8 games into a lockout shortened season, Howson’s (and Patrick’s) "reshaped" Blue Jackets are 2-5-1 (5 points), which is currently good for 15th place in the Western conference. Two weeks of play may not be big enough of a sample to fully understand what the identity of this team is, but there are some trends that are too obvious to ignore. Let’s have a look at the numbers and what they might mean.
Goals for – 1.62 (29th in the league), goals against – 3.12 (20th), 5 on 5 play (29th), PP% - 13.2% (24th), PK% - 83.3% (10th), shots per game - 27.1 (27th), shots per game against – 30.8 (20th), faceoff % 46.8% (26th), average penalty minutes per game – 19 (27th), PP opportunities - 38 (3rd) PP shots – 63 (1st), hits – 188 (5th), blocked shots – 88 (23rd), missed shots – 85 (9th), giveaways – 31 (29th), takeaways - 29 (27th), save percentage – Bobrovsky .907, Mason .895.
I will be the first to say that stats do not always accurately paint a complete picture, but it would be naïve to dismiss them completely as well. The difficult task is to interpret what the numbers mean, especially since all of us have our strong opinions about how hockey should be played and who/what is to blame if our team under-performs. Since the Blue Jackets have been losing more than they have been winning, there have been many attempts by fans, media, coaches and players to describe what is wrong and what the team can and should do better. Here are some of the comments I have heard recently. "We need to be more physical and play harder", "we need to shoot the puck more on the powerplay", "we can’t turn the puck over so much", "we don’t have enough talent up front" and my own personal favorite "Mason sucks". All of these comments are valid in certain situations, but let’s see how they stack up against the stats.
Hard to play against
John Davidson has used the phrase "we will never be outworked", which is about as cliché as it gets, although when he says it I tend to believe him for some reason. So far his promise is holding true as evidenced by the team being one of the most physical teams in the league. They are 5th in hits and there are only 3 teams with more penalty minutes per game. The opposing team is also forced to take a lot of penalties as the CBJ have had the 3rd most PP chances. The 2013 Blue Jackets are a gritty bunch and it clearly shows in the stats. I really don’t think they could play any tougher without hurting themselves with even more penalties.
Fortunately one of the only bright spots this year has been the PK (10th), which is much improved from last year’s 30th ranking. I personally think that the addition of Anisimov and Dubinsky has been very beneficial in this regard. It’s often said that the PK gives a good indication of a team’s work ethic and I would definitely give them a high grade for effort. They could improve the shot blocking stat, but the risk of injuries in a shortened season might not make it worth it.
The powerplay execution has left many fans upset and with just cause. With our puck moving, hard shooting defensemen you would expect the PP to be humming. So what’s lacking? Many fans have been screaming for us to shoot the puck more and that’s never a bad thing right? Well, the fact is that we are shooting the puck more than any other team in the league, but with very little to show for it. To me this is simple. We have been much too predictable and our puck movement has been seriously lacking. The opposing team will simply keep their PK forwards high and get in the shooting lanes of our point men, fully knowing that our three forwards down low will not score.
The way to counter this is of course to move the puck quickly high to low, so that our wingers can exploit the gaps of the PK unit. Unfortunately, we no longer have wingers like Nash or Huselius who might pose a real danger for the defending team, so we have to make do with what we have. Since we are also missing the net a lot (9th), I think we can expect our PP to continue to be frustrating to watch. To be a good PP team you have to be a threat from the point as well as from the forward positions.
One comment that I have heard a lot this year from both the fans and the media is that this team has been guilty of too many turnovers, or giveaways as we say in hockey. There is not doubt that we have witnessed some ugly giveaways, but how do we compare to other teams in this category?
If I was surprised by a single stat, I have to admit that this was it. Apparently the Blue Jackets are the second best team in the NHL in limiting their giveaways, but they are also not forcing many takeaways (27th). This is a group of players that do not take unnecessary risks with the puck, although I find this category to be somewhat misleading. Coach Richards’ system is essentially based on the "dump and chase" and isn’t that just an organized way of handing the opposition the puck? I also have to question why we are not any better at taking the puck from the other team. If we are truly the heavy forechecking team that has been advertised, shouldn’t the constant puck pursuit and frequent hits result in a better takeaway stat?
The only stat in hockey that really matters is the wins/loss number and you can’t win unless you score more goals than the other guys. It is therefore quite discomforting to see how dismal the CBJ are at scoring this year. We all know that we are seriously lacking high-end forward talent right now, but there was some hope that the "scoring by committee" approach would overcome the loss of Nash, Carter and Vermette. Well, so far it’s not working and 1.62 goals per game will bring us nothing but a higher chance of winning the draft lottery.
So what is the problem? In one word – talent. We have very little in terms of snipers or playmakers and our gritty style is not enough to overcome that fact. Our shot totals indicate that we are being outshot 30.8 to 27.1, and while that is not insignificant, it doesn’t explain the huge goal for/against differential (1.62 for-3.12 against). Although I have no stat to back up this claim, I would be willing to bet that we don’t create nearly as many scoring chances as the other teams. Getting to the so called "hard/dirty areas", using screens and fighting harder for rebounds are some solutions that may help, but I don’t see us scoring more than one or two goals a game this way (1.62 to be exact).
In addition, the defense has looked shaky and the goaltending has not been nearly good enough to negate the lack of scoring. For this team to win, they will need a perfect game from Bobrovsky or Mason and so far Bob has only been able to steal a couple of them. And yes, Mason’s save percentage of .895 is not nearly good enough for an NHL goalie, although he has looked better as of late. A 1.62 goals for average is just too great to overcome on a consistent basis for any goalie. The reason that we are constantly chasing the game is not because our guys aren’t trying hard enough, or not playing the full "60 minutes" (a myth if you ask me), but simply because we score much less often than the other team.
Overall the stats accurately describe a Blue Jackets team that competes hard, but is very low on high-end talent, especially at the forward positions. I just don’t see any chance for them to surprise us with a playoff appearance, nor do I think it would be helpful to the team’s long-term development at this point. We have some good things going for us though. There are several prospects that are starting to showcase their talents in Columbus as well as in Springfield, Juniors and overseas. We also have 3 first round picks and an early (most likely) 2nd rounder in a very deep draft year.
And most importantly we have John Davidson who knows how to develop a last finish team into an NHL powerhouse. I am guessing that JD will use this shortened season to properly take an inventory of his assets and then push the reset button. If JD wants to conduct a fire sale for more draft picks and prospects, I will be in his corner cheering him on all the way. As tough as it may be, we are in for a long rebuilding project, which is exactly what the stats are indicating. One brick at a time…