Blue Jackets Nation has been a bit more like Peyton Place of late, as another spate of losses has triggered calls for a wide range of nuclear options -- including axing GM Jarmo Kekäläinen, doing the same to a good chunk of the roster and removing the "C" from Nick Foligno, to name just a few. Coach John Tortorella has called out the veteran leadership of the club, the Dispatch has jumped into the fray with both feet, and the perennial fan favorite -- tank the season to get the top draft pick -- has again reared its head. Some of the national hockey media have piled on (if you'll forgive the expression, Scott Arniel), not encumbered by facts. Such is life when you are the straggler culled from the herd. The vultures circle and mercy is an unknown quantity.
As we prepare to consign 2015 to the history books, it seems an appropriate time to look at the first 39 games (not individually, don't worry), assess what went wrong, why it went wrong, and what the road looks like ahead. As is my tendency, I'll try to sidestep the emotional reactions and provide some context. Some will be new, much familiar, but all is just my take on things. Few people who do not draw a paycheck from the Blue Jackets know everything that is going on behind the scenes, so we all are compelled to rely upon what we observe and what we can deduce. No more, no less. I know I can rely on all of you to let me know when I screw up.
The focus here will be on the ice, with appropriately necessary references to the coaching aspects where called for. In the next installment, I'll deal exclusively with the front office aspects -- its role in the current situation, potential remedial actions, and the path going forward. Those questions involve enough moving pieces and complexity to merit separate attention.
The Team Angle -- Numbers & Optics
We all know the record, and where that puts the Blue Jackets within the Metro and the East. That's a result, and we're concerned more with causes here. So, I compared the team's stats to last year (no playoffs) and 2013-14 (playoffs) in an effort to at least find the high level markers providing statistical validation of the optics. Here, the numbers show a steady deterioration in the quality of the club's defensive efforts -- from allowing just 2.61 GPG in 2013-14 (13th in the NHL) to this seasons ugly 3.13, 28th in the league. However, this year's figure is only .11 GPG worse than the 3.02 last year. Last year's results were written off to the injury issue, but the numbers strongly suggest that was only part of the cause.
Offensively, the club is scoring at a 2.49 GPG pace, off from the 2.77 and 2.76 results from last year and 2013-14, respectively. This is partly attributable to a shooting percentage (8.6%) down a full point from last year, and in the bottom half of the NHL numbers. The team Corsi/SAT is the same as last year (47.33%), but down almost 3 points from the playoff year. Coincidentally, the face-off percentage has fallen by the same amount, from 51.6% to 48.7%. Both reflect adversely on possession. The club's traditional pre-eminence in the Hits statistic also supports a minority level of puck possession. You can't score if you don't have the puck, so there is added pressure to produce when you do have possession.
Penalties are another key factor that saps meaningful possession time, disrupts rhythm and kills momentum. The Blue Jackets lead the NHL in penalty minutes per game (13:29) and in minors per game (4.13). That's more than two minutes more per game than last season, and represents nearly 25% of total ice time in a game. While the penalty kill has been terrific after a horrible start, now sitting 11th in the NHL at 81.2%, when you apply that 19% of misses to the largest pool of penalties in the league, the resulting goals are significant.
Not surprisingly, the Blue Jackets have three players in the top thirty in penalty minutes: Scott Hartnell ranks 7th with 71 minutes), Gregory Campbell is 9th with 60 minutes and Dalton Prout is 29th with 43 minutes. Not good. This level of penalties is indicative of both a lack of discipline and a tendency to be out of position, which are not things you are striving to achieve.
Also factoring into the overall equation is the Blue Jacket's reticence to shoot the puck. While shots on goal are relatively consistent with the past two years, those totals place Columbus squarely in the bottom third of the league in that category. It's been frequently said that good things happen when you put the puck on net -- and the Blue Jackets discover this when they shoot. Too much passing, too much hesitation, too much wasted time along the boards. If you want to take pressure off the defensive end of the ice and increase possession numbers, shoot the puck.
