New Leadership Emerging
Nash, Klesla, Leclaire take the reins as Blue Jackets hit stretch run
In the days leading up to this year's trade deadline, Jackets' Head Coach Ken Hitchcock suggested that teams that make significant moves tend to move in one of two directions – up or down. Rarely, he said, do things remain status quo.
So it's understandable Hitchcock had concerns when his former captain Adam Foote and a likely Hall-of-Famer in Sergei Fedorov made their way out of Columbus. The Edmonton Oilers were a prime example of what can happen to a club when heart-and-soul players leave – Edmonton won just two games the rest of the 2006-07 season after trading career Oiler Ryan Smyth at last year's deadline.
Hitchcock was hoping to avoid such a fate for his young team, though a decisive loss to San Jose the day after the trades raised some flags. An inspirational, if not productive, road trip out West, however, has given the coach and the entire roster a dose of optimism.
"Our biggest fear was that we were going to be put in an Edmonton situation from last year and we were scared of that," says Hitchcock. "Especially what happened in the second half of the game against San Jose, we were really nervous that, boy, we don't want this to happen, we can't afford for this to happen.
"It was pretty impressive to see these guys regroup so quickly. It gives you a good feeling moving forward."
Maybe a three-game trek to western Canada was just what the Jackets needed. While the team lost a couple of veterans who gave a presence to the team in the room and on the ice, there has been no shortage of young players ready to fill the void. Columbus may look different than it did prior to the deadline but after a tough loss to the Sharks at home, the road offered a place where the new-look team could galvanize itself.
"Losing some key guys that had control of the room, it was nice to get on the road and get that back," says Rick Nash, one of the Jacket players shouldering more of the load. "We've had some new guys step up. It was good to be on the road but we're happy to be home now.
"It's tough to see those guys go," he adds of Foote and Fedorov. "But they were two players of 24 or 25 guys. It's not the end of the world. I think it's good, it's exciting for other guys to pick up Footer's minutes and also for more guys like myself to take more control in the dressing room, more of a leadership role."
Nash is obviously the go-to guy in Columbus but his role is expanding. It's already noticeable on the ice. With the "A" on his chest, the Brampton, Ontario native has become a bit more vocal, be it with teammates or officials. But more talking isn't so much of a concern for Hitchcock.
"We're increasing expectations on him from a play standpoint and I think that's where we want to focus," he says, adding that Nash wants to eventually be the captain of the club. "We don't really need him to be overly vocal. He's going to have to just fill in that role as he sees fit or more importantly, as he feels comfortable.
"The big challenge for him is to elevate his game as we're getting closer and closer to who's going to be in the playoffs."
"There's no question that Rick's our leader," says Pascal Leclaire, another young player who forms the core of the team. "He's our top guy and he sets the pace so it's up to us to follow him."
While Nash has been dominant of late, other Jackets have been making contributions to the team's new leadership structure. The top defensive unit of Rostislav Klesla and Jan Hejda have already emerged as a strong shutdown tandem, a role Hejda had with Foote for most of the season. Their play has had a steadying effect on the team, which aside from 10 minutes at the end of a road loss to the Oilers, collectively played what Hitchcock calls arguably three of their best road games of the year.
"There's another gear that they went to which has been pretty exciting for us," Hitchcock says of Hejda and Klesla. "We didn't think that this was possible this quickly but that's what happened. Jan and Rusty have really taken on the responsibility that Hejda and Foote had and they've really excelled.
"To adjust so quickly was pretty surprising. They had a tough outing the first game together against San Jose and then that last three, they've played really, really well together."
Klesla's continued evolution will be critical to any success the Blue Jackets have this season and beyond. He's been reliable and durable all season, joining Nikolai Zherdev and Jason Chimera as the only Jackets to have played in every game this season. Klesla entered the league with a reputation as an offensive-minded player based on the solid numbers he put up with the Brampton Battalion of the Ontario Hockey League. But now in his sixth full season with Columbus, Hitchcock sees the 25-year-old defenseman (he will be 26 on March 21) rounding into a solid two-way player than can log heavy minutes in any situation.
Klesla, like Nash, has stepped up.
"Really what happened here is that we traded Foote and Fedorov and then Modin went down right away so you're really left with a bunch of young guys," says Hitchcock. "He's really one of the oldest of the young guys. He's the guy who's had the most seasons here. Him and Nash are really the two guys that have been here the longest.
"They've accepted the responsibility. They're still learning what to say at the right time but I think the big thing for us is that he (Klesla) has elevated his game to another level, which has really helped us."
The team's initial response to a potentially disastrous situation has shown there is reason to be happy. But Hitchcock says there is plenty of work to be done. The power play is still a sore spot and it never seems like there's enough scoring in general, something recent call up Joakim Lindstrom is supposed to help remedy. And a good three-game road trip doesn't mean the team is a contender, especially when only three of a possible six points were had despite the effort.
"It's all about end results right now," says Hitchcock. "At this time of year, you can't live on good play, you've got to live on points."
Still, Columbus is six points from a playoff spot, which isn't lost on the Jackets and their new young leaders. Leclaire says the mood in the room is good and that a continued emphasis on sound, defensive hockey this last month of the regular season is a must.
"It's that time of the year," says the NHL's shutout leader, "and we want to keep going."
Nash, who is appropriately sporting a new short look in the hair department, says that despite losing some key components, he is ecstatic Columbus is in the Western Conference race.
"We've just got to go on a streak and the most exciting thing is we can do it at home," he says of the upcoming busy schedule at Nationwide Arena. "We have lots of home games left. We're excited in the dressing room.
"If we get on a streak and win a couple games at home we'll be right in it."
That's the direction Hitchcock likes to see his team going.