CBJ Draft Preview

On Friday, the Columbus Blue Jackets will participate in the franchise’s 11thNHL Entry Draft. Of those 11 first round picks, 10 have been in the top eight selections, with 2009 first rounder John Moore (21st overall) being the exception. Yet, for the most part the Blue Jackets have received a relatively disappointing return on a plethora of “blue chip” prospects. The CBJ’s first round futility has been well documented.

This year, the Blue Jackets are sitting relatively comfortablly at no. 4 overall. I say “relatively” because although they will have their pick of three to four second tier prospects behind the perceived top two, Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin, the pressure is building on general manager Scott Howson.

Over the past week, Howson saw two of his club’s Central Division rivals, St. Louis and Nashville, make moves that have radically reshaped their rosters. St. Louis traded a pair prospects, Lars Eller and Ian Schultz, to acquire the rights to Montreal’s playoff savant, Jaroslav Halak, and sure up their goaltending situation.

Nashville on the other hand, cleared house sending the rights of pending UFA Dan Hamhius to Philadelphia to reacquire young defender Ryan Parent. Just a few hours later, the Preds reunited their captain, Jason Arnott, with his old club, when they shipped him to New Jersey for right wing prospect Matt Halischuck and a second round pick.

While St. Louis’ move automatically makes them tougher competition in the Central Division – many, including myself, picked them to make the playoffs last season – it would be unwise to assume Nashville is waving the white flag on the 2010-2011 season. Nashville GM David Poile rarely makes poor personnel decisions and head coach Barry Trotz gets more out of his players than anyone in the league. I wouldn’t be surprised to if Nashville makes a couple of moves, if not draft day than July 1.

That’s all fine and dandy, but what does that have to do with the Blue Jackets?

Well, the consensus seems to be that the Blue Jackets, for better or for worse, have adopted a win-now mentality. With a win-now mentality and a division that boasts the last three Western Conference representatives in the Stanley Cup Finals – two of the last three winners at that – along with an improved St. Louis team, a GM might get a bit flustered. Maybe he starts to feel the pressure to make a reactionary move? A little bit of an itchy trigger-finger?

Fortunately for Columbus, Howson’s veins check in at around absolute zero. The only reactionary moves he will be making are in reactions to two of the franchise’s perennial needs: a no. 1 center and defenseman.

That no. 1 center is not likely to come through the draft. Seguin is sure to go in the top two and the drop off at the pivot is substantial enough that the CBJ would be unlikely to use the fourth overall selection on one, unless it’s part of a deal to acquire a proven one.

But a no. 1 defenseman you say? Well there are three potential blue line cornerstones available in this year’s draft, and at fourth overall, the Blue Jackets will have a choice of at least two of them. Those defenseman are Cam Fowler, Erik Gudbranson and Brandon Gormley.

Cam Fowler

Cam Fowler

Fowler spent the past season playing for the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League. The Farmington Hills, MI native put up some incredible offensive numbers to the tune of 8-47-55 over 55 games. He played a pivotal role on both the USA team that won the 2010 World Junior Championship, and the Spitfires, who took home their second consecutive Memorial Cup this past season. Director of NHL Central Scouting E.J McGuire described Fowler as the “prototypical offensive defenseman,” drawing comparisons to the likes of Brian Leech, Phil Housley and Tomas Kaberle.

“He’s your power play quarterback for years to come. He sees the ice – has the ability to control the tempo of the game from the blue line,” McGuire said. “His outstanding puck-handling and puck possession game sets him apart from almost every other defenseman eligible in this years draft.”

While Fowler has plenty of offensive upside, the knock on him is that he needs to bulk up to handle NHL forwards. No surprises there, as the 6-2 190 pound blue liner plays with little physical edge. And while I don’t want to take anything away from Fowler’s accomplishments, he certainly benefited from playing with veritable OHL All-Star team. Along with Hall, Fowler also benefited from playing with likes of Ryan Ellis, Zack Kassian and Greg Nemisz. And those are just the ones who were already selected in the first round over the past two seasons. It was Windsor’s Cup to lose, with or without Fowler.

