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Summer Fill: Talking Columbus Blue Jackets hockey with The Cannon

Last summer at SB Nation, each team blog matched up with another team blog from the opposite conference in a little series we called Summer Fill. The basic concept: there's nothing else to talk about in the middle of August, so let's learn a little bit about a team that we don't know much about.

We exchanged questions last year with The Copper & Blue, SBN's Edmonton Oilers blog. This year, we've been paired up with The Cannon, SBN's Columbus Blue Jackets blog. How perfect: Geoff gets to talk about Matt Calvert some more.

Mike and Matt over at The Cannon asked us seven questions about our team, and you can head over there to see my responses. Feel free to correct me over in the comments. We had seven questions of our own for them, and they've kindly obliged. Without further adieu...

BSH: The Jackets have a lot of competition in Columbus when it comes to sports, thanks to the presence of Ohio State athletics. But beyond Columbus, and as the only NHL team in the state of Ohio, do the Jackets have a presence in the rest of the state? Do they market themselves in Cincinnati and Toledo and Cleveland and everywhere in between?

The Cannon: That's a good question. The team certainly has a fan presence through the state (I know quite a few people, some of them even season ticket holders, who commute from Cleveland and Cincinnati for games), but their efforts to market the team have been average, at best. Radio coverage of games is fairly hit or miss outside the Columbus Metro area, and the partner stations don't do a very good job of covering Northeastern Ohio (generally considered Penguins territory by the NHL) or the Toledo area, which tends to get lumped in with Detroit. A lot of fans outside of the Columbus area also frequently complain about not being able to get CBJ games on their cable packages because Fox Sports Ohio will often be showing Cleveland Cavaliers games instead.

This is actually something that was brought up at the
Season Ticket Holder meetings this summer, and Mike Priest, the team's president, seemed to imply that it's an area they intend to improve. They didn't want to market "at the expense" of some of Ohio's other struggling teams, but I think we will see the team make a greater effort to court fans from around the entire state.

Another way the team could improve their marketing would be to look at partnering with more minor league hockey teams in the state (Columbus hasn't had an in-state affiliate since they broke it off with the ECHL's Dayton Bombers a few years ago), which could be a real possibility next season when the AHL's Lake Erie Monsters come up for a renewal or change with their current affiliation with Colorado. The ECHL's Cincinnati Cyclones also just ended a long association with Montreal - and while they have shifted to working with Nashville and Florida, it would be a great move for the Jackets to partner with them as well.

Much more after the jump.

2. R.J. Umberger has a Flyers tattoo. A) Does this bother you at all? And B) do you guys love him as much as most Flyers fans still do?

A) Not at all. Lots of guys do stupid stuff right out of College. :)

B) Absolutely. The only reason R.J. isn't the most popular player in town is that Rick Nash was here before he was. He's been a warrior on the ice, an incredible leader off the ice, and settled back into the community almost immediately. Obviously there are some people that like him just because of the Ohio State connection (there are people in this town that would profess their undying love for a telephone pole if you painted it Scarlet and Grey), but most fans root for him because of the way he lays everything out onto the ice.

Another CBJ blog, Dark Blue Jacket, gave Umberger a glowing
review/preview recently, and I agree with pretty much everything he said. I think Umberger is one of the team's most vital core players.

3. Speaking of former Flyers, let's talk Ken Hitchcock. Here, he's basically regarded as the guy who wasn't right to lead the young Flyers stars of today into the future. What's his legacy in Columbus?

I think his legacy is complicated. He's still very well respected in town, and he gets a lot of credit for being the coach to finally get the team into the post-season (even if it was a very short appearance), and (along with Scott Howson) cleaning up the mess that Doug MacLean left. He brought a lot of respectability to the team, and he was exactly what they needed at the time. (How many coaches get standing ovations when they're introduced before the game starts? Hitch was getting them almost every night in his first two seasons.) At the same time, the team really did crumble around him last season, and he burned a lot of goodwill very quickly with the way he tried to handle it.

If he does stay with Columbus in the front office for a few years, and keeps helping the team off the ice, his reputation will continue to recover, and he will be seen as one of the guys who really helped Columbus build themselves into a true contending NHL team.

4. Geoff Detweiler at BSH is obsessed with Matt Calvert. Is his obsession warranted, and in your eyes, what would it take for the Flyers to acquire him?

Well, I don't know if Geoff's level of obsession is quite warranted (the paper-mache doll he made and put in his bedroom, while a remarkable likeness, is a bit...over the top), I'd certainly call him one of Columbus' most interesting and exciting prospects right now.

Calvert has an incredible motor - he pushes himself to perform, and in juniors it seemed like he could translate that energy to the rest of his team as well. I know some people think that his scoring blitz in the WHL was as much his all-star linemates as it was Calvert, but I disagree. He's shown a great scoring touch during his prospect and training camp stays in Columbus (including the Traverse City tournaments), and he's never been afraid to get physical to make a play. I think that he's going to translate very, very well to the NHL.

If the Flyers wanted to acquire him, Columbus' biggest need is better puck-moving defensemen. Some kind of a deal that sent Calvert and a depth defenseman like Mark Methot or Grant Clitsome to the Flyers for a skilled puck mover (I doubt that Philly would move Braydon Coburn right now, but he'd be a fantastic fit in Columbus.)

5. Here's the obligatory Nikita Filatov question. What's the deal with him? What can you possibly expect from him after the mess he's been through? What do fans think of him, and more importantly, what do his teammates think of him?

