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Smoke, Mirrors, Systems & More: The Blue Jackets Face the New Year

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The first 33 games have been a tale of streaks -- both good and bad -- and a roller coaster ride alternating between hope and despair. Let's look at what is driving the ups and the downs, and how these might be addressed in the New Year.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

4 - 2 - 0.  Then 0 - 8 -1.  Then 2 - 5 -1.  Then 8-1-1.  If this was the stock market, analysts would be telling us that volatility was high, and to react accordingly.  However, even though this is hockey -- not investing -- seeing such schizophrenic peaks and valleys almost mandates further inquiry to determine what is driving these divergent themes?  What are the constants, the differences?  What can be done better?  Where are they perhaps skating on thin ice . . . both literally and metaphorically?  Inquiring minds want to know, so we'll take a stab at identifying the factors that have impacted the performance on the ice thus far this season -- both positive and negative --  and offer some guidance for things to look for going forward.

First, understand that the Blue Jackets are in a similar spot to where they were last year at this time.  As the Christmas break comes to a close, Columbus sits 25th in the NHL with 31 points in 33 games.  Last year, they were also 25th, with 34 points in 36 games at Christmas.  So, they actually are a bit better off today, in an absolute numbers sense.  When the pucks drop tomorrow, the Blue Jackets will sit nine points out of a playoff slot, with a game or more in hand on most of the teams in front of them, except for the Rangers and Panthers.  Not really close, but in the conversation, and certainly not a lost cause, if last year's run is any indication.  (For a good discussion of some of the larger trends, see Dan's piece on the playoff hunt.)

Of course, the streakiness is a symptom, not a cause, and at the end of the day it doesn't really matter whether Club A wins five then loses five, or Club B wins every other game for a ten game string.  Both clubs end up at .500, but the passion and outrage generated by Club will be significantly higher.  Such swings keep us bloggers in business, but are really more material to the assessing the underlying psyche of the club than anything else.

The Injury Factor

There's no question that injuries have been THE monster factor affecting the club this year.  Whether you count them in man-days, salaries, lunar cycles, points lost  . . . whatever . . . Columbus has spent more material time in the medical ward than any other franchise this season.  You can summon up all of the bravado you want and say "injuries are not an excuse", but the difference between an "excuse"and a "reason" is more one of attitude and veracity than anything else. Missing a key one-third of your roster for most of the first 33 games is a helluva reason for having issues.

Still, while the injuries can account for a club struggling, particularly in the early stretches of the season, its a bit more difficult to attribute the manic-depressive nature of the team's performance exclusively to the injury bug.  When the puck dropped in Buffalo to open the season, Brandon Dubinsky, Boone Jenner, Ryan Murray and Nathan Horton were all missing from the lineup.  Yet that crew managed a 4 - 2 start, scoring at a 3.33 GPG clip, and allowing just 2.67 GPG.  Since then, Jenner has returned . . . and left again.  Ryan Murray made a cameo appearance of four games, but has not been seen since.  Artem Anisimov left, returned, then went down again, and Horton, of course, is unlikely to ever return. The point is that as the injuries ramped up, you would expect a corresponding decline in performance, but that's not the way it has played out.  Certainly, had the Blue Jackets been injury-free, there would be little debate going on at this point.  However, within that injury issue is the more granular question of why the inconsistent response to what has been generally similar sets of conditions.

One big answer came on October 27, 2014.  Which leads to our next factor . .  .

The Bob Factor

On that October 27th, Sergei Bobrovsky broke a finger on his glove hand in practice, finding his way to the IR.  He missed the next eight games, during which the club went 1-6-1.  While this is certainly part of the injury factor, it is part of a larger issue, which is the pre-eminent role that Bob plays on the club.  Sure, this is true to some extent of any team with its starting goalie, but the numbers and the optics both suggest that Bob plays a far larger role for the Blue Jackets than exist with other clubs.  There are a lot of reasons for this -- some good, some perhaps not so good.

First, the optics and intangibles of the situation.  When on his game, Bob conveys a calmness and sense of control on the ice that simply cannot be adequately described -- it has to be observed.  There is little flailing, kicking or Pascal Leclaire-like contortions that can be exciting to watch, but inevitably allows the puck in the net.  He focuses on the play, and has an uncanny knack of seemingly being where he needs to be before the offensive player has decided to go there.  In short, he is in control of his net and his crease, and that sense of control carries over to the guys in front of him.  His defenders know that Bob will either not surrender a rebound, or will direct the rebound to the corner.  Sure, he'll have a poor game now and again, or allow a softie, but he will also make the seemingly impossible save . . . precisely when the club needs it most.  You can't coach that, and it is pure gold when it works for you.

