COLUMBUS, Ohio – In their 10 seasons of mostly forgettable hockey, the Columbus Blue Jackets have had their share of swoons.
Heck, some years were pretty much one, long free fall.
A succession of coaches has reformulated lines, tinkered with the defensive pairs and called up fresh personnel.
But when the Blue Jackets hit a rough spot this year, rookie coach Scott Arniel simply started benching players. And so far, it’s a tactic which has worked. He’s certainly gotten everyone’s attention, if nothing else.
“He made statements by sitting some guys out,” Rick Nash, the team’s captain and best player, said on Monday. “Sometimes, it seems, a new coach might come in and get intimidated. But he doesn’t whatsoever. He makes the calls and he doesn’t make any empty promises. Everything he says, he does.”
Arniel’s approach—that players commit ever atom of energy or else—seems to be working, too.
Heading into the week, the Blue Jackets are 25-22-5 for 55 points, just five points out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the deep and talented Western Conference. They’d be in even better position if not for an ugly, month-long 3-9-3 nosedive that dropped them from near the top of the Central Division (after a sparkling 14-6-0 start) all the way to the bottom. They’ve since fought their way out of the slump by going 5-2-2 in their last nine heading into a critical showdown Tuesday vs. Pittsburgh.
“Making up these five points is a tough thing to do,” said Arniel, who was coach of the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League the previous four seasons. “It’s not just winning three games in a row; it’s putting together five, six, seven, eight games in a row to get to that (playoff) spot. I’ve come here to win and I want us to have success. So, I’m not satisfied at all.”
Just last week, Arniel made veteran first-line winger Kristian Huselius a healthy scratch in Friday night’s 3-0 victory in Detroit. Huselius, a proven point producer who had scored just one goal in his last 13 games, was humiliated by the demotion.
The next night, though, in a come-from-behind 4-3 victory over Edmonton, Huselius was not only back in the lineup, but scored two goals, including the game-winner.
“Everybody wants to play,” he said simply, summing up the lesson learned.
All the Blue Jackets have taken notice, from rookies just trying to stick with the club to proven players like forward R.J. Umberger.
“It’s simple: Play hard and you get to go out there,” Umberger said. “He’s willing to do anything to spark the team, do anything to motivate somebody. There’s been times when he gets the whole team together outside the rink, because he thinks it’ll be good for the team. There’s little things that he’s done all year.”
General manager Scott Howson brought Arniel aboard last June, and has watched from afar.
“Scott is doing a good job in being both demanding and being fair to the players,” Howson said. “We’re looking forward to the last 30 games of the regular season.”
Arniel knows what inspires an NHL player since he was one of them for parts of 11 seasons with the Buffalo Sabres, Winnipeg Jets and Boston Bruins. Eight times, he helped teams make the playoffs.
But he’s discovered that it’s even harder to coach a team that’s only made the post-season once since coming into the NHL in 2000-2001.
“There’s great pressure to win and that’s eye opening right from the beginning,” he said. “You’re worrying about games in early October where, when I was a player, it was maybe November or December before we started to think about (the playoffs). You have to be good right out of the gate, because it’s so hard to make up points.”
Arniel, 48, favours a system in which the defencemen are more tuned to the offence. He wants them to pinch up into the play and to take chances. With the help of assistants Brad Berry, Bob Boughner and Dan Hinote—also former NHL players—the Blue Jackets are less likely than in past years of throwing away a game with a late mistake. They’re 12-1-0 when leading after two periods, and a respectable 10-3-1 when tied heading into the third.
“He wants us to play fast hockey,” forward Jake Voracek said. “Don’t wait for the opponent to make a mistake, try to jump on their defence and create some pressure. Make them give up the puck.”
With franchise goalie Steve Mason 8-4-1 in his last 13 starts and players going all out all the time, there’s hope where there wasn’t before.
“We’ve done some good things. But it’s an 82-game season,”Arniel said. “At the end of the day, all anyone cares about is making the playoffs. I’d love to be sitting in that top eight right now.”