Much has been said about the Columbus Blue Jackets woeful beginning to the 2011-2012 season. Fans, journalists and bloggers have all tried to explain why this team, that was supposed to be so much better than last year, has the worst record in the entire NHL. What is wrong with this team? Some point to the many injuries, an underperforming Steve Mason and a sub par defensive corps as possible explanations. Others are claiming that the general talent level of the team is simply not high enough or that the club lacks the fire and grit needed to consistently perform well. The management including GM Scott Howson and president Mike Priest have also received their fair share of criticism, ranging from the many mismanaged draft picks and poor player development to Mr. Priest's perceived lack of hockey knowledge and few connections in the hockey world.
All of these explanations are definitely plausible but there is ultimately one person that is directly responsible for the performance of the team and that is the coach. As any coach with a loosing record Scott Arniel has not escaped the condemnation of unhappy fans, but has generally speaking been less criticized by the media. He is mostly referred to as a smart coach with a solid record in the AHL, and furthermore as a great guy who cares genuinely about his players. There have been a few negative comments about how he has handled the younger players’ development and juggled his lines, but overall the perception is that he has been unlucky with all the team injuries and suspensions and that he has not had enough time to implement his system fully. At a time when coach Arniel’s job seems to be in serious jeopardy, it may be appropriate to examine what his system has achieved for the Blue Jackets and if it is in fact true that the players have not yet fully grasped what he is trying to teach.
So far I have seen very few critical attempts from journalists or others to break down what the Scott Arniel system is and how that relates to what is happening on the ice. Maybe this is because no one wants to read about boring X’s and O’s, but I believe that if we are to find a kind of logic in the mess of underperforming disparate parts that currently is Blue Jackets hockey, then it may be a good place to start. Although the defensive side of Arniel’s system certainly needs a thorough analysis (3.71 goals against – 30th in the league), the most befuddling aspect of this team has arguably been the complete lack of scoring. After the busy summer of blockbuster trades it was widely believed that the team would be scoring a lot of goals, so it has come as a surprise that the team’s goals per game average of 2.21 this year (26th in the league) is even worse than last year’s 2.56 (24th in the league). So are the players not executing the system properly or could it be that the system itself is flawed and will not produce many goals?
Without going into too much detail about X’s and O’s the Scott Arniel offensive system is roughly based on three things. 1, Getting pucks deep with a two-man aggressive forecheck, otherwise referred to as the "dump and chase". 2, Strong play on the boards, with the purpose of creating a physical cycle game and to pin the opponents in their defensive zone. 3, Funneling as many shots on net as possible with traffic in front to screen the goalie and hopefully get some rebounds. So has this strategy been successful? Well, as strange as it sounds, by all statistical categories, other than goals scored, the players have executed the coach’s system to perfection. This year the Blue Jackets are leading the NHL in hits, are 3rd in takeaways, 24th in giveaways, 14th in shots on net and 4th in shots against. If there was a dump and chase stat I am certain they would dominate that thoroughly as well. In other words, this team is playing a physical brand of hockey that forces the other team into turning the puck over while rarely making the same mistake. They are also putting up more shots on net than their opponents while making them physically hurt with a large number of hits. What is there not to like?
Well, the one statistical area were the team is doing poorly is a very important one – goals per shot percentage. In this area the team have consistently been in the bottom five of the NHL in the last couple seasons and this year they are 29th out of 30 teams at a lowly 7.2%. So why is this? Are they lacking pure finishers, are they not getting to enough rebounds or is there something about throwing the puck at the net at every possible opportunity that possibly negates quality scoring chances. Although there are some stats tracking quality scoring chances, I personally believe that these stats are not yet very accurate in grading what kind of scoring chance was created. For instance when Derek Dorsett shoots the puck from 30 feet straight into the pads of the goalie on a 2 on 1 situation, it counts equally to Daniel Sedin finding a perfect cross-ice seam for his brother Henrik for an open goal tap-in. So why is this distinction important? Well, if you have a coach who believes that any shot is a good shot and the players fully buy into that strategy, the cross-ice pass for an open goal will simply never happen. Sure, when you go east-west instead of north-south you always take the risk of the pass getting picked off and the opposing team counterattacking, especially if you have your wingers forechecking deeply into the offensive zone. However, throwing the puck randomly at the net can also lead to a turnover without the high percentage scoring opportunity created by the pass.