In contrast, the club just plays poorly in front of Curtis McElhinney -- and that is supported by both the optics and the numbers.  Unlike Bobrovsky, McElhinney is not quick to anticipate the play, and frequently lacks any semblance of rebound control.  That gets the defensemen collapsing in the zone, looking to clear the inevitable rebounds.  That, in turn, allows more time and space at the top of the zone, which increases the shot volume, which keeps the puck in the zone . . . you get the idea.

To be fair, Bob saw that same play in front of him when he returned from injury -- and quite frequently since.  His numbers suffered -- both from the defense in front of him and what many believe was some favoring of his broken hand.  25 goals found their way into the net over a 1-5-1 streak, but the Blue Jackets managed only ten goals themselves over that period.  You're not winning many games with a 1.42 GPG scoring average, regardless of who is in goal.  (More on this in a bit).

Bob's importance has come to the fore during the current 8-1-1 run.  Here, the optics were wonderful, but the numbers reinforce the concept.  In those ten games, Bobrovsky has faced 349 shots, and surrendered just 23 goals.   That's a handy .934 save percentage, and a GAA south of 2.30.  That's almost a full goal per game below the club's season average of 3.21 goals allowed per contest.  At the same time, the Blue Jackets have managed to eke out a 2.8 GPG scoring average, well above the 2.30 GPG they have for the season.  Which leads to the next discussion . . .

The Systemic Factor

You may have noticed one interesting statistic for the current 8-1-1 streak which is seemingly at odds with those results -- the shots faced.  Sergei Bobrovsky has been a busy boy during the current streak -- facing just about 35 shots per game -- excluding the shootouts.  In fact, he has faced 110 more shots than the Blue Jackets have generated during the same time frame.  While it's tempting to ascribe this phenomenon to injuries, the numbers suggest otherwise.

From the beginning of the season, the Blue Jackets have been outshot in 23 of 33 regular season games.  Include the eight pre-season contests, and it becomes 30 of 41 games.   I use a 30 shot per game benchmark for gauging a decent offensive/defensive effort, and Columbus has managed to put more than 30 shots on goal only 11 times this year. In comparison, the club has surrendered 30+ shots in 25 of the 33 games, and has allowed 40 or more in 6 games.  If you figure that  a good goalie will surrender a goal every 11 or 12 shots, the club is almost conceding three goals per game over the long term, but hasn't sniffed that number on offense.

While the numbers are a bit more dramatic this year, they are actually a continuation of a pattern of some note.  Todd Richards has never coached a club that has outshot its opponents over the course of a season.  The best a Richards club has performed was last year, when Columbus put 29.6 shots on goal per game, good for 19th in the league.  Richards' two Minnesota teams finished last in the NHL in shots on goal, the 2012-13 Columbus team finished 27th, and the current club sits in 26th.  Except for the 2009-10 Wild team, which finished 10th in shots allowed, the other Richards teams  have all finished in the bottom half of the league in that category as well, with the current squad standing 27th.

I've always been a big believer that nothing bad can happen from putting the puck on net.  Attempted shots inevitably create opportunities, and without those opportunities it is difficult to score goals.  Confirming this is the fact that the Blue Jackets rank 24th in scoring, at just 2.30 goals per game, and are dead last in the NHL in goals scored at 5-on-5, with just 43.  The power play has bailed the club out time and time again, and the 28 power play goals are good enough for 3rd in the league.  The problem is that a club has precious little control over the number of power play opportunities it receives.  Sure, the clubs who skate with speed tend to create more havoc, and generate more penalties, but that hasn't really described Columbus this season.

In considering what the club was doing on the ice that would support the numbers referenced above (and the fact that the EV CORSI has actually declined during the winning streak -- as noted in Dan's piece), I came to the conclusion that the infamous "dump and chase" is a likely culprit.  Visually, the Blue Jackets have relied to an extraordinary level on the dump and chase this season, particularly of late.  While the offensive player has momentum, the defense has a shorter distance to travel. A very high percentage of the time, the puck ends up along the boards, and a scrum ensues.  If you're winning most of those battles, you might generate some offense, but all too often you are eating up valuable shift seconds just trying to gain possession of the puck.  You end up with too many forwards below the line, a big gap with the defenseman, and -- more often than not -- nobody near the crease.  While defenses will sometimes dictate that approach, it has become standard operating procedure for the Blue Jackets, and the numbers seem to show that it's not working really well.

