There are really only two ways that things can go from here for the Columbus Blue Jackets, a team that stands unexpectedly at a fork in the road with the season barely two weeks old:
They snap out of their funk and string together a couple of desperately needed wins this week.
Or they don’t.
UPDATE: On Wednesday morning, after a 4–0 loss to the New York Islanders, the Blue Jackets fired coach Todd Richards and replaced him with John Tortorella, according to a report by TSN’s Darren Dreger.
The Jackets have become the season’s biggest story, and for all the wrong reasons. A team that many expected would contend for the Metropolitan Division title has less than a 10 percent chance at making the playoffs after losing six straight. The Jackets have allowed a league-worst 30 goals and have a –17 goal differential, almost double the next worst team (Calgary, –9). Their penalty kill allows a goal on every third chance. And netminder Sergei Bobrovsky, just two years removed from the Vezina Trophy, is suffering through a self-admitted crisis of confidence that’s reflected in his brutal .835 save percentage.
It’s the sort of disaster that suggests change is coming, one way or another. And it may come soon.
The Jackets’ next chance to put their season back on the rails arrives Tuesday night when the they host the Islanders at Nationwide Arena in Columbus. A seventh consecutive loss and the pressure falls directly on GM Jarmo Kekäläinen to make that change.
Odds are that it would be the end of the line for Todd Richards. Firing the head coach, after all, would be the easiest of options and one that would shift the burden of accountability directly onto the players.
But if Kekäläinen is being honest with himself, he has to recognize the bigger problem is with the roster he’s built. Without a doubt, this is the most talented group ever to wear Jackets’ colors, especially in the wake of his off-season acquisition of top-line forward Brandon Saad. They’re young, they’re fast, they’re heavy and they’re deep ... at least up front.
The back end is a different story. It’s clear the defense isn’t what he hoped it would be. Not even close. This is a group that is too slow and lacks skill. It routinely blows assignments, struggles to close up the lanes, and zigs when it should zag. And it clearly feels the loss of James Wisniewski, a capable puck mover who Kekäläinen dealt at the deadline last year to Anaheim rather than re-sign.
But there are no quick fixes to be had on the trade market for a desperate team. Nothing that would be of any real value to this team, anyway. “If there was a change to be made on any level that we felt was the right change and was definitely going to make our team better, we would have done it,” Kekäläinen told The Columbus Dispatch. “But we believe in this group, and we’re not going to just blow it up because we’re going through a tough stretch.”
In other words: there’ll be no panic moves to address the roster. And that means another loss or two will lead to Richards becoming the season’s first casualty simply because something has to change.
If that’s the way it plays out, it’s likely that assistant Craig Hartsburg, who has head coaching experience in Chicago, Anaheim and Ottawa, would step in on an interim basis. A fresh voice might go a long way with this group so that’s not ideal, but the coaches who are available aren’t much more appealing than what’s on the trade market.
John Tortorella’s name has been in heavy rotation, but that’s courting disaster. Tortorella didn’t simply fail in Vancouver. He was an arsonist who left that team a smoldering ruin. The Canucks’ 2013-14 season wasn’t just “a bad year.” It ranked among the very worst in franchise history, defined by his raging temper and the epic mishandling of his players. Tortorella’s approach was to turn throroughbreds into ploughhorses, a plan that shackled the Sedins and led directly to a playoff DNQ for the Canucks.
Could a year spent away from the game while creating his own fancystats have put Torts in a better place? Maybe, but is that a risk Kekäläinen wants to take?
Guy Boucher is another name that gets mentioned, but it's believed his contract with SC Bern in Switzerland does not have an out-clause. Even if it did, his fast-paced system is a lousy fit for a defense that already struggles to ramp up its pace and make plays in transition, and for a forward corps that can’t seem to manage its gaps.
So Hartsburg is the lesser evil. A change, and one that would buy time for Kekäläinen to address the team’s deeper problems.
The Numbers Game
• At 6-0-0 the Canadiens are off to the best start in their storied NHL history, which spans 98 years.
• Antti Raanta is the fourth goaltender in Rangers history to pitch a shutout in his debut with the Blueshirts—and the first in 58 years. The others: Hal (no relation to Henry) Winkler (Nov. 16, 1926 vs. Montreal Maroons), John Ross Roach (Nov. 15, 1928 at Detroit) and Marcel Paille (Nov. 2, 1957 vs. Boston). Winkler’s shutout came in the first game in franchise history (1-0 W).
• The Flyers are riding a 132:05 shutout streak thanks to goalie Michal Neuvirth and have won eight of their last 10 games against tonight's opponent, the Dallas Stars.
• What’s a team to do about practice when its rink has turned into a swimming pool?
• Here’s a must-read on how one blind fan “watches” hockey games.
• If St. Louis gets its way, the 2018 World Juniors will be the biggest sporting event in the city since the 1904 Olympics. Here’s why the Heartland of Hockey deserves to win the bid.
• Nice shot, kid. Now go get me your piggy bank.