Erik Gudbranson

Erik Gudbranson

If Fowler brings the flash, than Gubranson certainly brings the thunder. No player in this draft has seen his stock rise as much in the past few months as the hulking 6-4 195 pound defender from the Kingston Frontenacs. Gudbranson admittedly loves “playing with an edge” and “throwing big hits.” Despite playing an abbreviated season thanks to a knee injury and a bout with mono, Gudbranson managed 2-21-23 in 41 games. He’s surprisingly mobile for a defenseman, especially one of his stature. He also owns a right-handed cannon from the blue line that the CBJ would covet.

“Gudbranson to me is a guaranteed long-term NHLer. In my opinion, Gudbranson is another Chris Pronger-type,” McGuire said. “He is some kind of tough. Chris Pronger is mean and will hit you; Gudbranson will hit you and fight you.”

Gudbranson’s most underrated quality, and one that also draws Pronger comparisons, is his leadership. The native of Orleans, ON was an alternate captain on Kingston last season and spent time with the “C” as a 16-year-old OHL rookie. In addition he captained the Canadian U-17 and U-18 teams. Gubranson may have the highest ceiling of a defenseman in this year’s draft, but he’s likely the least NHL-ready of the big three, He would benefit from another year in juniors as well as time in AHL.

Brandon Gormley

Brandon Gormley

Gormley may be the most intriguing defensive prospect for the Blue Jackets. He doesn’t fill up the stat sheet with points galore. He doesn’t knock opposing players through the glass. What the 6-2 190 Moncton Wildcats defensman does is play the game with the poise of a 10-year NHL veteran. Gormley does not make bad decisions, with or without the puck. He can play the point on the power play – he teamed up with Columbus prospect David Savard on the Moncton PP blue line – and he can kill penalties. He makes crisp breakout passes and herds the puck while it’s on opponents’ sticks. His positioning is top-notch. Gormley’s game has been compared to the likes of Nicklas Lidstrom, Duncan Keith and Shea Weber.

“Gormley might be the best puck-controlling defenseman in the entire draft this year,” McGuire said.

NHL Central Scouting’s Chris Bordeleau echoes McGuire.

“Gormley has got the whole package. He’s got a good shot from the point, an accurate shot, low and can be deflected.”

Gormley helped lead Wildcats to the Memorial Cup round robin, despite the fact that the team was missing one of its top scorers Kirill Kabanov – this draft’s enigmatic Russian winger. He took home the Mike Bossy award as the QJMHL’s top professional prospect. The Murray River, PEI native has a very impressive pedigree. Prior to becoming the first overall pick in the “Q” entry draft, Gormley played at Notre Dame College in Saskatchewan, a program that has churned out it’s fair share of NHL stars. Gormley looks to be next in line.

Frankly, the Blue Jackets cannot go wrong with any of the three. The consensus among the league seems to be that Florida will select Gudbranson with the third overall pick. While most see the Blue Jackets selecting Fowler in that case, I would argue for Gormley. While Fowler’s game is certainly conducive to the “new” NHL, it’s also similar to Moore’s, although there’s no denying Fowler is the better prospect. Gormley may not have the flash or the thunder, but he may be the best fit for a Blue Jackets team that desperately lacks stability on the back end.

Soccer, Explained Away

From time to time, the “staff” here at Bart Takes on Sports Cliches will come upon other fledgling sports writers doing their part to fight the good fight against ESPN. For instance, I highly recommend you check out former The Post assistant sports editor Rob Mixer’s blog, which never shies away from taking shot or two at the sports “news” giant. But, I digress.

Seeing as it is the first meaningful day of the 2010 World Cup (at least here in the good ‘ole USA), I thought it appropriate to take an in-depth look at the beautiful game. Alas, famed sports writer Cal Biffney beat me to it. So without further ado, “Soccer, Explained Away.”

Soccer, Explained Away

Soccer, the game the Europeans call “football” and the Americans call “tedious”, is gearing up for its quadrennial cluster- flock which they oh-so pretentiously call the World Cup.

