What the Blue Jackets Can Learn from the Columbus Crew

By Sam Blazer on December 14, 2020 at 8:07 am
 Columbus Crew defender Jonathan Mensah (4) hoists the MLS Cup trophy with his teammates after their 3-0 win over the Seattle Sounders in the MLS Cup at MAPFRE Stadium.
Joseph Maiorana - USA Today Sports

First off, congratulations to the 2020 MLS Cup champions, the Columbus Crew.

Now that we got that out of the way, you're wondering why soccer is being discussed on a hockey website. Well, taking a look under the hood of the Crew, they aren't all that different than the Blue Jackets. In all actuality, there is a blueprint that you can take and apply to the NHL. It actually looks like the team building is strikingly similar.

Start Building From The Back End

The Crew played well in front of goalkeeper Eloy Room yesterday but all year long, when healthy he was a stalwart that calmed the team down when things mattered most. Now tell me, what does that sound like? 

The Blue Jackets are consistently and constantly drafting goaltenders that are making headway and are being developed to play in the NHL. Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo are number one goaltender options in this league. It allows a team to build and focus on other parts of the team if you have a strong backbone.

Similarly, defensively, the Crew relied upon a minute eating center back in Jonathan Mensah that was a steady leader all year long. Do I even have to draw the parallel here? Seth Jones is the number one defenseman for the Blue Jackets and has chewed up minutes for the Blue Jackets in a way that the franchise has never seen before. He is truly special and a franchise cornerstone. There is not a lot to worry about with the Blue Jackets defensive corps and how they have performed. The back end is special and has talent in each pairing.

Stick To Your System

Head coach Caleb Porter joined the Crew after the prior coach Gregg Berhalter went to coach the U.S. Men's National Team. The first thing he did when he took over the team, was the fact that he did not reinvent the wheel. It actually looked a lot like what Berhalter did before. A lot of it was possession focused and simple passing was expected. As players came and went, he tinkered and changed his system to allow for a formation that stayed the same yet put players in different positions in the field. It allowed for more effective play, which a coach at any level can appreciate.

If you talk to anyone in the NHL, John Tortorella has a system. He wants you to forecheck and he wants you to do it with nearly reckless abandon. He also wants you to have a strong defensive game to go with it. The most interesting part of how Tortorella coaches is the fact that he is also malleable, he is not rigid in how he approaches the game and if he can take advantage of the weaknesses of other teams he will. His handling of Artemi Panarin and his activation of defenseman in the offensive game.

The best coaches in the game can adjust to what they see in front of them and the Blue Jackets have a proven Stanley Cup-winning coach on their bench. A Stanley Cup can be won with Tortorella behind the bench and leading this team.


Taking Your Shot

So what can the Blue Jackets actually learn from the Crew? The parallels between players and coaches can be made all day long but the most fascinating part about the two sides is the chances they took on players.

Crew forward Gyasi Zardes was a cast-off from the Los Angeles Galaxy who was being played in a position he wasn't comfortable in. Zardes had a good pedigree and plenty of talent but it took someone believing in his ability to really let it all come into frame.

Lucas Zelarayan was playing for a Tigres team in Liga MX that had him riding the bench for a vast majority of his time because he was in his coach's dog house. Nonetheless, the Crew spent a club-record fee to get him on the team.

The Crew took their shot in getting someone like Zelarayan on the team and now after the MLS Cup, he is the Cup MVP.

The Blue Jackets took that shot a couple of years ago. They had a stunning league talent in Artemi Panarin that in hindsight may have been underrated in the moment. They tried to build around him at the deadline by making trades including bringing in Ryan Dzingel and Matt Duchene to shore up any offensive flaws. It didn't work, the Blue Jackets lost and the players all left, yet it shows that the team will take a shot when they need to. They will pay what they need to pay to get to the highest level of the game. 

Looking at how the Blue Jackets are built, they aren't a team that is rebuilding on the fly, offensively though, they are in flux. They have a new cornerstone in (unsigned RFA) Pierre-Luc Dubois and they are trying to find a player that can take the team to the next level. That can come within the ranks of the team or it can come via free agency, the Blue Jackets though shouldn't take their failed run at the Cup as a sign that it was a mistake.

In fact, like the Crew, they should see the risk and run into it. The greatest risk in life is not taking one and the Blue Jackets haven't shown that they are averse to taking a chance. Who knows, taking a chance may just result in Columbus hoisting the Stanley Cup.

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