Six years of losing and embarrassment can do a number on the confidence of young players, let alone the fans.
Having never been charged with being consistent or organized, the Columbus Blue Jackets fired head coach Gerard Gallant on November 13, 2006. The old cliche "it's easier to fire one coach than the whole team" didn't even need applied- the fans knew what was wrong, and so did the ownership.
Former president and general manager Doug MacLean stuck by his childhood friend (Gallant), insisting that "we're close," "the effort is there, but the results aren't coming," and the punch line to the joke: "I know we have the proper staff in place here to win."
Call a rose a rose, but Gerard Gallant is not an NHL head coach. Never will be. As for MacLean, that's a different barrel of monkeys.
Much was written in the media about how it pained MacLean to fire Gallant, saying he blamed himself for the way things panned out and even went as far to as to say that Gary Agnew is the next big thing in NHL coachng.
Call a tulip a tulip, but Gary Agnew is not an NHL head coach. Great guy, yes. But he can barely boost his power play above 14 percent.
The ultimatum was put on MacLean to hire a winner, and although in his mind Gary Agnew was a winner, the McConnells weren't buying anything from that taco stand. During the brief reign of Agnew, the Jackets were 0-4.
Under Gallant, the Blue Jackets exhibited no structure, and confidence as frail as a toothpick. One loss amounted to a five-game losing streak by the time they even knew what hit them. Winning streaks (as seldom as they came) lasted until Rick Nash convinced himself he could break the Minnesota trap by himself. Many nights, the players didn't even know why they had lost.
For years, the Blue Jackets chased the game. They had no intention of developing flow-- they took what was offered. As much fun was taken from watching Nikolai Zherdev blitz around the rink nightly, he did it alone. No one wanted to share the puck, no one wanted to use their linemates effectively and cerainly no one thought of checking to create offense.
Enter Ken Hitchcock. Proven winner (see the ring on his hand), well-respected, and master of structure. Blue Jackets' fans saw the ire on MacLean's face as he announced the hiring of Hitchcock, even stating "we lost a good man in Gerard."
Hitchcock's first goal was to build a team, a system that preaches accountability and working together.
Learning Hitchcock's system must have been like reading a Japanese cookbook to the players, but they managed to adapt.
That's the beauty of organization-- it's contagious.
This year's Columbus Blue Jackets are finally starting to form an identity. Repeatedly, we hear the coach state that "this team isn't good enough to win on skill alone." How true that is.
Aside from Nash and Zherdev, the Jackets are loaded with career grinders. Not only are they grinders, but lifelong underachievers. New GM Scott Howson has certainly continued on that building path, signing C Jiri Novotny (former first-round pick of the Sabres) and D Jan Hejda (29-year old who has bounced from Europe to the NHL) this offseason.
While many fans groaned at the lack of spending, these two players have been significant additions and contributors to the team. Hejda is playing major minutes with Adam Foote, relied on to shut down the opposition's best players. Novotny has been a fixture on the penalty kill, and played on the top line occasionally before being sidelined with a concussion.
Their style of play won't bring you out of the chair every night. But the results have been encouraging. They work hard on a nightly basis, win or lose.
Getting pucks behind the defense and digging in the corners has been the trademark of the Blue Jackets so far. They owned the league's top-ranked penalty kill for most of the season, now sitting at #3. No denying that it's a defensive-minded system, but the solid play of the defense has led to less pressure on the other end.
The forwards are living off turnovers. "Checking the puck back," one of Hitchcock's favorite phrases, is the gameplan. Check the puck carrier, force a bad decision and get the puck to your forwards.
In his system, everyone checks. When they do it consistently, they win.