While we Americans brace ourselves for a month-long diversion from Real Sports and face the threat of having portions of actual televised games inflicted on us if we let our guard down — a brief primer on this sport — like competition is perhaps in order.

Soccer is a game in which 11 players on a side kick a spherical object down a 110 meter rectangular field toward a defended goal. It is believed to have been invented by the Scots in the Eighteenth century. However, with the demise of their short-lived Highlands Boulder League in 1803, many hoped the game would be lost to civilization. Eventually, as with all things Scottish, the game was stolen by the British and refined over the centuries to its current level of abject boredom.

While the goals themselves are large enough to park two garbage trucks bumper to bumper, even the most elite teams are utterly incapable of scoring more than two goals in any 90 minute game. On those rare occasions when three goals are scored in a game, Parliament goes into special session and Euro Disney opens its turnstiles to all. While four goal games are virtually unheard of — during the last recorded instance, a 4- 0 trouncing of Liverpool FC by Real Madrid in 2004 — it is well documented that the silly looking guy on the back of the 50 pound note actually shed stigmata tears.

While Soccer’s irredeemable vapidity sets it apart, it does share one sports attribute with a full- blooded American sport: NASCAR racing. These two pastimes, to the exclusion of all other respectable sports, have sold out their image and their outerwear to soulless corporations: Chelsea to Samsung, Arsenal to Emirates Air, Real Madrid to bwim.com… the shameful list goes on.   Even the once proud Manchester United Club —formerly the inspiration to kit and kin throughout The British Empire— now bears the satanic mark of “AIG”. Nothing bespeaks soccer greatness like, you know, single-handedly causing the collapse of the world’s economy for a goddamn generation!

Like many other elements of the game, soccer’s penalty scheme is particularly egregious. Yellow card cautions are liberally dispensed when one player brushes the shoestrings of another, causing him to forthwith dive onto the turf and spend five minutes writhing in faux agony. The red card, on the other hand, is handed out when one player actually does trip another, who forthwith dives onto the turf and spends ten minutes writhing in faux agony… until shuffled off the pitch on a gurney to the solemn strains of Greig’s Funeral March.

But of all the penalties in all the sports in all the world, nothing compares to “offsides” in soccer. As far as can be ascertained, “offsides” is the penalty that is called when a goal is scored at a critical point in the game, which threatens to make the game marginally interesting or competitive. To avoid such a catastrophic outcome, soccer officials have been painstakingly trained to call this penalty judiciously– irrespective of the positions of actual players on the field– and to wave off any pesky goals that might have the unwelcome effect of invigorating the crowd.

Deprived of any opportunity for a goal or a change of momentum in the game, the soccer fan (live or tuning in on TV) returns to his slumber.  Those who brought knitting projects to the game return to their craft. Those who did not, well, they drink excessive amounts of beer and sing …sort of… a raunchy, post- apocalyptic collection of bawdy tunes generally categorized as “football songs.” These “songs” are worthy of anthropological study—so that future cultures can enact rigorous laws to prohibit their public rendering.

But perhaps nowhere is soccer’s’ futility more succinctly expressed than in its roster of so-called “football heroes.” Not since the Mussolini Regime have such a collection of self-important, over- compensated and outright annoying individuals occupied such a lofty perch on the European stage.

David Beckham serves as a prime example. With all the loyalty and fidelity of a Somali Pirate, Beckham consistently abandons flag and country to mindlessly follow the banner of greed across international boundaries. After a stint at Manchester United in the (so-called) Premier League, Beckham tinkled on the Union Jack and signed with Real Madrid in 2003. Dissatisfied with the huge sums of money offered up by the Spaniards, Beckham bid them “buenos dias” for the sun and surf of Southern California to sign with the L.A. Galaxy.  Thus far during his L.A. stint, he has led the Galaxy to previously unattained heights of mediocrity. Not content with even this level of brazenness, Beckham then sold out LA to play midfield for Italian giant AC Milan, which, dear reader, brings the Mussolini analogy to full circle.