These examples are obviously hypothetical but I think they illustrate the need for a creative passing game in the NHL today. There is a reason that the Bluejackets are making the other goalie the star of the night so often, and in my view the reliance on dumping the puck and "stupid" shooting are the culprits. Teams that score a lot of goals today simply have a great passing game and it starts with holding on to the puck and yes, sometimes passing the puck east-west. Another reason the Scott Arniel "shoot first mentality" is not working for him like it did in the AHL, is that the goalies in the NHL are so big, athletic and well coached that they can easily save shots that are thrown directly at them while also controlling the rebounds. Therefore the idea, often put forth but Arniel himself, that the team needs to focus more on getting to the "hard areas" for rebounds are negated by the fact that the goalies don’t give up any rebounds or push them away from the goal. To score a lot of goals consistently, you therefore have to make the goalie move laterally, preferably very quickly, or to confuse the goalie by screens, which is more difficult than it sounds, or by passing the puck from behind the net into the slot so that the goalie looses track of the puck (Mason anyone). How often do the Jackets score goals this way, other than the occasional screen, or let alone create good scoring chances by creative passing? If there are any stats on how passing creates scoring and comparing it to other teams I would love to know, but until then let’s just say I can only remember two cross ice passes for the Jackets leading to goals this year, both incidentally involving Vinny Prospal. If you have ever watched highlights of other hockey teams you know that they frequently score goals by great passing sequences, and if you only watch the Bluejackets games you know that the opposing teams score this way on us all the time.
The shoot first mentality also makes it very easy for the opposing defense to read the Blue Jackets’ intentions. They know that they never have to worry about taking away the passing lanes and can therefore focus on blocking the shot or letting the goalie get a clear view and "box out" in front of the goalie to not allow rebounds. So what about the fact that this team leads the NHL in takeaways? Doesn’t that produce a lot of quality scoring chances? Unfortunately, those takeaways tend to happen along the boards of the offensive zone on the two-man forecheck, while the other team has several players already in their defensive zone, because they know that they can’t leave their two d-men alone when the Jackets are coming after them hard on the forecheck. This kind of takeway, that generally leads to some unproductive cycling in the offensive zone, is vastly different than the takeaway in the neutral zone that creates a 2 on 1 or a 3 on 2 situation with lots of open ice. And yes, other teams score a lot of goals on 2 on 1s and 3 on 2s but the Bluejackets don’t because their shoot first mentality is so incredibly predictable.
Although I am not going to write about the defensive zone coverage (where would you even begin to break down the Blue Jackets’ miscues), I feel that the two-man forecheck does sometimes put the defense in an awkward position. This is largely due to the stretched out distance between the forechecking wingers and the defense which makes the center solely responsible for backchecking to help out the defense, while also having to be part of the cycle and getting to the net for screens and rebounds. The offense therefore tends to get caught too deeply in the offensive zone causing counterattacking opportunities for the other team. The only way to offset this is for the defense to be mobile and bold enough to pinch in aggressively, but seeing that slow and indecisive better describe them, the results have been less than ideal. The forwards meanwhile, having spent considerable energy chasing the puck in the offensive zone, are now out of gas and slow to help out with the backcheck, which further exacerbates the situation. The already infamous Philadelphia game was a perfect showcase for everything that could go wrong with Arniel’s system in this regard, although it would be unfair to blame that travesty on this alone.
So are there any other issues with Coach Arniel’s system that may be affecting the team’s performance? I believe that the two-man forechecking system with low percentage shooting is furthermore physically and mentally exhausting. Not only must it be difficult to see the other goalie making easy save after easy save, but the high intensity forechecking has led to third period fatigue (the team is 28th in winning games after having a two periods lead) and some back to back game meltdowns. All of this has created a pattern of not scoring enough goals and loosing too many games that the Blue Jackets seem to otherwise dominate. Simply put, coach Arniel’s offensive system is very physically and mentally demanding without little chance of producing goals. So does this team and the fans deserve another coach – maybe, I don’t know. Do they deserve another system - you bet!