The title of this post isn’t going to make sense right away, but I hope you’ll stick along for the progression.
Let’s do an exercise: I’m going to list information about the offensive production of 15 NHL forwards over their careers. They’re all currently active players, and we’ll break it into per game data to shield their names a bit more. With that information, I want you to tell me, what players would you like on your team?
But you’re careful with your evaluations and you want to know if these players are still productive right now. That’s fair; let’s see the offensive data for the very same set of NHL forwards over the last two seasons.
Recall, these are the same NHL forwards. I’ll ask a similar question for this data set: if you could pick 5 or 6 of these players, which would you want on your team? Would it change your mind if I added some information about their perceived character?
|Player A||Whiny, does not keep calm under pressure|
|Player B||Heart and soul leader, clean player|
|Player C||Stuck up, party boy|
|Player D||Strong leader, good example|
|Player E||Enigmatic, disinterested|
|Player F||Poor leader, doesn’t always try|
|Player G||Excellent leader, clutch|
|Player H||Not a good captain, disappears|
|Player I||Weak, not outgoing|
|Player J||Diver, dirty, whiny|
|Player K||Heart and soul leader, good in the room|
|Player L||Dirty, ugly player, instigator|
|Player M||Real leader, good in the room|
|Player N||Clutch player, good in the room|
|Player O||Heart and soul guy, gives 110% effort|
Now what? Do these players change to you? I don’t think they should, and that kind of perspective has quite a bit to do with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The post-mortem analysis of the Columbus Blue Jackets 2011-2012 season has been both fruitful and ugly. Unfortunately, so much went wrong that it’s easy to pick out a weakness to dissect. In my opinion, Steve Mason was the most glaring negative, but there’s certainly more than that: laughable special teams, a preseason trade that was ruined by a disinterested Jeff Carter, and an inexplicably long tenure for Scott Arniel all helped to destroy the whole year.
Let’s take a bit of a journey into the Jeff Carter conundrum. He was considered an off-ice liability during his time in Philadelphia (you’ll remember the infamous/hilarious Dry Island saga), but never really a drag on the Flyers when playing. That all took a turn when he was traded to the Jackets and his play simply plummeted. Injuries and pure luck certainly played a role in his ineffective time wearing Union Blue. Still, based on his statements and his actions (especially post-trade from Philly), I can’t help but conclude (like nearly everybody else) that Carter just didn’t want to be in Columbus. Furthermore, I also conclude that his disposition infected his play and his demeanor when with the team.
This kind of locker room cancer based in outright unhappiness is absolutely a character concern that cannot be ignored. It stands alongside Chris Pronger’s move from Edmonton, and Dany Heatley’s escape from Ottawa as one of the strongest reactions to location that I can recall. But that’s the thing: it’s one of a very few, extremely isolated events that should serve as a lesson for teams… but it’s seriously only about one guy. You see, a player like Jeff Carter is somebody that the Blue Jackets should look for, just as long as that player isn’t pushing to leave.
Let’s go back to that exercise above: I would want any of Players A-D on my favorite team, without question. Some of them have perceived character flaws, but that kind of information is almost completely irrelevant. All four of these players have proven performance and top-flight skill that overcomes any kind of real or imagined character shortcoming. Crucial to this is the following: none of them are extraordinarily uncomfortable with their team or city, and none of them let off-ice problems impact their gameplay performance (or if they do, they’re good enough that we don’t notice). When Carter-esque character is not in the discussion, character simply doesn’t matter.
Meanwhile, Player N and Player O are not (and should not be) core building pieces. Yes, they’ve got strong character evaluation and might be worthwhile as low-cost 3rd or 4th liners (depending on their defensive contribution). But they’re inherently worth less than any of the guys above them. Their presence in the locker room does not score (or prevent) goals.
All these players in the example were hand-selected to prove a point… but in a way, that’s another part of my overall consideration. I was able to quickly identify productive forwards with “good” character and “bad” character, and that further eliminates the importance of character in player evaluation. The only important character questions we have to address: Do any of these guys cause locker room cancer? Do any of them have a strong desire to leave their current city? Do they let off-ice actions change their play or interaction with their team? The answer for Players A through O is “no,” so their overall character doesn’t matter to a team that simply does not have enough skill.
Other writers (particularly the excellent and always through-provoking Dark Blue Jacket) have suggested that the Columbus Blue Jackets need to get rid of their longest-tenured, character-rotten core players. While I ultimately agree with this assessment, I differ on the reasoning and the eventual conclusion for new players to replace the core. I highly recommend reading the whole article (and the two pieces before it), but in summary DBJ explains his strategy as, “Extricate the core, protect the kids and backfill with tough veterans who know how to win and can teach the youngsters how to play winning hockey on a day-in, day-out basis.”
Winning is quite difficult without defensive-defensemen or goalies, but it’s also tough when the Blue Jackets have ranked 28th, 28th, 29th, 21st, 21st, 24th, and 26th in NHL goal scoring each season since the lockout. Is there a reason why the offense has been so anemic?
Let’s take a look at the top points per game productions from forwards with 100 or more games played since the lockout. You’ll notice that besides Jeff Carter (again, he’s an outlier and only extreme bad character matters), the only Blue Jacket in the top 100 is Rick Nash at 35. The next time a current Columbus player shows up? RJ Umberger at 147. The Blue Jackets just don’t have any offensive skill to speak of besides Rick Nash.
This is unacceptable. Yes, Columbus needs a goalie and a defense, but the lack of scoring talent is painful and brutally obvious. To “learn” to win is difficult if you’re learning only from “tough veterans.” The tough veteran approach concerns me because unless they’re of a type like Vinny Prospal, they don’t have much skill to offer. The young guys in the Blue Jackets organization need time to develop properly and adjust to the professional game. Without any top-tier scoring talent outside of Rick Nash (and even he’s not truly elite), nobody else can shoulder the offensive burden and young players are thrust into roles they’re not prepared to take. That only further exposes the shallow and low-end talent in the Blue Jackets prospect pool.
I agree with the DBJ assessment of removing the core… but I agree because the core forwards are not very good at contributing to offense. Of the forwards that remained at the end of the season on the Columbus Blue Jackets, only one has a career points per game over 0.80, and that’s Rick Nash. Only two are above 0.60 points per game over their career (Nash and Prospal) and neither is overwhelmingly dominant enough to make up for the lack of other skilled players. The core needs to go because, quite simply, the core is not effective. They need to be replaced with skill. The focus should not be on resigning Dorsett and Boll. Winning is learned when the team has enough skill to win games. Character can wait until that happens.
And to for those who stuck through the exercise, here’s the decoding on what players we were looking at:
|Player A||Sidney Crosby|
|Player B||Martin St Louis|
|Player C||Patrick Kane|
|Player D||Jonathan Toews|
|Player E||Alex Semin|
|Player F||Rick Nash|
|Player G||Danny Briere|
|Player H||Patrick Marleau|
|Player I||Phil Kessel|
|Player J||Ryan Kesler|
|Player K||RJ Umberger|
|Player L||Brad Marchand|
|Player M||Brooks Laich|
|Player N||Max Talbot|
|Player O||Derek Dorsett|