Other examples of unworthy soccer heroes are abundant: Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo , Roberto Carlos… the list goes mercilessly on.  Unlike their American counterparts— Kobe Bryant, Alex Rodriguez and Bret Favre, for example—who labor hard in relative obscurity for love of the game alone, these footballers are unworthy icons of corporate greed. They are a bane to our youth and should be banned from our shores until they have publicly renounced their vile sport and earnestly asked forgiveness.

So as this year’s World Cup winds laboriously on, we Americans can actually take pride in the fact that we do not excel at this lackluster, overrated sport. For us, defeat in soccer is Victory!

But in the event that any of my numerous readers actually find themselves inexplicably drawn to watch the Cup, to you I say:” USA!” “USA!” “USA!”

Arniel Accepts Blue Jackets Coaching Job

Guy Boucher needed around about two days to decline the Blue Jackets' offer. Scott Arniel needed about two hours to accept it.

Scott Arniel is set to become the fifth head coach in Columbus Blue Jackets. No false alarms this time. Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson will introduce the new head coach tomorrow at a press conference scheduled for 3 p.m. at Nationwide Arena.

Arniel accepted the CBJ coaching gig shortly after first choice Guy Boucher turned down an offer to take over the reigns. He has spent the last four seasons coaching the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League, where he compiled a record of 181-106-0-33.

Last season he won the Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award as the top coach in the AHL. His Moose made it to the Calder Cup before falling in Hershey Bears in six games.

Working on a full story. Check back later for updates.

Issue Story: The Blue Jackets and Nationwide Arena

Nationwide Arena, home of the Blue Jackets, was a catalyst for the revitalization of Downtown Columbus.

It has been over a year since revelations first surfaced that the Columbus Blue Jackets have been hemorrhaging money for the past seven plus seasons. The losses, which do not include any incurred during the 2009-2010 season, add up to approximately $80 million, as a result of the franchise’s lease agreement to play in Nationwide Arena.

Last fall, the Columbus Chamber of Commerce contracted Ohio State Professor Emeritus of Finance Stephen Buser to conduct a report to determine the financial viability of the ailing National Hockey League franchise.

“The people who talked to me about it sounded as if it was a pleasant surprise every year the Blue Jackets remained here,” Buser said. “I didn’t talk to anybody that felt a high degree of confidence that they could lock in the Blue Jackets by virtue of this lease.”

The Blue Jackets are one of just two teams in professional sports currently playing in venues that are privately financed — the other being Major League Baseball’s San Francisco Giants. The difference is the Giants pay only $1.2 million a year in rent to the San Francisco Port Commission, as part of a 66-year lease at AT&T Park.

San Francisco also collects revenue from naming rights fees to the tune of $50 million over 24 years. The Blue Jackets do not.

The Blue Jackets’ lease arrangement requires them to pay roughly $5 million yearly in rent to play in Nationwide Arena. It is part of a 25-year lease with the Columbus-based insurance company to help recoup approximately $106 million of the cost it took to build the Arena.

In addition, the Blue Jackets lose between $4 and $5 million a year in management fees and receive no revenue from naming rights fees. All together, the Blue Jackets have been losing an estimated $12 million annually.

Blue Jackets President Mike Priest disclosed the team’s losses in a statement last season.

“It is a building financial problem that has become a team financial problem,” Priest said. “If we fix the building problem, we fix the team problem.”

But this is much more than a building or team problem. This is an entire community problem.

Turn back the clock 15 years and the area between Vine Street and Spring Street, just west of High Street, was little more than a wasteland. It was home to the old Ohio Penitentiary, which had stood empty for nearly 20 years.

There were no ballparks, no amphitheaters, no fine dining, no luxury town houses. The gateway to Downtown Columbus was an out-of-service penitentiary. Today, that same site is now home to one of the most vibrant communities in Central Ohio: The Arena District.

Since the Blue Jackets inaugural season in 2000-2001, the area around Nationwide Arena has experienced a complete revival. Restaurants and bars began popping up on all sides of the arena. Soon a movie theater and gym followed. Then came luxury condos and town houses, and it all culminated last year with the opening of sleek new Huntington Park, the home of the Triple-A Columbus Clippers, minor league affiliate of the Cleveland Indians.