I think the deal is that he's young, he's incredibly talented, and he was extremely frustrated by his situation last year. I think Hitch made some big mistakes with how he handled them, and both sides reacted poorly.

That said, I'm encouraged by what we've seen in the last few months. His discussions with Tyler Wright in Russia, his early return to Columbus, the fact that he's apparently been working out like a beast (by reports from the team, he's added over 15 pounds of muscle!), and the way he seems to be reaching out to both new head coach Scott Arniel and his teammates to mend fences is a good sign.

I think the fans are divided, but not sharply. I think there are people that will question his commitment to the team until we see him play a full season here in Columbus, and there are certainly fans who wished that Columbus had found a good trading partner this offseason to unload him and wash our hands of the problem. But there are also quite a few fans who look at his
insane offensive skills and are really excited to see what he can do in a system where he gets more than 5 minutes of ice time a night.

As to what his teammates think, I have no doubt that he needs to rebuild some trust. I'm sure that a lot of them were not pleased by his decision to return to Russia, or some of his comments in the Russian media, even if they were likely tweaked by the Russian press. I've no doubt that part of the reason he returned to town early was to work on bonding with his teammates again, and so far it seems to be working, but we won't really know until the season gets started

Ultimately, I think it's all up to Nikita. I think he was humbled by his experiences in Columbus and his later upsets with the Russian national team (being stripped of the captaincy at the WJC, being turned down for the World Championship team) and if he puts genuine effort into succeeding in the NHL this season, it will go a long way to repairing his reputation with the fans and the room.

6. What are the expectations for Steve Mason?

First and foremost, I think we expect Mason to have a better year. We've talked about how Mason's numbers kept improving last year after the Olympic break, particularly as the team's defense got their act together and Mason's goaltending coach, Dave Rook, gave him some "constructive ass-kicking." I don't think Mason will go back to being a shutout machine like he was in his rookie year, but I do believe we're going to see him put up respectable GAA and Save Percentage numbers. The biggest thing we need from Mason, aside from restoring his game, is to improve how he finishes his games - he was very weak in Shooutouts last year, and he had several games where he gave tying goals late.

I don't think that we need him to be superhuman - we just need him to be consistently good, and the rest will (hopefully) take care of itself.

7. Finally, I have a friend moving to Columbus (not true, but whatever). Could you list three good things and three bad things about the city for him?

The Good: 

1) There is a TON of stuff to do here. Columbus has fantastic music, art, and food scenes. There's a crazy amount of live theatre, and a lot of active social scenes doing all sorts of stuff around town. Even the suburbs are surprisingly active, though most of the night life does tend to be around the downtown metro area.
2) The community is great. The CBJ fanbase has been getting larger every year, but somehow we've still managed to keep a very close-knit atmosphere. At gatherings like the recent CannonFest, total strangers were quickly sitting down and chatting away remarkably quickly, and the crowds at CBJ hangouts like the R-Bar are incredibly welcoming, passionate, knowledgeable hockey fans who are always up for some puck talk.
3) Columbus is an incredible hub city. Want to go back to Philly for a visit? Hop on I-70E and drive. Want to go to Chicago? I-70W. Cleveland? I-71N. Nashville? 71S. You get the idea. Every major airline flies out of CMH, and there are a lot of non-stop service flights to DC, LA, NYC, Atlanta, Dallas, and similar destinations. About the only thing we don't have for the frequent traveller is rail service, and the "3C Connector" project that's in the works will be fixing that within a few years.
The Bad:

1) If you don't like college football, you will hate this town. Columbus lives, breathes, and eats Ohio State football. The Jackets have a surprisingly large fan base, the AAA Columbus Clippers have a quiet but strong following (and a gorgeous ballpark), and plenty of people in town have their favorite NFL, NBA, and other sports, but when it's OSU football season the entire city lives and dies by the Buckeyes, and OSU news coverage can easily squeeze out other local sports media without hardly trying. It's a constant background noise that you either learn to love or get driven insane by.
2) Our public transportation sucks. Columbus is a city where you need a car if you want to get around. Busing outside of the downtown area is spotty, at best, and god help you if you want to live in the suburbs and get into the city on COTA. They run a few routes in the morning and a few at the end of the work day, and that's it. One of the most frequent complaints about the city by visitors or people moving here is that it needs improved busing or light rail to help add more options and relieve congestion on the roads, especially during rush hours. Some day, it might even happen, but I wouldn't hold your breath.
3) Our weather is insane. Columbus is in a bizzarre weather "bubble" that tends to make things even more chaotic than the general Ohio stereotype. When people say "If you don't like the weather, wait 5 minutes", they aren't entirely kidding. In the last two days, we've gone from 100 degree heat to serious driving rain, from driving rain to a surprisingly chilly 65, to a pleasant 68 degrees, to Tornado Warnings. In the winter, it gets even more fun, with rain, sleet, freezing rain, snow, rain, flurries, rain, and white-out snow storms common within the space of a few weeks. Since I moved back to Columbus about 8 years ago, I've had the siding torn off my house by hurricane force winds, been buried so deep in snow that I couldn't get the front door open (Twice!), seen weeks where the temperature in Columbus was hotter than LA or Las Vegas, and seen a flash flood sweep up my street.  You seriously have to be prepared for anything. It's not just a zip code - it's an adventure!


Thanks of course to the guys at The Cannon for taking the time to answer our questions. Head over there and read our responses to theirs.