How I learned to stop worrying and love the Johansen trade

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Seth. Jones. (From Bleacher Report)

Very Smart hockey people will tell you: you don’t trade a No. 1 center. Now, every team by definition has a first-line center, but a bona fide No. 1, All-Star-caliber center? In any given season – or era – maybe half the teams in the league can make that claim in earnest.

The Columbus Blue Jackets spent more than a decade searching for a No. 1 center. Ex-general manager Scott Howson thought he had finally found one* when he selected Ryan Johansen with the No. 4 overall pick in 2010, but he never had the chance to see him fulfill that potential in Columbus. The heinous rules for Canadian major junior players that dictate when and what level they can go pro – a CHL graft sold as a player development best practice – combined with oh-so tactful nurturing of Scott Arniel stymied and even threatened to derail Johansen’s development.

But then, during the lockout-shortened 2013 season, the Columbus brass started to see glimpses of what Ryan Johansen could be, shining in individual matchups against the likes of Joe Thornton. He broke out the following season, netting 33 goals along with 30 assists and by the 2014-15 campaign, he was often the most dominant player on the ice skating for either team. He rightly earned an All-Star nod and racked up a career-high 71 points – the fourth highest single-season total in franchise history and most for a centerman. At 23 years old, with great size, an elite skill set and signed to a reasonable bridge contract, the Blue Jackets looked to have a bona fide No. 1 center locked in for the next decade.

On Wednesday, they dealt him away to hated (former?) rival Nashville in a player-for-player swap for a 21-year-old defenseman who, though he has performed steadily throughout his young NHL career, has failed to meet the expectations thrust upon him.

Many Blue Jackets fans are aghast. Coming into the 2015-16 campaign, this team was touted universally as a playoff lock, and slated by many as a dark horse to win the Metropolitan Division and make a sustained postseason run. Loaded with talent up front that was trending the right way — players like Johansen, Boone Jenner, Brandon Saad and Alex Wennberg poised to take another stride in their development, mixed with guys like Cam Atkinson, Brandon Dubinsky and Nick Foligno in their prime — along with a stud between the pipes and, most importantly, a clean bill of health, this would not be a year of the “same old” Jackets.

Then the season started. Unfortunately, no one informed the players. Blue Jackets fans don’t need a recap of the club’s abysmal start to the campaign, but perhaps they need some perspective. Today, at the exact halfway point of the season, Columbus is dead-last in the NHL with a 15-23-3 record (33 points). If you cut out the month of October (where they finished 2-10-0) they’re a .500 team. They could be treading water in the standings as a .500 team halfway through the season, and if they caught fire and went on a 10-2-0 run (‘cause those happen a lot) they’d be in good playoff position. But the real-life Blue Jackets would need to go on a 10-2-0 run just to get back to .500, and then rattle off another big run to play themselves into postseason contention.

To put it another way, the Pittsburgh Penguins finished in the eighth spot in the East last year with a 43-27-12 record (98 points). Do the math. The Union Blue would have to go 30-5-6 to close out the season just to be in contention. Possible? Sure, whatever helps you sleep at night.

This is all roundabout way of saying that the 2015-16 season is effectively over for Columbus. Yes, it’s still important in a player development sense, but from a competitive perspective — and this is an organization and fanbase that expected a playoff contender — the final 41 games are moot.

So what went wrong with President of Hockey Operations John Davidson and general manager Jarmo Kekalainen’s best laid bricks plans? A coach who was in over his head and lost the room? A fatal roster flaw? Horrible luck? Adam Foote?

Let me say that I’m impressed with the way the Kekalainen constructed this roster and built up the system. I’ve supported most of the personnel decisions he’s made — loved the Saad acquisition — and for the most part, I’m of the same mind philosophically when it comes to building a winner. I honestly think if the team had not completely imploded over the final three minutes of the season opener, there’s no way they drop 10-of-12 in October.

You can have all the pieces assembled, but so much of the game really is decided between the ears and once the sh*t ball gets rolling down hill, it can, and usually does, engulf everyone before reaching the bottom. That’s not to say that Jarmo and co. should get a mulligan as they did for last season. He gambled on this team’s defensive corps and that’s a no-no. The stakes are too high once you get inside your blue line. You need a sure thing.

