The California Swing is one of the dragons in the cave that all clubs east of the Mississippi immediately seek out when NHL schedules are released each year. The trip guarantees three games against very skilled and physical opponents, almost invariably with two of those games in a back-to-back configuration. For a club like the Blue Jackets, desperately trying to find its footing after an awful start, it is a stern test of credibility as the season moves forward. Although the club dropped a 4 - 2 decision to the Anaheim Ducks last night, winning two out of three on the California Swing is a good, solid result and a strong indicator that the club is heading in the right direction.
The significant details and scoring aspects of the game are covered in my Quick Thoughts post from the wee hours of this morning, so we'll confine this discussion to an examination of the overall trends and topics that emerged from the game -- and the trip -- both positive and negative.
The game truly followed a pretty predictable path, considering the brutal game the Blue Jackets played the previous evening 30 miles north on Interstate 5 (or "The 5", as they say in Southern California) against the Kings. The Blue Jackets came out a bit lethargic and disjointed. While they eventually found their legs, they never established the chemistry and execution levels they demonstrated against the Sharks and Kings. Still, they showed that characteristic refusal to quit, even after getting down 2 - 0, and eventually put enough pressure on the Ducks to restore the one-goal deficit, twice. While it was disappointing to fall short in this one, the positives are starting to emerge, and the issues are coming into sharper focus.
The defensive efforts have significantly improved. Yes, there are mistakes, and there always will be, but there are nowhere near the number of systemic failures that were in evidence in the pre-Tortorella era. A couple of individual breakdowns led to two of Anaheim's goals last night -- the breakaway by Perry and Maroon's power play goal. However, considering the latter resulted from a shot from Getzlaf that deflected off Perry's stick and into Maroon's back, it is understandable that Maroon would immediately know where the puck was, while the defense would take a second to find it. A second was all that was necessary for Maroon to jam in the point blank chance.
Keep in mind that there is still a feeling out process going on with the roster. Murray and Goloubef were developing a nice chemistry, but Murray is now paired with Tyutin, who has looked good since his return from a rare two-game exile to the press box. However, that leaves Goloubef with Connauton, who is still having issues in his defensive game. Connauton loves the offensive end, and was caught several times last night abandoning the defensive zone early, destroying the structure and hampering the exit opportunities. Still, the mere fact that we can identify these individual idiosyncrasies is an improvement. The forwards are responding generally well to the increased demands they have defensively, as Tortorella's collapsing style calls for them to bounce from low to high in the defensive zone more frequently than they are used to.
I suspect that conditioning is more of an issue than the guys on the ice would care to admit. Part of the issue last night was simply that the Blue Jackets had trouble coming out of their zone as a properly spaced unit, which in turn enables them to enter the offensive zone with speed and numbers. There were disconnects, and it seemed that guys frequently scuttled offensive opportunities to head off for a change. Integrating the various elements of Tortorella's system takes some time, and some reversion to old habits is to be expected, particularly when fatigue sets in. I'm confident that Torts will be sure that the conditioning issue is resolved in the near future.
Penalties remain an issue for the club. Even considering that some of the calls last night were marginal, the club is simply putting itself in harm's way too frequently. The penalty kill is looking better, but the energy allocation to penalty killing is sapping the energy available elsewhere, particularly in games like last night, when the tank was likely to be running low. Part of it is discipline, but a big part is simply being in the right place at the right time, moving the feet, and not reaching or grabbing. (David Savard, are you listening?)
The play in net is also well on the way to its former glory. Sergei Bobrovsky was very good in San Jose and Los Angeles. He was nervous and edgy at the beginning of the Sharks game, but settled in nicely. Thereafter, he was positionally sound, and started showing that confidence that he admitted was lacking. Curtis McElhinney had a decent effort in Anaheim, but still has obvious trouble picking up the play, and invariably allows that one soft goal per game. So it was in Anaheim, as the game winner was an unscreened direct shot that simply went through McElhinney. He had some nice show stoppers against Perry, but still leaves an uncomfortable number of rebounds in vulnerable areas. His mates came to his rescue last night, which kept the game close.