Presently, there are over 170 businesses that call the Arena District home, employing over 5,500 workers and generating a combined $1.6 billion in revenue yearly.

“It’s hard for me to imagine a business-economic development opportunity more successful than this one,” Buser said. “If you had laid it out 15 years ago, no one would have believed you.”

The old Ohio Penitentiary, which laid dormant for 20 years before the construction of Nationwide Arena.

According to Buser’s report, the Arena District generates approximately $30 million in tax revenue annually for the City of Columbus. The report suggests that number will double within the next decade.

“That [report estimate] is extremely conservative, just because we only took a tiny, tiny fraction of the overall sales,” he said.

Despite the overwhelming positive impact the Blue Jackets and Nationwide Arena have had, there has been little progress in alleviating the franchise’s financial woes.

Last spring the Blue Jackets and Nationwide began negotiating with the General Assembly, which they hoped would result in the public purchase of the arena by means of a sales tax increase. However, the ‘sin tax’ needed approval from the Franklin County Commissioners to be enacted and they denied the increase.

“All of the sudden, it became a public Brew Ha Ha that blew up in an ugly series of accusations and bad feeling,” Columbus Chamber CEO Ty Marsh said. “When all that effort collapsed, the issue still remained that the Blue Jackets were facing financial challenges with that lease, and something still needed to be done to address that issue.”

At that point, the Chamber stepped in and commissioned the study with Buser heading it.

Buser’s report determined that there were essentially three options for the Blue Jackets: increase revenue from the private sector, create an alternate private ownership structure, or explore public-private ownership options.

The Blue Jackets took their first step toward relieving some of their financial difficulties when they agreed to a joint-management deal with OSU and the Jerome Schottenstein Center earlier this spring. Until that point, the two “A” venues were competing for all the acts in a “B” market — not exactly the best financial plan.

“The two [arenas] were competing with each other so they were undercut and they undercharged,” Buser said. “Often times, events come to Nationwide Arena – I assume Schottenstein as well – where the hosting party actually loses money.”

“The booking agents play one against the other to get a better price. By managing that together, and also marketing that together, it’s a win-win,” Marsh said. “This is not the ultimate solution to the Blue Jackets’ issue, but it’s one piece of the puzzle”

The Blue Jackets avoided another potential hurdle when Franklin County voted to move the location of a new casino from the Arena District to the West Side in the May Primary.

“That was a tremendous wildcard and everybody held their breath,” Buser said. “On the one hand it is more business in the area, but it would have so changed the physical as well cultural nature of the area.”

Marsh echoed Buser’s words.

“The fear was that… [people] would go in and out of the casino directly but not frequent any of the restaurants or other businesses,” he said. “The viability of Arena District is really based on the balance of the types of businesses. They had built up and branded the district as a family entertainment area and they felt that that would hurt the brand.”

But there is still quite a ways to go to ensure the Blue Jackets can continue to operate. While Buser’s report favored no specific solutions, he did offer some personal insight — sell revenue bonds to the public.

“Look, we are not taking money from you, the tax payer, and giving it to the Blue Jackets. We’re investing in a business,” Buser pitched. “It’s not about hockey. It’s not about bailing out anybody. It’s a financial investment.”

Meanwhile, Marsh and the Chamber will continue to do their part to keep the organization afloat.

“To lose a professional franchise from a community is not that well-know would send a very negative message nationwide,” Marsh said. “It just says something about your community that you have professional sports.”

Boucher tapped to take over in Columbus

Hamilton Bulldogs head coach Guy Boucher (Getty Images)

The Columbus Blue Jackets have offered their head coaching position to Guy Boucher, as broken by The Columbus Dispatch. Boucher will reportedly take the weekend to mull over the offer before making his decision early next week.

Boucher, 38, spent this past season coaching the Hamilton Bulldogs, the American Hockey League affiliate of the Montreal Canadiens. He led the Bulldogs to a 52-17-3-8 record in 2009-2010, and came within one period of making the Calder Cup Finals in his first season with the team, his only coaching in the pros.