On the power play, of course, the puck is almost always starting in the offensive zone, so a win in the face-off circle is the only thing required to get the ball rolling.  There is space and time, and an actual offense can be run.  While the breakdown between even-strength and power play goals has improved during the recent resurgence, power play goals still account for one-third of total production, which is problematic.

What this all boils down to is a circumstance where the Blue Jackets have a lot of unproductive possession time in their own zone, while surrendering massive possession and shot time in their own zone.  That puts huge pressure on the goalie to do just what Bob has done over the last ten.  It's fantastic when it works, but it's problematic as a long term strategy.  Analytically, it's not too different from Ken Hitchcock's neutral zone trap, which promotes a slew of 2 - 1 games. However, that style takes a toll over time, and many attribute the Blues' late season meltdown to that aggregated pressure.   Hitch Hockey, however, has the virtue of limiting the other club's shots, which is not happening with the current club.  Eventually, the mathematics has to catch up, and the Nashville game was just one example.

The Nick & Ryan Factor

Before wrapping this up, a positive note has to be struck for the performance of Nick Foligno and Ryan Johansen, each of whom has 30 points in 33 games, almost a point-per-game pace.  They are tied for 19th in the NHL in that category, and Foligno ranks 8th in goals scored, with 16.  That's heady stuff, and the two are a major reason we are able to even consider a playoff race, given the injuries.

Many may consider Johansen as under performing of late, particularly on the goal front, but I think view that misses a lot.  First, he's not skating particularly strongly at the moment, and whether that is due to a nagging injury or simply heavy legs is an unknown.  Johansen is more vulnerable than most to changes in chemistry, and when Richards separated him from Foligno, with whom he has almost extrasensory chemistry, I think it impacted his confidence.  Still, he and Foligno are the best healthy possession forwards  -- by far -- and Johansen has been creating chances simply through his presence.  That has boosted his assist totals -- and Foligno's goal totals.  Johansen will find the scoring touch again, but in the meantime, if he's getting assists, it means somebody is scoring goals, and that's a good thing.

I always chuckle at the Foligno detractors, who ascribe his current streak to "luck"and point to a high shooting percentage as indicating he will soon plummet to earth. For the most part, these are the same folks who said that last year's performance was a career year, and that he would regress to the mean this year.  It's sort of like the stock market prognosticators who keep predicting a correction.  Well, they'll eventually be right, but in the meantime they have missed several years of significant profits.   I think Foligno has proven that he is the real deal -- in all three zones as well as the locker room -- and can lead this club higher.  His hugs with Bobrovsky are a spiritual lift for the club and the fans, and his "inflated" shooting percentage (22.5%) is a) actually not significantly higher than those he competes with and b) is a testament to the fact that he is willing to go into the dirty areas to score his goals.  I'll let the others worry about his regression to the mean . . . I'll take the goals.

Summing It Up

While some refer to the recent streak as being accomplished through smoke and mirrors, it's really more about goaltending and guts.  As the saying goes, the Blue Jackets are "finding a way to win", and that's a terrific thing. However, as I've tried to highlight above, at some point they are going to need to find a more robust solution that creates more chances, limits the other team's chances and is less reliant on a shutout effort in goal.

To be sure, injuries play a big role, but so do some systemic issues that need to be addressed.  There is always the issue of secondary scoring, which is another casualty of the injury bug, and the allocation of ice time, which is frequently puzzling to the casual observer.  There are few "right" answers, but some solutions need to be found to maximize the club's chances at long term success.  It's great fodder for debate, so dig in.

For my part, here are some New Year's Resolutions for the club to consider:

  • In the defensive zone, resolve to pass or skate the puck out . . .quickly.  Do not wait, get trapped against the wall on your backhand, then cough the puck up.
  • Thou shalt not dump and chase . . .well, hardly ever.  Skate the puck in, and make quick, short passes.  Force the defense to make a play.
  • Coach Richards -- trust your players. Allow them to make plays and reward good play with ice time, regardless of the player's age or pedigree.  Allow players to do what they do best.
  • Eliminate the prevent defense that surrenders the top of the defensive zone to the opposition. That massively tips the possession scale, and likewise the opportunities.
  • Skate.  That means bending your knees, and lifting the skate off the ice.  "Drifting" is not skating.
  • Put. The. Puck. On. Net.  . . . Frequently.
  • Get health . . . and stay that way.
There is a lot of skill on this club, even with the injuries, but it needs to find a way to emerge.  The guts displayed by the entire team -- and the stellar play of a select few -- have been carrying the day, but can't do it forever.   The New Year holds tremendous promise.  Stay tuned.