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Unzipping the Jackets, Part II

by Corey Masisak's Corey Masisak spent a week in Columbus with the Blue Jackets, reporting the inside story on a team with high expectations at the start of the 2011-12 regular season. Here is the first installment of his two-part report:

Tuesday, January 17, 2012
The Blue Jackets caught a break Tuesday night when the Edmonton Oilers, already missing two-thirds of their top line and three of their top four defensemen, learned they'd be without rookie sensation Taylor Hall because of a freak accident during pregame warmups.
Instead of taking advantage of a shaken team, Columbus went to the dressing room for the first intermission down 2-0. Given the circumstances, an intermission tongue-lashing certainly would have been fair punishment for the Blue Jackets.

"I want the leaders to take more ownership in the group, in running the group, in being part of the leadership group that when things aren't going good they take it upon themselves to try to turn it. Not waiting for a coach, not for a referee, not waiting for the fans, not waiting for something or someone else to do it -- they take responsibility for it, take ownership of it." -- Todd Richards

Richards opted for a different tack. He didn't say much of anything to the group before the second period.
"I just want the players to take more ownership in the team," Richards said. "I want the leaders to take more ownership in the group, in running the group, in being part of the leadership group that when things aren't going good they take it upon themselves to try to turn it. Not waiting for a coach, not for a referee, not waiting for the fans, not waiting for something or someone else to do it -- they take responsibility for it, take ownership of it. They have to want what we want as coaches. That's just the message to try and get across."
Whatever the leaders in the Columbus room had to say in place of a Richards sermon, it worked. The Blue Jackets became the aggressors in the final 40 minutes and rallied for a 4-2 victory.
This was a night to bolster the spirits of the Columbus fan base. Johansen and Brassard both scored goals and had strong games, while young defenseman John Moore logged more than 23 minutes for the second time in his NHL career -- both on this homestand.
Johansen and Moore are expected to be part of the foundation in Columbus for years to come. Brassard once was a definite building block as well. Now in his fourth season, he still is trying to find an established role with the team.
His career has been a reflection of the team's play.
There have been periods of strong play and slumps, injuries and chunks of success. The goal he scored against Edmonton gave him five goals and 10 points in 13 games. 
"Derick has certainly shown these spurts before, and he is still a young player as far his NHL life goes," Howson said. "We think that he can grow into a top-six forward -- a consistent top-six forward -- because he's been one inconsistently on our team. He's making strides again.
"He's showing more maturity, more consistency, more commitment. We'll see where it goes here. He's got a wonderful opportunity. He's playing higher in the lineup and right now he deserves to be higher in the lineup."
Brassard could be a player who swings the fortune of the 2012-13 Blue Jackets. He is in the final season of his contract, and Columbus needs the player who scored 47 points this past season and currently is playing well -- not the one who had five points in 24 games while also being scratched at times earlier in the season.
"It has been really hard for everyone. When you're losing, nobody is in a good mood," Brassard said. "It was really hard mentally. I really enjoy playing hockey and coming to the rink every day, but what happened in the first 40 games is ... I never see that or felt like that before. I'm really passionate about the game and it has been really hard. That says a lot.
"It is different now. There's some new life around the room. Now the guys want to prove themselves to the new coach, and it has been good lately. Hopefully were going to keep going and finish the year strong."
Wednesday, January 18, 2012
The Blue Jackets were back at Nationwide Arena for practice Wednesday morning, and this one had a distinctly different feel than the one two days earlier. Players laughed more frequently with each other while they waited to take part in drills, and they cheered when teammates scored.
A comeback win really can alter the collective mood, even for a team that has been through so much this season. Richards kept the same forward and defense pairings together -- no reason to alter a winning lineup.
Some NHL coaches keep a low profile during practices. They talk to their team in X-and-O sessions at a dry-erase board along the wall, and maybe offer the occasional words of encouragement or admonishment.
Richards takes a different approach. His voice echoes through the arena and his words -- positive and negative -- are loud and clear for everyone to hear.
He has tried to alter a few things from the way Arniel operated without overloading his players.
"He's changed some things on the forecheck, with our D-zone play," Nash said. "He's changed some things and we’re working on it. He's tweaked some things each day, but it is tough to take over in the middle of a season and try to start changing things."
Richards’ involvement during practice definitely is a change. A big focus during the middle of practice is how he wants the team to combat breakouts with an aggressive forechecking system. It is a real teaching session in January, which can be something of a rarity as teams try to find a balance in the midst of a whirlwind of games, travel and the need to keep players fresh.
"Our neutral-zone transition last night (against Edmonton) wasn't very good. We weren't attacking with any speed," Richards said. "We didn't establish any speed through the neutral zone to either attack on the rush or get it on the forecheck. A lot of times we'll sit down and talk about the previous night's game. We talk about what we did well and what we didn't do well, and design a practice around that.
"It is about plugging holes. Usually, as a coach, there's a dam with a little hole in it and you stick one finger to close it but another one pops out. You're constantly trying to plug the holes. I think that's true anywhere. You strive for perfection -- you'll never get it -- but you strive for it."
Thursday, January 19, 2012
The big nemesis was in town Thursday night. Nashville already was 3-0-1 against Columbus upon arrival for this Central Division game at Nationwide, but it was the manner of two of the losses that really stung Columbus.
Rinne has played well against a lot of teams, but before this game he already had amassed a dozen career wins against Columbus, more than he has against any other club.
