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Searching for scoring chemistry

By Tom

Chemistry (n.) - [kem-uh-stree]

  • the interaction of one personality with another: The chemistry between him and his boss was all wrong.
  • sympathetic understanding; rapport: the astonishing chemistry between the actors.

Chemistry between teammates is important in any sport. When a quarterback and receiver have good chemistry in football, the likelihood of a successful pass play is that much greater. If the outfielders have chemistry with the catcher in baseball, you have a stronger likelihood of a cutoff throw reaching home plate in time to tag the tying run out. Do you think no-look passing in basketball is possible without team chemistry? Didn’t think so.

In a sport as fast-moving and ever-flowing as hockey, chemistry between players is just as important – if not moreso. On defense, where there are only two players to cover oncoming rushes, players need to instinctively know where their pairing partner is going to be. They need to trust that their partner will understand when to cover an attacking forward and when to back off, when to pick up a rush and when to let their partner pick up the slack.

The same goes for forwards. If you know where your line mates are going to be, you can pass the puck more easily up the ice, understand how to split the defensemen to put the team in better position to score and have a better idea of when going it alone is preferable to passing if off to your teammate.

This rapport can only be accomplished through the natural development of chemistry between players, and that takes time. One hears stories about how the most talented players stay after practice, running the same drills with each other to build chemistry. Then there’s practice itself, when a coach and players develop shared understandings of team offense and defense philosophy. This time spent on repetition and communication builds chemistry, which then is reinforced on the ice.

Time. Repetition. Communication. Trust. Instinct. That’s what builds chemistry.

The Columbus Blue Jackets welcomed at least as many new players to their organization – and by that, I mean bringing players in from totally outside the Blue Jackets major and minor league systems – as any other team in the National Hockey League. Head coach Todd Richards and his staff had a whopping six days of training camp practice before the first game. There were no preseason games this year.  These guys barely knew each other’s names and were expected to go out and compete as a team.

My friends, that combination does not promote team chemistry. And it’s showing on the ice, as the team as a whole has been outscored 15-7 in just four games (with one of the seven goals apparently covering the shootout win, meaning that six actual goals have been scored). Only Phoenix (16) and Washington (17) have given up more goals thus far, and only Philadelphia (5) and Los Angeles (4) have scored less.

To be fair, the defensive pairs have been stable – more or less – since Jack Johnson rode into town at last season’s trade deadline. Johnson plays with James Wisniewski. Fedor Tyutin plays with Nikita Nikitin. On the third pair, the one receiving the fewest on-ice minutes, newcomer and veteran mentor Adrian Aucoin is playing with youngsters John Moore and, presumably, David Savard. That’s not to say that they’ve been playing terrific hockey, as the Tyutin-Nikitin combination has already piled up a -5 plus/minus. The other four have -2′s. But they do have some experience playing together.

The forwards are another matter altogether. It’s hard to know where to start, though, because forwards scored only four of those six goals over four games.  Four goals in four games.  A small enough sample, so let’s review:

GOAL 1: Game 1, Nick Foligno (power play)

Nice setup, with Foligno camped out on the crease and in position to deflect Tyutin’s shot. Give us one of these every game, and I think we’d all be happier campers.

GOAL 2: Game 1, Artem Anisimov (even strength)

Another great play – a stretch pass from the defenseman (Tyutin? Nikitin? Can’t tell) gives a streaking Anisimov the opening to sneak that one over Pekka Rinne.

Now, this was Game One. I think it safe to say that this was the best-played game of the very short season for the Blue Jackets. Was it because the Blue Jackets had their act together from the outset, or was it because Nashville wasn’t ready for the season to start, either (The Predators are 1-1-2 right now, not exactly setting the world on fire…)? Time will tell.

GOAL 3: Game 2, Cam Atkinson (even strength)

Can you tell that Ryan Johansen and Cam Atkinson have played a bunch of games for minor league Springfield? Look at that…Johansen carries the puck up the ice while Atkinson threads the needle and grabs Johansen’s pass before burying the shot. Gorgeous goal, right up there with Anisimov’s. It’s such a shame that Atkinson is out with a lower body injury – the team really needs him and his scoring touch right now.

GOAL 4: Game 2, Vinny Prospal (power play)

A nice individual effort by Prospal in opportunistically grabbing the rebound and sneaking the puck past Jimmy Howard. Can you say that this is the result of chemistry? I’d suggest not. More like right place, right time.

So what do we have? Three goals by forwards that could be construed to be resulting from something resembling team chemistry, with two in the first game and one in the second. Then, no forward goals at all from the just-concluded back-to-back road games in Phoenix and Denver.

Considering that the Columbus Blue Jackets have played 250 minutes of hockey thus far this season, that’s nowhere near enough. League goal scoring leader Tampa already has 19 goals, followed by tonight’s CBJ opponent, Chicago, with 17 – both in four games.

The goal scoring drought also explains why coach Richards is shuffling his forward lines (Here are the forward combinations from this morning’s skate). Somehow, some way, Richards has to overcome the influx of unfamiliar faces and lack of practice time to find some lines with enough chemistry to put the puck in the net more than once or twice a game – if only to take pressure off his defensive corps and goaltenders.

I’m not blaming Richards or even the players for the lack of production…the lockout and truncated training camp all but made this problem an inevitability. Still, it must be overcome if the Columbus Blue Jackets are to regain a playoff seeding position in the Western Conference.

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