The consensus feeling is that Notre-Dame-du-Lac, Que. native was being “groomed” for the head coach spot at Montreal, which is currently occupied by Jacques Martin. That theory, along with his relative inexperience, has led to speculation that Boucher may not accept a National Hockey League coaching offer this year. Still, there is no debating that he is one of the rising stars in coaching, and he will find his way behind an NHL bench sooner rather than later.

Boucher has been influence by likes of Jacques Lemaire, Mike Babcock and Pat Quinn, but has gained notoriety for his own revolutionary system. Boucher’s teams play an “extremely aggressive” offensive style, focusing on moving the puck up the ice at all times and he is not shy about letting defenseman lead the rush.

“I’m very, very keen on developing offense,” Boucher said in an interview for hamiltonbulldogs.com. “For me, it’s about time and space — not giving it to the other team — and creating it for ourselves as fast as we can and as aggressively as we can.”

On the power play, Boucher applies an unusual 1-3-1 setup as opposed traditional overload or umbrella. One player sets up in front of the net, one in the high slot, and a pair along the sidewalls while a defenseman roves along the point. It creates havoc for penalty killers who can be easily exposed in a diamond or box arrangement.

Boucher also applies an unconventional 1-3-1 forecheck. The first skater in the zone pushes the puck toward the outside. The left defenseman sets up along the left wall, as opposed to center ice as is the case with most 1-3-1 systems. The other two forwards occupy the center ice and the right side, creating a wall in the neutral zone, and the right defenseman covers the back end, where he is free to adjust on the fly. Some have likened his forecheck to a full court press.

Boucher has also garnered plenty of praise for his ability to develop and motivate players, especially youngsters. The McGill University graduate has three degrees, including a master’s in sports psychology. Blue Jackets center Derrick Brassard played under Boucher in 2006-2007, when he was of the Drummondville Voltiguers, and he made no secret of his affinity for his former, and likely future, head coach.

“I’ve never played for a guy like him, a guy who is capable of getting the best out of every player,” Brassard said in an interview with The Dispatch. “He was always in your head, always keeping you energized and motivate.”

Despite all the positives, there are still plenty of questions surrounding the possible CBJ-Guy Boucher marriage. Although Boucher has seen success at every level of coaching so far, there is no guarantee that his system will succeed in the NHL, where so much time is spent breaking down video to expose any possible weakness. Teams will game plan and find holes.

There is also the issue of his experience. Boucher has spent only one season coaching professionals, and spent only three as a head coach in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League prior to that. Age could also be a factor as Boucher, who at 38-year-old, has only four years on the elder statesman of the Blue Jackets roster, Chris Clark. Although a player such as Clark would never admit it, some veterans do not mesh well with young, inexperienced coaches.

In addition, the current make-up of the Blue Jackets roster is not necessarily conducive to Boucher’s systems. With the exception of Kris Russell, and Anton Stralman on occasion, the Blue Jackets defense lacks the mobility and puck handling skills to push the play forward. There is also no question that there is a significant learning curve to adjust to Boucher’s system.

Still, there is no denying that, of the four final coaching candidates, Boucher is the most intriguing. That was clearly the case for Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson. While former Blue Jackets player and development coach Kevin Dineen was considered the early favorite for the position, Howson insisted on waiting to interview Boucher, whose playoff run with the Hamilton forced the coaching search to extend into June. Other candidates include Scott Arniel, head coach of the AHL’s Manitoba Moose, and Claude Noel, who took over after Ken Hitchcock was fired in February.

The Dispatch has reported that Howson met with Boucher twice. The first time was at the NHL Scouting Combine in Hamilton, Ont. last month.  The second conversation took place last week in Columbus, likely at John P. McConnell’s Double Eagle Golf Club.

It appears that the Blue Jackets have finally found their coach. Howson put in his time and due diligence, and it’s my belief that it will be reflected next season, regardless if Boucher is behind the bench or one of the other candidates. Then again, it could very well backfire if Boucher declines the position. Some have reported that there’s nothing left but hammering out the specifics of the contract, but with the Blue Jackets, you can never take anything for granted.