The optics put some flesh on the bones of the numbers. The club has had trouble consistently making sharp exits from its own zone with the existing defensive corps (more on the individuals in a bit). The defense gets trapped in the zone, a situation exacerbated when the forwards fly out prematurely, leaving a void. All too often, the puck simply gets dumped into that void, or -- more problematically -- turned over deep -- and a solid scoring chance inevitably arises for the opposition. While the problem with forwards vacating the zone early has been largely remedied under Tortorella, too often the problem with exits requires the forwards to come back to help bring the puck up. That plays into the opposition's hand, allows them to set up in the neutral zone or the blue line and disrupt the possession. At best, the club ends up playing a dump & chase game, which is not a recipe for consistent success.
When the club is able to maintain possession in the zone, the points are areas of profound excitement. There have been untold number of odd man rushes started by a fumble at the point, magnified by the inability to turn and catch up. Alternatively, the defenders bail out on the point prematurely, effectively consigning the offensive zone to the care of three forwards, which creates an odd man situation in the wrong direction. Even five bad defenders can deal with three offensive players. As we'll see, the offensive production of the defense has been pitiful.
Of course, the skaters are only part of the puzzle. We next need to turn to the blue ice.
As Goes The Goalie . . .
The Blue Jackets fortunes are closely aligned with the performance of their net-minders. This is not grossly dissimilar from other NHL clubs, but has really been brought front and center for the Blue Jackets this season.
As we know, the start of the season was an unmitigated disaster from the defense and goaltending perspective. Allocating responsibility between the two is unproductive at this point, as the net result remains the same: 37 pucks found their way into the back of the Blue Jackets' net during those first eight contests. Not surprisingly, there were no victories there. No news here.
What may be news is what happened thereafter. Between Game 9 in Colorado and Game 29 vs. Los Angeles, when he was forced from the game by injury with a 2 -1 lead, Sergei Bobrovsky posted a 1.922 GAA and a .936 save percentage in the 20 games he started. That included one shutout, eight games where he surrendered a single goal, and another six games where he allowed only two goals. The club was 10-3-2 in those contests, and really should have done better, only playing .500 in the games where two goals were allowed. Columbus lost both games where Sergei allowed four goals during this string, and was 1 - 2 - 0 when he allowed three.
During that same string, Curtis McElhinney started two games, losing both, and surrendered the tying and game winning goals in the game in which Bobrovsky was hurt. In the ensuing ten games featuring McElhinney and Joonas "The Youngster" Korpisalo, the club has gone 3 - 6 - 1. Even conceding the defensive issues, the fact is that those issues exist for all of the net-minders, and the results speak for themselves.
Ideally, your goaltenders are able to post big games when your defense is suspect, and the defense steps up when the goalies may have issues. Every now and then, you need your offense to simply outscore the opposition, no matter what is happening. Unfortunately for the Blue Jackets, just the opposite has occurred. If the goaltending is bad, the defense is worse . . . and vice versa. Only twice has the offense come to the rescue -- against Arizona and Dallas.
Optically and numerically, the blue liners have had a tough go, for the most part. Jack Johnson and Ryan Murray have been the best, by far, and Murray has thrived as more minutes have been put on his plate. But even though he is highly touted, Murray is a youngster, and youngsters make mistakes. Fortunately, he's a quick study, and his confidence is growing with every passing minute. John Tortorella obviously sees the same thing, as he has paired the two together in recent games, and worked them for about half the contest. Johnson is about on par with prior years in goal scoring pace, but lags far behind in assists. Murray, being healthy for and extended period of time, is setting his own benchmarks for prior years. Cody Goloubef -- the only other blue liner showing the capability to reliably bring the puck up the ice and create some offensive threat -- has been sorely missed, but should be back soon.
Unfortunately, the rest of the blue line is struggling. After what seemed to be a breakout year, David Savard has zero goals, although his projected assist numbers are a bit higher. However, he has looked at best fair in his defensive chores, and has not been reliable in carrying the puck up the ice. Dalton Prout still struggles with the puck, commits too many bad penalties and presents an unintended thrill ever time the puck comes his way on the point. Fedor Tyutin is the responsibly solid veteran he has always been, but has been invisible offensively. His declining speed is becoming more evident, leading him to "cheat" a bit by exiting the offensive zone a bit early if a change in possession seems imminent. Kevin Connauton has not shown the scoring touch, nor the ability to consistently get his point shot through and on net, as he did last year.