Going into the season, the thinking was that strength up front and in net would be able to make up for defensive shortcomings — at least for the most part. But, that was based on tall assumptions. This defense would be good enough to get them to the playoffs, or at least within contention by the trade deadline, just so long as David Savard’s breakout season (at age 24) was a new norm and Dallas castoff Kevin Connauton could extrapolate his new-found offensive potency over an 82-game season. They’d be alright if Fedor Tyutin could continue to effectively stave off father time and play top-4 minutes and, of course, if Ryan Murray, who had missed 86 games over his first two seasons [along with what should have been his rookie season in 2013] due to a variety of shoulder, knee and ankle injuries, — all of which are of serious concern for a young player — could step right back in the lineup and be a top-pair blue liner at 22 years old… Suffice it to say, these Goldilocks conditions were not met.

OK, so they needed to improve the defense, but you don’t trade away your No. 1 center to do that. Yes you do. You do to land Seth Jones.

Jones possesses the same tools that Blue Jackets fans and brass salivate over Murray for. The difference is that he’s 6-foot-4, right-handed, more of a physical presence and has a better body of work at the NHL level. He’s a year younger, has been learning the nuances of the NHL game from All-World defender Shea Weber and All-Star Roman Josi. He doesn’t have the injury history (AND HE’S A GODDAMN AMERICAN HERO!!!). He was the most impressive prospect — outside of Youngstown Phantoms players, of course — that I ever saw during my time working in the USHL. And, that was when he was captaining the U.S. National Team Program under-18 team, paired with future No. 9 overall pick Jacob Trouba, before he was even draft eligible.

He’s averaged more than 19 minutes a game since he came in the league, playing on a defensive corps with that included Shea freakin’ Weber. He posted 6-19-25 and 8-19-27 respectively over his first two seasons, which are respectable offensive numbers for blue liner to put up before he’s legally allowed to drink. The numbers are down a bit this year, but that’s more to do with an uncharacteristically low shooting percentage (1.5 percent compared to a 6-percent career average) that will correct itself. Oh, he’s also taking more shots and on pace to well eclipse his career-high from last year, so when the pucks do start going in….

Remember the season is over for the Blue Jackets. Every personnel decision from this point out is made with 2016-17 campaign in mind. Even with Johansen gone, this organization’s still very deep up front — both at the NHL level and in the system. No one player is going to replace Ryan Johansen’s production, but collectively, this group can more than make due. Remember, Jenner was supposed to be this franchise’s No. 2 center of the future not so long ago, but was bumped to wing because there was too much depth down the middle.

Barring an absolute fire sale, the Blue Jackets will still have the depth up front to compete with any team next season. (And if they continue to lose and get lucky at the draft lottery, the franchise suddenly has a No. 1 center again in Auston Matthews, but I digress.) With the addition of Jones, they have a defense that’s capable  as well.

Can you name the last team to hoist the Cup that didn’t have at least one perennial All-Star patrolling the blue line? Seth Jones isn’t there yet, but he’s closer than most fans, and Very Smart hockey people realize.

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On Alzheimer’s…

Fuck Alzheimer’s.

It’s a terrible, miserable, evil disease. It’s ruthless. Alzheimer’s, more than anything else on this Earth — despicable acts of terror, senseless killings — makes me question God’s existence.

I’ve lost loved ones suddenly. I’ve watched cancer break them down over months and years. Sometimes I had the chance to say my goodbyes, but even when I couldn’t, there was some inherent comfort in the memories we shared, and the knowledge — or hope — that they realized the impact they had on shaping the person I am today.

It was painful to watch as breast cancer ravaged my Grandma Annie, but even in her last days, spent bedridden and hardly able to speak, she could listen as read from a letter I wrote her, remember our car rides listening to Led Zeppelin and know that I loved her. I thought about writing a letter for my Grandma Suzy, Gigi, until the last time I saw her. It still may have been therapeutic for me, but its meaning would have been lost on her.

She died this afternoon, but Alzheimer’s all but took her from us months ago. I feel an ashamed, stomach-churning sense of relief.

