The Fuse: It's Okay To Be Optimistic, Buffa-What?, and Breaking Out the Brooms Ain't So Easy

By Rob Mixer on April 21, 2017 at 5:30a
Boone Jenner
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Around these parts, we’ll do our best to give you everything you need to know about the Columbus Blue Jackets. We’ll also fill you in on the stories you may not have heard about (or those you didn’t think you need to know about), the social media buzz around the league, along with a few random nuggets for good measure.

Think of it as your morning coffee with a shot of Blue Jackets talk.

 GAME 5 POST-MORTEM: It seems like Blue Jackets fans fell into one of two categories after last night’s loss in Game 5, ending their season. Either you’re excited about the “ahead of schedule” season this young team had, or you’re ready and willing to point fingers and tell everyone who will listen that it wasn’t good enough.

Here’s the truth: it was pretty damn good.

Here’s another truth: when you get to the playoffs, every team is good. The Blue Jackets were playing one of the top 1-2 teams in the tournament in their first-round series, a team that won the whole thing a year ago. You can talk about the regular season all you want and how the Blue Jackets played against Pittsburgh, but the reality is that they were running into a buzzsaw before the series even began. They got the worst hand in the deck.

Doesn’t mean it’s not disappointing to lose. Of course it is. But to label this season as a failure is not only ridiculous, it’s really hilariously ridiculous.

If we can just understand this much, we’ll be ok: one team wins the Stanley Cup every year. It’s hard as hell to get the job done. The Blue Jackets are young, they’re talented, and they will get another crack at it.

These guys give a damn:

 BUFFA-WHOA: One of the more bizarre storylines in the NHL this week was the “controversy” surrounding Buffalo Sabres superstar Jack Eichel. There have been long-swirling rumors about his unhappiness with the organization, and specifically with head coach Dan Bylsma, who had been on the hotseat for the better part of a year. This is the same Bylsma who expertly guided the Pittsburgh Penguins from  mid-season mess to Stanley Cup champion in the course of a few months just a few years ago…but obviously, because the Sabres aren’t winning right away in this massive rebuild means Bylsma forgot how to coach.

So what did the Sabres do, 24 hours after Eichel had to publicly come out and dump cold water on the Bylsma speculation? Well, the Sabres fired Bylsma. They fired their GM, Tim Murray, in the same announcement. Never a dull moment at KeyBank Center, is there?

The Sabres have a talented nucleus of players and Eichel is the face of the franchise. They have a patchwork defense that isn’t good enough to compete, and they have a mystifying allegiance to Rasmus Ristolainen, a former first-round pick/hulking defenseman who has skill but lacks the ability to drive play in any fashion.

Terry Pegula, the billionaire owner of the Sabres and Buffalo Bills, is entering a tumultuous time as the leader of Buffalo sports. He’s a lifelong fan of both teams and was hailed as a savior when he and wife Kim purchased the Sabres in Feb. 2011, but his next head coach will be his fourth since that transaction. He bought the Bills for $1.4 billion in 2014, and also was the primary economic source behind Penn State hockey’s jump from club level to Division I.

He has money, yes, but now he’s under pressure to deliver at least one home-run hire (maybe two) atop hockey operations that puts the Sabres on track to win.

What can’t help matters for loyal Sabres fans is looking a few hours north to see the rival Toronto Maple Leafs, who are reaping the benefits of a shorter rebuild right now.

 SWEEPS ARE HARD:

Through three games of first-round playoff action, the Pittsburgh Penguins, St. Louis Blues, Anaheim Ducks and Nashville Predators all owned 3-0 leads over their opponents. That’s pretty insane considering the competitive balance that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman repeatedly touts in his public appearances, but perhaps the league’s dumb playoff format has something to do with it? We may never know.

What we do know is how hard it is to complete a four-game sweep. Without going too deep in the weeds here, the simple explanation is that teams are too good to lose four in a row, especially in the playoffs where home ice is perceived to be the ultimate hammer. Only one of those teams – Anaheim over Calgary – was able to complete the sweep before Nashville joined the club and pulled off its shocking white-wash of the Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday night at Bridgestone Arena.

The Blue Jackets played their best game of the series with their backs against the wall in Game 4, but the story hasn’t necessarily been the same for Minnesota. The Wild have out-shot, out-possessed and, for some periods of time, flat out-played the Blues but St. Louis goalie Jake Allen has been an unlikely hero to this point. Allen was a lightning rod for criticism in the regular season when the Blues were going through a goalie crisis, but he’s been their MVP through four games as they hold a 3-1 lead over the favored Wild.

 MAKING THE JUMP: College hockey coaches leaving NCAA jobs for the NHL is hardly as common as football or basketball, but some teams are giving more and more consideration to the idea. Before Bylsma was fired by the Sabres, the conversation focused on David Quinn, who was Eichel’s college coach at Boston University and has a strong relationship with the player.

The Philadelphia Flyers surprised a lot of people when they hired North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol two years ago. Hakstol has had limited success with the Flyers, but he’s likely to return for a third season in 2017-18 and hope for a healthier and more consistent club.

Nashville Predators assistant Phil Housley, who coached high school hockey in Minnesota before being named head coach of the U.S. World Junior team in 2013, is gaining steam as a head coaching candidate this summer after spending a few years as an NHL assistant.

Mike Babcock played at McGill University in Montreal before getting his first head coaching job with Red Deer College in Alberta in 1988. After leaving for the Maple Leafs two years ago, Babcock was replaced in Detroit by Jeff Blashill, who had a brief but successful run as the head coach at Western Michigan University.

Those are just a few examples, but their track record has been pretty solid. It shouldn’t be a surprise that NHL teams are again rumored to be knocking on the door of successful NCAA coaches, and the latest is Jim Montgomery.

Montgomery just won a national title with Denver University and has been considered for NHL jobs before, reportedly interviewing with Calgary last year and currently being considered by the LA Kings. But his name has been linked to the Florida Panthers for a few weeks now, after Panthers GM Dale Tallon was spotted at the Frozen Four in Chicago.

 ICYMI: Congratulations to 19-year-old wonder Zach Werenski for earning a Calder Trophy nomination ... There was some third-period controversy last night, and it may have tilted the ice in the opposite direction ... John Tortorella was quite reflective in his post-game press conference, saying the Blue Jackets have grown a lot this season and he can't wait to start training camp.

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