(2) PITTSBURGH PENGUINS v. (7) COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
Pittsburgh: 51-24-7, 109 points, 1st place in Metropolitan Division
2.95 goals for/game – 5th in the National Hockey League
2.49 goals against/game – 10th in the NHL
Columbus: 43-32-7, 93 points, 4th place in Metropolitan Division
2.76 goals for/game – 12th in the National Hockey League
2.61 goals against/game – 13th in the NHL
For the 2013-14 season, this has been the spot where I provide an overview of the evening’s opponent, explain why the game is important, discuss who’s worth keeping an eye on…and then wrap up with the FOX Sports Ohio nightly broadcast information. It doesn’t make sense to follow that formula for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and here’s why. First, FOX Sports Ohio has a whole crew of writers whose job is to focus on the four-to-seven games that will make up the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals series between Columbus and Pittsburgh. They will provide overviews and frame the game in proper perspective. They’ll write profiles of players to watch (I might still keep up the broadcast information, though. Love that nugget).
Permit me, then, to recognize that there’s no actual playoffs upon which to comment yet. We get the game tonight. Instead, allow me to use today’s space to discuss what I see as the very big picture theme of this series.
There are a number of ways in which one can construct a National Hockey League roster.
– There’s the "build from the goal outward" model that emphasizes goaltending and defense – using whatever pennies are left to fill out the roster with forwards. This is the Nashville Predators model, and it might work if the team employing the model spent anywhere close to the salary cap.
– There’s the "employ the best player possible" model that finds…the best player you can get your hands on. You pay him a ridiculous amount of money and surround him with complementary players that you can afford. The obvious team that comes to mind here is the Washington Capitals, who are giving Alexander Ovechkin something like $10 million a season until the zombie apocalypse hits and then are figuring out how to effectively fill out the other roster with the remaining $50-ish million and try to be competitive. (On a similar point, the Columbus Blue Jackets tried this model with the $7.8 million Rick Nash and his cast of lesser lights.)
– Then there’s the "garage sales of the rich and famous" approach, employed by the New York Rangers. For years, Rangers general manager Glen Sather has tried to bring in the most expensive player he can squeeze in under the salary cap and test the premise that expensive players automatically will make a great team.
– And who can forget the "draft the twins" model that the Vancouver Canucks follow? Sure, the Sedins are (or at least have been) great hockey players. But…where’s the Cup?
None of those approaches have worked. Sure, they’ve gotten teams to the playoffs. It’s a 30-team league, and 16 teams get to the postseason. It’s bound to happen. But let’s consider a couple other models, ones that have won Cups.
– There’s the "ancient brick by ancient brick" model employed by the Detroit Red Wings. I use the term ancient because, when the Wings are not decimated by injuries, they let their prospects ferment at their AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids like a hundred-year-old scotch. Never call up a player before he’s past ready, I can hear Detroit general manager Ken Holland say. Holland, of course, is the man who left goaltender Jimmy Howard in the minors so long that Howard became a Calder Trophy (rookie of the year) finalist at age 26. Folks, there are 11 people listed on the Blue Jackets roster who are 26 or younger, but Howard was a "rookie" at 26. Yes, Howard is a decent goaltender. Yes, he had a good "rookie" season. Yes, he’ll be getting his AARP card any day now.
– There’s the "knock-em sock-em robots" model that they use up in Boston. Building around the man-mountain known as Zdeno Chara and the intimidating Milan Lucic, the Bruins play a rough, physical game that few teams can match.
Then we get to tonight’s series. The Pittsburgh Penguins have adopted a hybrid approach, and done so to reasonably good results. They have one (Sidney Crosby), if not two (Evgeni Malkin), of the best players in the game on their roster and pay them like the stars that they are. They have a couple key complementary players like Chris Kunitz and Kris Letang. They are regular participants in the Great NHL Garage Sale that we call the trade deadline, where they add that missing piece that (hopefully) will allow them to take Boston down and get to the Finals. After that, the team has a number of much, much lesser lights. Despite the impressive imbalance of their roster, the Penguins would be a very dangerous team if their goaltender could keep it together for an entire playoff run. But he hasn’t, and the Pens have but a single Cup to show for their efforts.
At long last, the Columbus model. CBJ President of Hockey Operations John Davidson uses the slogan "brick by brick" when talking about building the Blue Jackets. While that might be the ultimate goal as he and Jarmo Kekalainen use the draft to slowly reshape their roster in the style of the St. Louis Blues, they can’t change the roster that they inherited overnight. As such, they’ve only been able to tweak around the edges. They have to play the hand that they’re dealt. And what do they have? The 2013-14 Columbus Blue Jackets is a team devoid of established star power. Sure, Ryan Johansen could burst onto the NHL radar screen this postseason, but he’s not quite there yet. Past that, the biggest star on the team is goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky…and while Bob has a Vezina Trophy to his credit, he’s still proving his long-term worth to the team and the league. That said, move past Bob and you have a bunch of mid-priced players who don’t lean on a single player to perform (a la Washington) or wait for the front office to bring in the next shiny bauble to save the day (a la the Rangers). And that’s what makes the Blue Jackets such an intriguing squad.
There’s scoring potential up and down the rosterin Columbus, and it can come from anywhere. I believe a Blue Jackets player said it best when describing the forward corps as "three second lines." Good enough to hold their own against the other teams’ top lines, and strong enough to overwhelm the opponents’ bottom six forwards. Are there highlight reel players on the roster? Sure there are, but don’t look for the same guy every night. You’ll get your entry in FOX Sports 1’s "The 1" reel from any of a number of candidates.
The defense is the same way, filled with interchangeable parts that have allowed coach Todd Richards to mix and match to meet the injury challenge of the day as the team roared down the stretch to make the playoffs.
Back in the throes of the Rick Nash era, I wrote a piece suggesting that regardless of how good a player is, it’s ludicrous in a large-roster team game like ice hockey to throw all your eggs in one basket.(I continue to think that. See: At the time, Nash’s contract absorbed something like 12 percent of the team’s salary budget. What I proposed was that a team of mid-level players from top to bottom could be surprisingly competitive. No superstars, but no AHL-NHL tweeners or teenagers playing beyond their paygrades. And while I’m not certain that we’ll ever see a team with a salary and skill structure that flat, we come very close with the 2013-14 Columbus Blue Jackets).
The Columbus ’13-’14 approach – no obvious stars beyond the goaltender – is unique in today’s NHL and will be exciting to follow. It goes against the star-driven approach employed by much of the league. It also has the potential to be very dangerous in the playoffs. Columbus, with its relatively even distribution of skill across the board, has the potential to wear down top-heavy teams like Pittsburgh. I’m not saying that the Blue Jackets will win their series with the Pens, but I’m saying that if the Blue Jackets keep their wits about them…it’ll be a lot of fun to watch.
Enjoy the series, everyone.
YOUR FOX SPORTS OHIO BROADCAST INFORMATION
The schedule looks familiar, but it’s the playoffs, baby! If you are in the FOX Sports Ohio broadcast area, you get the home team broadcast instead of the national feed. Bonus!
– Brian Giesenschlag and Dan Kamal bring you "Blue Jackets Live Pregame" with the late-breaking news and info, as well as a full preview of the game, at 7 p.m.
– The puck drops in Pittsburgh at 7:30 p.m., with Jeff Rimer and Bill Davidge on the call.
– Brian and Dan return immediately following for "Blue Jackets Live Postgame" with postgame interviews, insight and analysis.