Offensively, let's start with the good news. In case you haven't noticed, Brandon Saad is the real deal. Even without the likes of Toews, Kane and Sharp, Saad is on a pace to set new personal standards in goals, assists and points -- even without the support from guys like Johansen that was expected when the deal was inked. Scott Hartnell continues to amaze. Yes, his ill-timed penalties are frustrating as hell, but he is on pace for another 60 point season, besides providing a needed veteran presence. Boone Jenner's offensive game is blossoming as he remains healthy, as he is flirting with a 30-goal campaign. Matt Calvert's game has come around nicely, making it more frustrating that he is now on IR. Cam Atkinson has surprised many (me included) with his positive response since Tortorella assumed the reins, and is on pace for new personal bests in goals, assists and points.
The bad news is that Nick Foligno had a really bad start. The good news is that there are positive signs that this is turning around. Last year, Nick's detractors wrote off his performance, noting the 17% shooting percentage. What they failed to note was that Foligno had a 16.2% shooting percentage the prior season. This year he has muddled along at a grisly 5.9%, and has clearly been snake-bitten. Again, even if he just reverts to an average percentage of 11%, it should be a good second half for the captain, especially if the mental burden is beginning to lift. Brandon Dubinsky is playing some tenacious hockey, but is sacrificing offense in the process. He has a productive shot, but is only on pace for 120 shots this season (compared to 189 two years ago). The same can be said for Alexander Wennberg and William Karlsson. These guys have good shots and great offensive presence. They just need to use it. Wennberg is on pace for only 102 shots, and Karlsson about 109. For every ten shots they can improve that, the club stands to gain another goal or two each. Those add up.
Which brings us to . . .
The Ryan Johansen Saga
This topic, of course, could consume a series of articles, but it's probably better to treat it just as a another element of the landscape -- albeit it an important one.
On the bright side, Johansen is close to on pace when it comes to assists -- on track for 41 this year, compared to 45 last season. He is also steady in the face-off circle, maintaining his 52% winning pace of the past two years. However, he is on pace for only 13 goals -- half of the 26 he had last year and a full 20 below the 33 he posted in 2013 -14. More significantly, he shows no sign of being the dominant center ice presence he was beginning to establish the past two seasons. So, what gives?
From where I sit, Joey is suffering from his own success, exacerbated by a big dose of immaturity. When things go well, he is as upbeat and engaging as a player can be. When things are not going well, he is a diffident, moody character. Last season, he was able to work through it with the chemistry he established with Foligno. Todd Richards adopted a "hands off" approach when it came to Johansen, which served only to enhance that "untouchable" aura he sometimes conveys. He has tons of natural ability, but has not fully internalized the fact that natural ability alone doesn't cut it in the NHL. He had these issues early in his career, which ended up with a plane ticket to Springfield. With two strong seasons, a nice bridge deal and the prospect for much more, it seems he has forgotten that lesson.
Enter John Tortorella, who is not a "hands off" coach. This has been a rude awakening for Joey, and he's struggling with the concept that he has to rethink things, assume responsibility for leading a team out of the doldrums, and be a pilot, rather than a passenger. Is it horrifically shocking that a 23-year old might suffer from these illusions? Not at all. Tortorella loves to teach, and Johansen is his latest project, much as Rick Nash was Ken Hitchcock's project. Nash emerged from that grinder a better all-around player, and I expect the same thing to occur here.
As I noted at the beginning, the vultures love to swarm at times like this, and Johansen is a prime piece of prey upon which to focus. The trade speculation is just that -- wild and premature speculation. Sure, John Davidson said that anybody can be traded, and that is a true statement. If Wayne Gretzky can be traded, anybody can be traded. Does that mean it is probable or even likely? Hardly. The Blue Jackets have a lot invested in this kid, have leverage for another full year of this contract and a year into the next one, and are not going to surrender those things without a battle. They are certainly not going to move him from a position of weakness. If he refuses to get with the program, then all bets are off. However, Johansen is not stupid -- he's not going to poison the well from which he hopes to drink for a long time. If he does, that water will trickle downstream and taint those other wells he wants to visit.
