Ever since Arniel was hired, the talk has been how Arniel will bring more tempo, more puck-possession and a higher tolerance for risk-taking. This is, of course, in stark contrast to any talk that surrounded the team while Ken Hitchcock was the coach. It is being construed to mean that fans can expect a more exciting brand of hockey this season.
It is also being construed to mean that Arniel's system will produce more goal-scoring, which is exactly what Blue Jackets fans want to hear after watching the team rank 20th and 21st during the past two seasons in goals scored.
That Arniel is being received in Columbus as an offensive-minded coach is actually somewhat of a surprise considering his body of work in the AHL. During his four seasons as head coach of the Manitoba Moose, Arniel’s teams ranked 18th, 9th, 21st and 25th in goals scored. At the same time, those same teams ranked third, second and first and 16th in goals against. Those numbers don’t exactly inspire visions of odd man rushes and breakaways in Columbus.
So where’s the beef? Enter Bob Boughner, hired by Arniel to serve as an assistant coach. Speaking of transformations, nobody has undergone quite the makeover Boughner has. Once an NHL tough guy nicknamed The Boogieman, Boughner has ascended to the top of everybody’s list of up-and-coming coaches. And he didn’t get there by intimidating or fighting the other guys vying to be on that list. While leading the Windsor Spitfires of the OHL to back-to-back Memorial Cups in 2009 and 2010, Boughner’s teams ranked 1st both seasons in goals for. Those teams also ranked 1st and 5th in goals against, but Boughner was hired to coach the forwards and the power play, and help fulfill the promise of an “attacking, up-tempo” style of play more than anything else. A former goon, now an offensive genius. After suffering through years of teams that are offensively challenged, Columbus fans shrug at this and ask, “Why not?”
Whether Howson, Arniel and Boughner can deliver on the promise of transforming the Blue Jackets from a school bus into a sports car, and how soon it might happen, will rely heavily on the ability of the players to adapt to this new mentality. With that in mind, let’s take a look at three players who figure to be quick studies for Arniel.
1. Kris Russell - If Arniel is going to effectively involve his d-men more in the offensive zone, having some puck-movers along the blue line is a necessity. Scanning down the list of returning d-men, only Russell and Fedor Tyutin truly stand out as being cast in that mold.
The arrival of John Moore, the Blue Jackets 1st round pick in the 2009 entry draft (21st overall), is heavily anticipated for this reason. But for now, it is Russell who stands to benefit the most from having the restraints that Hitchcock placed on the d-men untied. Russell’s development continued relatively unabated last season, especially in the second half during which he was granted more minutes and noticeably stepped up his game. Expect Russell to thrive this season.
2. Nikita Filatov - Before Filatov even suits up for camp, he has some fence-mending to do. When he bolted last season for the cozy confines of the KHL in his native Russia, the perception was that he walked out on his team. Some would argue that Hitchcock imposed his will on Howson and ran Filatov out of town. Either way, Arniel and his assistants arrive with a reputation for being able to communicate, motivate and earn the respect and loyalty of their young players.
Filatov will be given every opportunity to repair his relationships with his Columbus comrades and begin to fulfill his enormous potential. He brings quickness and skill to a lineup desperate for both. He has tasted some early success in his limited time in the NHL, including a hat trick in only his sixth NHL game. This causes Columbus fans to drool when considering what might happen if Arniel is able to unlock his potential.
3. Steve Mason - How does a goalie coming off the proverbial “sophomore slump” stand to gain much at all from a coach that professes to have a higher tolerance for his blue-liners taking more risks?
Karl Goehring, who played goal for Arniel last season at Manitoba, was recently quoted as saying, “There is accountability in the defensive zone. If the system is played correctly, most of the shots come from the outside, where you can see them. That alone makes the goalie's job much easier.”
For Mason to get better, the defensive play in front of him needs to be better. If what Goehring says has merit, Mason should have the opportunity to return to the form that won him the Calder Trophy in his rookie campaign. Skeptics will point out that there was supposed to be accountability under Hitchcock’s system. This is true, but only to the extent the players “bought in” to that system. Clearly, they didn’t. If Arniel gets them to buy in to his approach, defensively speaking (and Boughner should be an asset here as well), Mason stands to benefit more than any other player on the team from the coaching change.