Rick Nash leads the Jackets in goals and points, but both totals are shy of what are expected from one of the games top power forwards. (Photo: Getty Images)
Brassard wasn't the only one searching for answers against Rinne that night.
The Vezina Trophy finalist last season made 38 saves to defeat the Blue Jackets. Rinne made about seven minutes of strong offense from the Predators stand up in the 3-0 triumph.
Nash was one of the players with the best chances against Rinne, working himself free for three glorious, in-close opportunities. Rinne stopped one of them with the shaft of his stick.
Columbus' captain has, like his team, had a season filled with frustrating nights. Nash has 17 goals and 33 points. He leads the team in both categories, but both totals are shy of what are expected from one of the game's top power forwards.
"This has been by far the toughest (year) of my career," Nash said. "We were so optimistic at the beginning of the season, and it has just been a really, really tough year for everyone from management to the coaching staff to the players."
Nash had a stretch of four goals in four games recently, but it has been tough for the team to settle on a center to pair with Nash because of all the injuries. Columbus has searched for a franchise center for years.
Carter could be that player, but he and Nash didn't find much instant chemistry. Johansen could be that player, but he might be a year or two away from starting to really fill his vast potential. Brassard was going to be that player once, and he's had some strong games lately playing between Nash and Prospal.
As the losses mounted this season, some of the media attention turned to Nash's future with the organization. He silenced those who doubted he was willing to commit to Columbus with an eight-year, $62.4 million contract, but this season the questions were about whether or not Nash would waive his no-movement clause.
"I don't mind," Nash said about the focus on his future. "I answer the questions honestly. We have some great players in this dressing room. I think our team on paper deserves to be a lot better than where we are at this time."
Added Howson: "Well, it is just a non-starter, so it is easy to shut down."
Friday, January 20, 2012
The team held an optional practice Friday before leaving for Detroit and a three-game road trip delivering the team to the All-Star break. Still in last place after the four-game homestand, Columbus had posted a 4-6-0 record in its past 10 games. It wasn't the drastic improvement the team craves, but it was a small step to being more consistently competitive .
Part of that is Sanford, the goalie, who is authoring an amazing story in a season of distress. He has assumed the role of No. 1 goalie after 33 months away from the NHL and helped keep his team in many games during the past two months.
Sanford's rise has coincided with the fall of Steve Mason, who was the feel-good story just three short seasons ago.
It is clear that finding stable goaltending will be a top priority between now and next season. It is one of the trouble spots Howson will try to fix -- whether it is in the coming weeks before the trade deadline or during the summer.
Given the reality Columbus faces, Howson will be a busy person as the deadline nears in late February -- but not in the way he probably wanted to be this season.
Prospal and Sanford are among a small group of players who will be unrestricted free agents after the season, and there could be a market for several of Columbus' veterans.
"I think we're open to listening. We'll be active in terms of our conversations," Howson said. "I think we have people here who can certainly help if a team wants a run for it. Like all other teams, we'll work at it -- and not just with unrestricted guys. It could go deeper than that. We'll look at all those things. We have to. We're in 30th place, and we have to get better and we'll look at any and all avenues."
Whether or not the changes between now and next season are subtle or drastic remains to be seen. The Columbus Dispatch reported Sunday that one of the changes isn't expected to be a new general manager, but Howson will have to decide on a coach and whether or not he thinks this current group, if healthy, could have been good enough to accomplish what people expected.
The fans in Columbus have been surviving on hope for much of the Blue Jackets' existence. As the 2011-12 season began, that hope became real expectations because of the teams new-look roster.
Ultimately, this has been a lost season for Columbus in the standings, but several of the key figures who could be part of the first great Blue Jackets club are here now.
Johansen and Moore are full-time NHL players now, and could be impact players sooner rather than later. Players like Tomas Kubalik and David Savard could evolve into nice complementary pieces, and they have gained a lot of NHL experience this season.
There likely will be another potential franchise prospect added in June at the 2012 NHL Draft, and it is possible that someone like high-scoring Sarnia Sting forward Nail Yakupov or steady Everett Silvertips defenseman Ryan Murray could provide instant help.
If there was anything that became clear during this four-game homestand, it was the strong support from the fan base. Columbus may be in 30th place, but fans still are enjoying a pregame bite in the Arena District and still populating Nationwide Arena.
"We've got great fans. I know they're mad and they're disappointed," Dorsett said. "We're trying to do everything we can. We're still getting good crowds, but hopefully we can win some more games and this will be an awesome place to play and come to. This city really rallies around its sports teams. You see it with the Buckeyes. We just have to put the product on the ice and win and that will take care of itself."
This wasn't the outcome Blue Jackets players and fans expected this season. They were ready to put wait-until-next-year thoughts in the past. But a slow start, injuries, bad goaltending -- the combination of it all was too much.
There still is work to be done this season. Young players need to develop, and Howson must decide which, if any, veterans with which to part.
The 2012-13 season is not that far in the future. It's possible Johansen could evolve into a star and the right players will stay healthy and the goal-celebrating cannon inside Nationwide Arena will be ringing ear drums with more frequency as hope finally materializes into a contender in Columbus.
"I think there was a lot of hope, a lot of optimism and a lot of frustration," Howson said. "It is a pretty resilient fan base. It is a credit to them to that theyre still supporting us through the turmoil this year, certainly. We just really believe once we have a competitive, good team that we’re going to have lots of nights where this building is full.
"It is a great market. It can work here. It will work here. We've got to do our part."
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