in the playoffs.

Now he’s on his fourth team in two seasons, tying to create chemistry with yet another new set of teammates. He signed a three-year, $19.5 million deal on July 1.

“This time it’s harder because I know I’m going to be here for a longer period of time,” Vanek said. “I don’t want to be a rah-rah guy right away. I think it took me a little while to kind of sit back, soak it in and realize what kind of group we have here. I think once I figured that out, I got more comfortable talking in the group and saying some things.”

Coach Mike Yeo said Vanek has been more vocal on the bench over the past month, and Suter said he has been vocal in the dressing room.

“It looks like he doesn’t care, because it’s kind of nonchalant,” Suter said. “That’s how I kind of am sometimes. But he cares more than anyone. He’s the guy in here yelling, ‘Let’s go. Wake up.’ He’s mad at himself when he misses a play.”

Vanek needs to make more plays himself.

“When I see a teammate in a better spot,” he said, “I’ve got to get over it a little bit.”

THIRD PERIOD: Notes from around the NHL

— Critics have called for Yeo’s head, with the Wild last in the Central Division. But general manager Chuck Fletcher has supported his coach for good reason. The Wild ranks first in the NHL in shots against, allowing only 26.8 per game. “Got to be doing something right,” Parise said. The problem has not been philosophy, or strategy, or even execution in a lot of areas. “We pressure with good structure,” Yeo said. As Parise said: “I think we’re better than the last-place team in the Central Division.”

The Wild have turned to Devan Dubnyk in net. (USA Today)
The Wild have turned to Devan Dubnyk in net. (USA Today)

— The main problem, again, has been goaltending. When you’re first in shots against, you should not be 23rd in goals-against average (2.94). The Wild traded for Devan Dubnyk last week, but he’s not off to a great start with an .896 save percentage. Another problem: The first period has been the Wild’s worst period in terms of goal-scoring. Too often the Wild has played from behind. “If we can go out and score a couple early, then it’s a different game,” Suter said. “The other team takes chances, and then we score more goals.”

— Parise, on losing his father, J.P., to cancer Jan. 7: “It’s been hard. The last couple months have been tough, the worst experience I’ve ever been through, to watch that happen. It’s been a hard last little while, but I’ve got a good support group here. It’s getting better day by day.” He has five goals and six points over his past four games.

— Foligno has had a breakout season, and he said: “I feel like I’m capable of sustaining this.” Why does he feel that way? He has 18 goals, already matching his career high. But his shooting percentage is 19.6, well above his career average of 12.2, and there are already signs of regression. He has one goal in his past 11 games. “I’ve seen what works for me, and that’s why I feel like I can sustain it,” he said. “I’m a guy who gets in on the forecheck, physical, and then the rest follows. When I’m playing that way, then my skill can take over, and then those plays open up for me. More perimeter, trying to be too skilled first, that’s when I get into trouble. And I think I’ve learned that now.”

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