It's hard to imagine, but we're already through a month of this hectic, crazy season. Last night's tilt against Edmonton was the 12th game of the 48-game schedule, which puts Columbus at the quarter-season mark. They're currently sitting at 3-7-2, good for eight points and the bottom spot in both the Central Division and the Western Conference.
In a vacuum, that's clearly not very good. But, to add a tiny bit of context, last season was the worst season ever in the history of seasons, and that team was 2-9-1 (five points) through 12 games. Considering the circumstances--roster turnover, a lockout, no pre-season--a three-point improvement isn't horrible.
But, for me, this season was never about the record. It was about two things: changing the overall culture of this franchise, and identifying the players that should stick around going forward. It can be a bit of a moving target in the context of the circumstances I touched on above, but I think we're starting to get a clearer picture of things as we move into the second quarter of the season.
The Lens of Expectations
This is where I may differ with a lot of Blue Jackets fans. I think I have to be up-front in saying that, going into this season I had almost no expectations about this team being competitive over the long haul. To me, what made last season so completely deplorable was the weight of expectations. I'll admit it: I bought in from the start. And so, with that in mind, my expectations were so low coming into this crazy season that I'm not even that upset about where they sit in the standings.
In my one season preview piece breaking down the roster, I noted that:
...[this] also just might be a roster built from the back out that has a better chance of staying in games and scoring some timely goals to get some wins.
That was a pretty glass-half-full way of saying that I thought this team wouldn't be very good. It was clear that the Jackets were going to rely on defense, and hope that hard work and effort would mask a lack of scoring talent and reward them some nights into some wins.
And, in truth, that's exactly what we've seen. When the Jackets are winning games (three, by my count), they've done so by holding their opponents to minimal chances and relied on strong goal-tending. In their three wins, they've allowed just 4 goals. It's not a coincidence.
However, the rub has been that the defense has been a walking infirmary for a large stretch of the season thus far. Four of the six defensemen that started the season have seen some time on the shelf for injuries: Nikita Nikitin, James Wisniewski, John Moore, and Adrian Aucoin. When you have so many games crammed so close together, there's a two-fold effect there: new guys don't get practice time to jell, and minor injuries cost a player more games than in a normal season.
So, to me, it's not a surprise that the Jackets have three wins and seven regulation losses. As I said in the comments of many of our Seismology pieces, this team is EXACTLY what I thought they'd be, given my expectations and the contexts of player injuries and the schedule.
I also wanted to highlight some of the players against my expectations:
Mark Letestu - Test Tube is the player who has taken the new opportunity for ice time and run with it the furthest. He spent the first two games in the press box, and then has done nothing but impress in his work through the next 10 games. He's tied for the team lead in goals (4), and is playing in all three phases of the game. He's earning everything he's getting, too.
Artem Anisimov - He's here mainly because I had little to no expectations for him, having not seen him play very much. The thought from some Rangers fans that we've talked to is that he was unfairly buried on New York's depth chart, and that with the right amount of ice time in the right situations, he could blossom. I think we're seeing that, as Arty has four goals and an assist so far.
Matt Calvert - For me, Calvert was a bit of a wild card. Were we going to see the 2011, rookie version with no quit in his engine and a nose for the net? Or were we going to see last year's Calvert who endured what could be called a sophomore slump? I tend to think we're seeing the former to this point.
RJ Umberger - Notorious for slow starts, Umby probably didn't do himself any favors by not playing during the lockout (though it must be noted that how he DID spend his time was a very positive influence to some young hockey players). He's looked slow, tired, disengaged at times, and it took him 12 games to net a goal. We'll see if that can get him going. But, to say he's done anything but disappoint thus far wouldn't be telling the truth.
Controlled Chaos - James Wisniewski and Jack Johnson form a defensive pairing that can, in theory, light up the scoreboard while also causing tremendous white-knuckle panic on defense. Johnson has regressed to the mean in terms of his defensive numbers. They've combined for nine points (3G, 6A), which isn't horrible, and all three goals have come on the Power Play. But, they are a combined -11 through 12 games.
Goaltending - Yep, this is pretty much what I was planning on. Steve Mason has had good nights, bad nights, and looks like Steve Mason; I have no more use for him as a member of this franchise after the season. Sergei Bobrovsky has had great nights, bad nights, and is playing around where I think I thought he would be: he has potential, but he's still raw and still a work in progress. How Bob does over the next three quarters of the season will help me get a better sense of how I feel about him long-term.
Brandon Dubinsky - This is a weird one. I was a vocal opponent to him being included in the Nash trade. However, while he's scoring less than I thought he would, I completely underestimated what he brings to the table defensively and especially on the PK. So, he's right around where I thought he'd be, though admittedly in different shades.
Nick Foligno - This is exactly the guy that was expected. I honestly don't need to write anymore about him. While Marc Methot might have helped when defensemen were dropping like flies, that trade is still a win-win for me (as in, a good move for both teams).
Cam Atkinson - Cam got off to a good start, with a nice goal in the second game of the season. But, he's been battling a nagging ankle injury since the season started, and has only played three games. He's starting to skate with the team, so hopefully he's finally healing and will be back soon.
Tim Erixon - Pressed into service due to the aforementioned onslaught of defensive injuries, Erixon has played in the team's last five games. So far, he has two points and is +1 in 13:01 of ice time per game. Not too bad, but not enough of a sample size to get a good read of him in NHL action.
So, what do you all think? In the comments, let us know how this team is performing compared to your initial expectations (before the season started, not after those first two games). Also, highlight a player or two that is either exceeding your expectations, or failing them entirely.