Right now, the biggest issue facing the Blue Jackets is getting some consistent production in the offensive zone. They are demonstrating that they have the speed and skill necessary to compete against anyone, but the structure and execution in the offensive zone is erratic. Certainly, part of this is due to the familiarization process that Tortorella is undergoing with his personnel, which results in more line tinkering than otherwise might be called for, even for Tortorella. However, it is due also to some glaring gaps in production on the offensive end. Scott Hartnell, Brandon Saad and Boone Jenner have been terrific from the drop of the puck. Brandon Dubinsky has been generally solid, as reflected by the fact that he is tied for the team lead in points and is the only forward with a positive plus/minus. (Cody Goloubef leads the defense in that category.) Cam Atkinson has responded better that most expected to Tortorella's arrival. Beyond that, however, underperformance has been the rule, not the exception.
Leading the list, of course, is Ryan Johansen. While his play has improved, he has not scored a goal in ten games, and has not posed a serious scoring threat in recent memory. He got schooled in the face-off circle again last night, and has only a 47.2 winning percentage this year, the same as William Karlsson, who actually led the Blue Jackets in face-off percentage against Anaheim. He simply is not playing in that other gear that we all know he has. The betting odds are in favor of this being more mental than physical, but his shooting percentage (3.3%) is awful, and David Savard (32) has more shots on goal than Johansen. While Nick Foligno is in the same boat, with only 1 goal to date and an even worse shooting percentage (2.6%), he has 39 shots (without a lot of power play time) and has been around the puck and in the dirty areas a lot. Close your eyes and listen to the game -- you'll hear Foligno's name a lot. Johansen? Not so much. If he continues to do that, the goals will come. Of the two, Johansen is the bigger concern.
If Johansen and Foligno can get going, that gives defenses more to worry about, which should just enhance the productivity of others. William Karlsson is playing the best hockey ever for a guy with zero points. He needs to get used to his status, and start asserting himself offensively. Matt Calvert has two goals (one an empty netter), but zero assists. Alexander Wennberg has been saddled with fourth line duty since returning from injury, which has largely extinguished his productivity. Boll is playing better, but he is still not good. Campbell finally notched his first goal, which will hopefully spur him to productivity, but it's tough when you're only getting single digit minutes per game. It's really a Catch-22 situation, however, as with Boll in the lineup, the trust just isn't there for more minutes. Rene Bourque has apparently been consigned to the Witness Protection Program, because there have been no sightings. That's a head-scratcher for me, as he was playing well without the puck, and was hustling in all three zones before being exiled. Poor Kerby Rychel has won the coveted "Yo-Yo Award"-- having been called up at least twice now without seeing a minute on the ice. From here, that's not great treatment of one of you key prospects. It's not like your offense is performing at a Stanley Cup clip, meaning there is no room.
I'd love to see Wennberg back in the top nine, with a fourth line of Calvert, Campbell and Bourque. If Borque is persona non grata, then bring up Rychel and play him. Either configuration is one where you can truly roll four lines, preserving energy and pace for the full sixty minutes. It's early to get too exorcized over this now, as the feeling out process continues, but this seems like a no-brainer from here. (I know, a no-brainer is perfectly suited to me . . . )
The Blue Jackets are on the proper trajectory, and the fact that they could battle to what was effectively a one goal game with their backup goalie on the road, while not having their best game is a testament to improvement. In addition to the things noted above, they need to improve dramatically in the face-off circle, and consistently shoot the puck. They put great pressure on in the second period last night, but did not take their first shot until Hartnell scored at the 10:44 mark. But the quality of their problems has improved, and they are poised to make a run of this yet. More on that tomorrow. Stay tuned.