The Mental Side -- Medication Time
As the late great Yogi Berra observed, "ninety percent of the game is half mental." Yogi was likely underestimating the role the mind plays in professional sports, particularly with respect to young teams such as the Blue Jackets. I discussed the erosive impact of the season on the team's confidence and psyche in this piece earlier this year. What I said then applies now with equal force. Different issues are coming to bear, and the intensity of the issue has abated a bit, but the same principles apply.
I firmly believe that you cannot overstate the devastating impact that the stunning 1:17 in the third period of the opener against the Rangers had on this club. It was so shocking, so alien, that the players had trouble processing it. Again, the impact moved from the goal outward. The usually stoic and invincible Sergei Bobrovsky was suddenly not only mortal, but doubting his own abilities. Goalies have a wide spectrum of intriguing personality traits, but doubt can never be one of them. The club suddenly became a collection of guys afraid of the next mistake, and more focused on covering for others' mistakes than simply doing their own job. The laissez faire style of the Todd Richards regime simply allowed that to fester.
Enter John Tortorella -- a coach with a "history". There was undoubtedly some trepidation when he first walked in the room, based upon the folklore that accompanies John Tortorella wherever he goes. Some players grabbed the opportunity to play a truly "fast" brand of hockey with glee. Others fretted over making mistakes and trying to impress the new coach. We've all seen the signs of that stress -- passes to nowhere, stupid penalties, missed opportunities, overlooked assignments & bad line changes, to name a few. As Tortorella has demonstrated his willingness to defend his players all the way against outside influences -- including owners and media -- balancing his demanding performance standards, mutual trust is starting to evolve. That's a time-consuming process however. Remember, unlike Todd Richards, Tortorella had little prior experience with any of the players, except for Brandon Dubinsky. The process of learning each players assets and liabilities, and who responds to what types of input is not a quick one.
I personally think the entire "leadership" thing is being blown way out of proportion. Nothing is said by coaches or management without an intended effect, and Tortorella's comments on leadership hit their intended mark. Some are jumping on the comments as a basis for stripping the "C" from Foligno, but that is not going to happen. It there was reticence in the room to criticize each other, then it's been there long before Foligno. If the recent unpleasantness has helped clear that up, terrific. But remember that you have 23 personalities in that locker room, and while 11 might respond great to somebody jumping in their face, another 12 will not. The wisdom of leadership is knowing who responds to what, and when to use the carrot or the stick. It's not a "one size fits all" situation. Tortorella understands that, but wants peer pressure to help him get this team's collective head straight.
Nothing cures a bad frame of mind like success, and the club is taking strides in that direction. The players need to get the fear out of their games and get that "swagger" that Tortorella refers to. They started to get it back with Bob's resurgence, but it went drifting away with his injury. The Dallas game may just be the catalyst that gets it back.
Summing It Up
The Blue Jackets are not a team lacking talent. To the contrary, they have more talent -- by far -- than any club Columbus has put on the ice in its history. Virtually every hockey observer agreed with that assessment entering the season, and almost unanimously viewed Columbus as a dangerous club. As the club has demonstrated -- they can play stunning hockey. That they have not done it with any consistency is the result of a "perfect storm" of circumstances, exacerbated by some individual under-performance, mental fragility and potentially invalid assumptions in the front office. That's professional sports, folks.
The path up is never straight or easy, and Columbus is learning this the hard way. The real challenge is to not overreact with nuclear options when tactical moves will suffice. Changing the psyche of an entire team is hard, and the time will come when the ultimatums will be delivered -- get with the program or get off the ship. The Blue Jackets are not unique here. Look at Pittsburgh and Anaheim. Even Montreal -- who looked like they were going to run away and hide -- is in a state of turmoil, with calls for a new coach. Some more pieces may need to be moved into the puzzle, but the picture is coming into focus. Throwing the puzzle on the floor is not the solution right now. As noted at the top, we'll take a hard look at the front office angle in the next piece, from salary cap to trades to prospects.
Yes, this has been a long one, but did you really expect anything else? There are no easy answers or 140 character solutions here. However, I will promise that I won't make you read another long piece until next year. Deal? Have a Happy New Year! Stay tuned.