Balancing Act

One of the interesting patterns I noticed when looking at games played in the pre-season and early regular season of this year's Blue Jackets was the changes to ice time.

Players that one would expect to see loads of ice time (Nash, Vermette, Tyutin) were still getting minutes, but not at the sometimes staggering levels we saw at certain points last year (remember that Nash had a -28 minute- game last season, and that his ATOI for the season was nearly 22 minutes a night, higher than any other forward). Players who one might not expect to see as much ice time (Dorsett, Boll, MacKenzie, etx) came in with more. Even the defense, who would normally be minute-munchers, were given a bit of an adjustment.

It's part of the message that has come down in the Arniel system: Everyone is expected to be equally responsible on the ice, and players get a chance to fill their roles.

I decided to wait a few games, see how it played out, and then compare it to last season. I decided that 18 games, while not exactly a quarter of the season, was close enough for these purposes. 

One of the most notable factors in the recent West Coast trip was the energy level shown by the Jackets - in fact, with the exception of their sole road loss in Colorado, a high energy level has characterized many of the games outside of Nationwide. Some of that can be credited to improved conditioning and leadership from the new coaching staff, but it seems likely that the more balanced ice time is also a major factor, given that it allows players to contribute without feeling overworked or underutilized.

I tried to select several forwards and d-men who were on the roster this year and last year at this point in the season, and played as many of the first quarter as possible, which meant that guys like Mike Commodore or Kristian Huselius were out. I also omitted Nikita Filatov since his departure to the KHL came during the same period, particularly since his (lack of) playing time was such a big issue in that affair.

Just for fun, and to show the expanded role of the fourth line, I also threw Derek MacKenzie in as well, since he did spend some time in Columbus last November.

Player

2009-10

2010-11

Change

Jared Boll

5:30

7:24

+ 1:56

Derick Brassard

14:36

16:20

+ 1:44

Derek Dorsett

10:51

13:15

+ 2:24

Rick Nash

20:44

17:52

- 2:52

Samuel Pahlsson

15:22

16:14

+ :52

R.J. Umberger

19:15

18:11

- 1:04

Antoine Vermette

17:45

17:36

- :09

Jakub Voracek

15:48

16:07

+ :19

Derek MacKenzie

9:40

11:04

+1.24

Marc Methot

19:30

20:49

+ 1:19

Kris Russell

15:37

18:05

+ 2:58

Anton Stralman

17:49

20:11

+ 2:22

Fedor Tyutin

23:10

20:02

- 3:08

 

The most interesting player on that list, to my mind, is actually Sammy Pahlsson. His ice time is actually increasing - which implies that last season under Hitch, the player considered our main checking center was getting LESS time than he's seeing under Arniel. A change of 52 seconds per game doesn't sound like much, but consider that could be two or three shifts against an opponent's top line.

Jared Boll is another player seeing a benefit - particularly when you consider how many of his games last year essentially boiled down to "Skate around a shift or two. Get a couple of hits. Fight. Done." It's almost heartbreaking to look at a few of the early season matches in 2009-10, especially, where Boll had 2-3 minutes of ice time, 5-12 PIMs, and nothing else to show for it. Also consider that Boll's average is likely skewed even further by a pair of games where he played less than 45 seconds. 

Anyone else surprised that Jake Voracek's time didn't really change? It shows how much he was already being asked to step up last season - the additional 19 seconds basically amounts to one shift per game, more or less. 

Much of the drop in Nash's ice time goes hand in hand with the decision to take him off the PK (most of the time, anyhow), but it's interesting that this also balances his time much more closely with Vermette and Umberger, who were both asked to pick up some of that PK slack. 

The defense is another fascinating change - admittedly, Kris Russell's ice time lags a bit behind the others, but that's not too surprising with his early season injury concerns. But you begin to see how the defense corps under Arniel and Berry is being kept a bit more fresh and active by spreading these minutes. How many times last year did this team lose a lead late in a game? How many times were Tyutin, Klesla, or Hejda, typically "minute munchers", out on the ice for that blown coverage?

We talked about the role of better conditioning to help prevent games being lost in the third period, but the fact that key defensemen were being overworked, while players who might have been just as capable were left on the bench, certainly can not have helped. 

Last but not least, there's D-Mac. The gritty center saw 5 games in Columbus during the period we're looking at, mostly in early November.

Three of the forwards I chose to look at (Boll, Dorsett, MacKenzie) saw fourth line time during the early season (demotions for Brassard and Voracek came later) - Dorsett is the only one of the three who was likely to see more than ten minutes a game, and even then it was relatively rare. With Arniel, each has a larger role - and while Boll's ice time has not increased quite as much as the others, remember that some of Boll's average for this year has been skewed by injury. If he should stay healthy, and particularly if he continues to contribute offensively, it seems likely that he should continue to find more opportunities to play.

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