Having two parents who worked full-time meant Gigi was my and my sister Caroline’s deputy mom. She picked us up from grade school regularly and took us out to see movies. When I was in second grade and my mom broke her back, the shuttling duties went from regularly to daily. When my mom and dad both thought the other was picking me up after soccer practice, it was Gigi’s car turning into the parking lot at St. Agatha’s that I glimpsed from the top of jungle gym.

When I got sick from drinking too much eggnog Christmas Eve — no, not that kind of sick, I was 6, maybe 7 years old — it was Gigi who checked in on me throughout my self-imposed quarantine at our family’s traditional Christmas Day brunch, which she hosted every year until she was forced to move into an assisted-living community.

Caroline and I learned to swim in the pool at her condo and when we had to get out of the water for the rest period, she was there with towels and Capri Suns. She always had Capri Suns in her refrigerator — it was the only place I ever saw them once I got into high school. Then there was her blue-and-white bowl of M&Ms that Caroline and I would not-so-covertly try to raid every visit. Our mom was much more stealthy.

Gigi always wanted to live by the water, even if just a pool. She talked fondly about the old family lake house in Waverly, Ohio. Some time in the mid-to-late-90s she moved into her dream home: a second-floor condo built on a hillside, with a deck where she could sit and peer over the tree tops at an old quarry that had been filled in to make a lake. We would walk down to the beach and she’d watch Caroline and I swim from the dock and act amazed when we brought back exotic clams we’d discovered sifting through the sand under water.

She was supposed to live the rest of her life in her dream home. Alzheimer’s took that away from her, too.

Gigi loved puzzles — crossword and jigsaw. Caroline and I were always eager to help, though I don’t know that we ever provided much of it, each time we stopped by. The jigsaw puzzles were enormous — thousands of pieces. Sometimes the picture on the box wasn’t even the actual puzzle design. We’d visit one week and she’d have edges all in place. The next visit it would have filled in a little. By the third our fourth she was finished. She’d let it sit for a few days so everyone could see it and then on to the next.

In her last years, the puzzle pieces began reducing in number and growing bigger in size. This Christmas my uncle gave her a children’s puzzle — maybe 25 pieces. I don’t know if she ever poured the pieces out of the box, let alone put it together. I’d like to think she did.

I could hardly bring myself to visit Gigi over the past year. I didn’t want to see what Alzheimer’s had done to her. I didn’t want to see her struggle to recognize me, or worse, not even. I didn’t want to see her frustration in only knowing that the man greeting was part of her life, but not who or why he was.

This woman, who gave up smoking and drinking to make sure she would be there for her grandchildren — and she was — couldn’t remember our names. She had six children of her own and raised her niece and nephew when her sister died as well, but the disease had little pity for any of them either. My family joked when she would introduce my aunts and uncles, her children, to nurses as “Tim” or “Not Tim” and “Mary” or “Not Mary.”

What else could we do but try to make light of it?

The last time I saw her was Christmas day. My family and I should have been driving to her condo for brunch. We should have been calling her from the front gate so she could buzz us in. We should have found her in her kitchen cooking her famous egg strata.

But instead we drove to First Community Village and needed a key card to get into the dementia wing. They call it “Roxbury Cottages.” We found her in her wheel chair, alone in the kitchen-area.

“It’s Bart, Grandma.”

I hugged her and as I pulled away, she smiled, revealing the top row of her teeth was gone, and put her hands on my face. She was searching, searching for a memory — any memory — to put that name she had just heard to the face she was touching. I don’t think she found it. But she knew the memories were in there somewhere, or at least they had been there, so she should be happy.

We wheeled her to her room, helped her onto the couch and gave her presents — a bracelet, bird suet and a feeder for it. My sister helped her put the bracelet on. I volunteered to go out the the car and get the pole to hang the the bird feeder from. I couldn’t stay in that room.

I drove the pole into the ground outside her window then knocked on it and waved into the room. Gigi was startled. She looked out at me confused. I hung the feeder and peered back inside to look for a reaction. Nothing. I went back inside and sat down to talk with her (read: smile and nod). She held my hand the whole time, squeezing occasionally. She was still searching. Later she started crying because something triggered the memory of her parents’ death decades ago. We tried to cheer her up.

“It’s Christmas! This is a happy day!”

