The Blue Jackets are a mess.
This is not shocking. When you set your franchise mark for games in a row without a win, something is clearly not right. And, as frustrating as that is, the bigger problem is that we really don't *know* what this team is capable of, because it's fighting with at least one hand tied behind its collective back.
The Jackets could probably survive three players being injured. But, to have three of your top four centers out? For this team, it's almost impossible to expect them to have any success. Here's why.
Quite literally, everything starts with your centers. It's why every team is always looking for center depth, and the elusive "number one center" for their club. Frankly, it's why the Ryan Johansen contract negotiation was so big, and so tenuous at times. Every time there's a faceoff, the center touches the puck. The center has the biggest responsibility in terms of offense AND defense. And, with these people specifically, they play in all three phases of the game.
This is where it all starts for Columbus. The three centers out are all pretty decent in the faceoff circle. To wit, their 2013-14 numbers:
Brandon Dubinsky - 586-for-1107, 52.9%
Mark Letestu - 374-for-730, 51.2%
Artem Anisimov - 476-for-965, 49.3%
TOTAL - 1436-for-2802, 51.2%
As a team last season, the Jackets finished 9th in the league in the faceoff circle with a 51.6% success rate. So far this season, they are 25th with a 48.0% success rate. Letestu has been great this season, with a 58.8% rate, though Ansimov has struggled a bit with a 46.8% rate. That said, Alexander Wennberg is currently struggling with a 39.1% success rate in 110 draws. Boone Jenner is at 41.4% in 87 draws. Michael Chaput is at 46.2% in 143 draws. Shoot, even Adam Cracknell of all people has taken 32 faceoffs, though he's won just over 40% of them. If you add all of that up... to think the club isn't missing these three guys in the circle would be crazy.
Faceoffs drive possession. How many times during this streak have we seen the Jackets' goalie freeze the puck, only to lose the faceoff and be faced with being pinned into their own zone again? How many times after an icing call does the team lose a faceoff, thus forced to try to regain possession and/or clear the zone with tired legs? It's all cumulative, and it has a way of wearing a team down throughout a game.
Speaking of possession...
I'll be the first to admit that I don't often delve into the depths of the Fancy Stats, because I think sometimes we can get too bogged down in the minutiae and miss what's actually in front of us. That said, a quick look at the Corsi On numbers (basically the net total of shots attempted while you're on the ice) of these three compared to the centers currently playing this season is a stark contrast. As a bit of a disclaimer, I think it's probably not an apples-to-apples comparison with Letestu, as he sometimes slots in as a wing, which skews his numbers in some ways. That said, let's take a look.
Even Strength Corsi On - 2013-14
Those number probably don't blow you away. After all, it's basically a break even in shots generated, right? Well, consider the numbers of two of their replacements this season:
Even Strength Corsi On - 2014-15
(In the interest of disclosure, the sample sizes are smaller, of course. Also, Jenner has played just four games, so again the sample size... but he's currently rocking a 25.41 Corsi On, which is pretty darn good. But, Letestu and Anisimov this season are a combined 15.11 as well, so the club is missing them.)
In short summary, the team is getting killed in the faceoff circle right now, and they're getting out-shot by an insane margin across the board, which amplifies the goaltending issues the team is currently facing. They're missing three guys that would mitigate those two problems in a very big way.
This one is more difficult to quantify in a way, but the fact is that the center is the most defensively responsible forward. And, as we saw in the playoffs, the ability to match up your one defensive stopper at center can completely change the way a game (and a series, in some ways) is played. Brandon Dubinsky had an amazing playoff series matched up with Sidney Crosby, effectively shutting Crosby down.
But it wasn't just that series.
Throughout the entire season last year, Dubinsky was the defensive stopper. Of all forwards that played at least 50 games, at even strength Dubinsky led the team in the Corsi Quality of Competition stat (average Corsi of opposing players, weighted by head-to-head ice time) which is a strong indicator of the role he plays. Buried in that stat are the effects of the faceoff and possession numbers highlighted above: Dubinsky wins more draws, and that in turn drives down the shot totals of the opponents he faces. But, not only is he doing that, he's doing it against consistently the toughest competition on the team.
This simply can NOT be over-stated: the importance of having your true defensive shut-down forward--not to mention a guy that plays and contributes in ALL phases--completely changes the complexion of the team that Todd Richards can ice. It frees up Johansen's line to go against weaker competition, which can unleash some of their offense (though we know that, all things being equal, Johansen is no defensive slouch himself). Speaking of "all phases of the game," what about special teams?
This is another area of concern. While the Power Play has been stable to this point (11th in the league at 21.0%, even with last night's futitlity), it could always be better. Consider that, during last season, of ALL forwards in ANY games-played, Dubinsky, Anisimov, and Letestu ranked first, sixth, and ninth respectively in TOI/60 on the Power Play. In terms of points/60 on the Power Play, these three again rank high: Letestu was 1st (6.59), Dubinsky was 6th (2.50), and Anisimov was 8th (1.53).
For a team struggling to score right now, those three guys would certainly add to a PP unit that is already solid, but could be even better. Remember the playoffs? *Sigh*
On the other side of the coin, the PK is where the team, in my opinion, is missing these three the most. All three play HUGE minutes. From last season, again of ALL forwards in ANY games-played, consider that these three players were literally 1-2-3 in TOI/60 on the PK. Letestu (2.19), Dubinsky (2.07), and Anisimov (2.05) were Todd Richards' MOST TRUSTED FORWARDS on the PK last season... a unit that finished in the top half of the league with an 82.1% success rate.
In addition to that, it's important to note something else: we'd debated Dubinsky's PIM issue early in the season last season, though he improved as the season went on. But, beyond that, again looking at all forwards from last season and filtering guys that played 50 games, these guys were some of the more disciplined. Dubinsky was worst on the team with 1.50 penalties taken/60, but again, that was the tale of two halves of the season. When the team was winning, Dubinsky was much more disciplined. That said, the other two guys were second- and fourth-best at taking penalties. Anisimov took just 0.4 penalties/60, and Letestu just 0.6 penalties/60.
Obviously, this club's injury list so far has been atrocious. As Kyle Alexander and our friends at Raw Charge noted as Saturday's game started, with injuries there's a big difference between "an excuse" and "a reason" and we are most definitely in the latter category.
Missing Sergei Bobrovsky hurts, of course, as we've seen our backup goaltending flounder in his absence. But, by my estimation, the biggest thing hurting the Jackets right now is that they are missing arguably three of their most important players at their most important position. Missing these three guys--especially Dubinsky--is just flat-out killing this team right now.