I’m not sure she knew why she should be happy on Christmas, but she did her best to be. Either way, we knew it was time to go. I told her I loved her and gave her a hug and a kiss. She kissed me on the head maybe a dozen times. I want to think she found a memory. I know she wanted to more than anything. As we drove away, I took comfort in thinking when the weather warmed up, she’d be able to sit and watch the birds outside her window.

I spoke with my mom on the phone a few weeks ago and found out Gigi had been moved to the second floor of “Roxbury Cottages.” My mom had to bring the bird feeder back to our house. The birds would have been fighting for that suet on a day like today.

Fuck Alzheimer’s.

Tennessee officials: ‘Swiperboy’ didn’t violate NCAA regulations

Renaldo 'Swiperboy' Woolridge and former Tennessee safety Eric Berry.

Well it looks like Tennessee is at it again. Reports surfaced earlier this week that Volunteers basketball player/aspiring hip hop artist Renaldo Woolridge may have violated NCAA compliance regulations.

Like Vols coach Bruce Pearl didn’t have enough on his plate.

To no one’s surprise Tennessee officials have vehemently denied that Woolridge — perhaps better know for his skills with a mic than with a ball — received any improper benefits when he allegedly rented the upstairs  room of a Knoxville campus bar to shoot his newest video fo’ free.

From the  Chattanooga Times Free Press:

UT officials said that research done by the school’s compliance staff found that no violation occurred because nothing was recorded and Woolridge simply was scouting the location for possible future use.

Woolridge’s talents as a hip-hop artist under the name “Swiperboy” are well-documented, and his music videos have been shown at UT football and basketball games.

He has been working exclusively with the Volunteers’ scout team, has played in only two games since the end of November and did not dress for Saturday’s loss to Connecticut because of an ankle injury.

The drinking establishment in question, the New Amsterdam, apparently wasn’t on the list of campus bars Vols football and basketball players were banned from frequenting after reports surfaced that a number of players weren’t charged a cover on Thursday nights at another Knoxville bar eloquently titled Bar Knoxville.

(Of course, that might have also had a little something to do with a couple football players deciding to pummel an off-duty officer outside Bar Knoxville back in July. Chicken or the egg, right?)

Regardless, UT’s findings completely contradict statements made to the Knoxville News Sentinel from an unnamed source apparently with intament knowledge of the New Amsterdam.

From the News Sentinel:

“It was given to him by the New Amsterdam for free because we do support him and UT sports in general,” the source said.

“He shot the video, like I said, to support UT. It was basically done at the New Amsterdam because it’s one of the favorite spots for UT college students.”

The cost for leasing the room for special occasions was not available.

It seems there’s one easy way to get to the bottom of this caper — watch the music video. Unfortunately the video for Swiperboy’s newest single “Snap Back” appears to be a pretty ambitious project, as the part shot (or not shot) at the New Amsterdam was only small portion.

And if Woolridge doesn’t want to hire dancers he can always bring back the Vols’ recruiting hostesses.

— bartftc@gmail.com

Twitter: @bart_logan

‘Buzzing the Net

Sorry for that title. I couldn’t help myself.

I’m thrilled to say that I will be taking over as the Columbus Blue Jackets blogger of HockeyBuzz.com. HockeyBuzz is the most visited independent hockey site in the world and I am honored to join the team. Here’s a link to my first blog previewing tonight’s match-up with the Dallas Stars.

I will continue to contribute to InsideHockey.com with Blue Jackets columns and features throughout the week. Also, make sure to check out The Post and The Post Sports Blog, where I’ll be writing about the Ohio U hockey team and women’s indoor track and field team during the upcoming quarter. I’ll also work on getting the odd blog about something other than hockey up here on Taking on Sports Cliches.

Happy Holidays!

Bart

What I’ve been up to…

Sorry for the lack of updates my oh so devoted readers. It’s been a busy quarter but if you want to see what I’ve been up to, check out my coverage of Ohio Hockey for The Post and of course the extended coverage on The Post Sports Blog.

Break’s just around the quarter so if you can manage to contain yourselves, I promise there will be plenty of semi-coherent sports ramblings in the next few weeks.

Until then, I’ve got to keep working on pitching a weekly “Six Degrees of Separation: The Plight of Cleveland Sports” column. Oh right, and finals.

Bart