We're now seven games into the 2016-17 season, with the horrific stretch of contests that CBJ Nation was dreading now behind the Blue Jackets. With a record of 3 - 3 - 1, the club has emerged from the early season crucible
Given that this is a milestone of sorts, let's take a trip back in time, to the same point last season. Where were we? Where are we now? What changed? Short answer: Virtually everything.
At this time last year, Todd Richards had been shown the gate, and John Tortorella was likely on a plane to come negotiate his deal to take the helm in Columbus. The club was 0-7-0, with zero points and zero prospects. In those seven game — six against Eastern opponents — the club had managed just 13 goals, and had surrendered 34. The power play was a not-too-awful 20.7%, but the penalty kill positively sucked at 66.7%. Sergei Bobrovsky, by his own admission, had "zero confidence", and that malady spread throughout the roster like wildfire. Ryan Johansen was playing like a lost boy, blissfully unaware that he was a Dead Man Skating . . .shipped off to Nashville for Seth Jones in January. Nick Foligno, coming off of a dream year as All Star Captain, with 31 goals and 73 points, struggled under the burden of his new captaincy and the loss of the mojo that he had with Johansen the prior season. The fourth line was populated by Campbell, Boll, Bourque and company. The Blue Line included Tyutin, Connauton and Falk, among others. Welcome to town, John! Dig in!!
Fast forward to today. Sure, the club's record is not triggering the Stanley Cup engraver to get to work early. But we're talking progress, not perfection. The club has scored 18 goals — almost a full goal per game more than last year — despite the slow starts by Boone Jenner, Brandon Dubinsky and others, and has surrendered only 17 goals — precisely half of last year's total. The power play ranks 2nd in the NHL at 33.3%, and the penalty kill ranks 6th in the league at 87%, even after surrendering two extra man goals to the Sharks. The only areas not statistically improved are the shooting stats (2015 average of 32 SPGF and 29.5 SPGA, vs. 28 SPGF and 33.6 SPGA this season), and the face-off numbers (50.2% last year vs. 47% this year). However, aside from the numbers, the optics of the game on the ice are entirely different. Where there was chaos and uncertainty last year, there is structure and growing confidence this season. Where last year saw the neutral zone clogged with "grit", this year sees quick exits and far more entries at speed. While surrendering the odd-man rush was a regular feature of Blue Jackets' games last year, it is a rarity this season.
Obviously, this is painting with pretty broad strokes at this point in the season, but the difference in the game being played on the ice is tangible, not theoretical. What accounts for the differences? Here are my candidates for some high-level reasons the look and feel is so different this year:
- John Tortorella — yes, the coach everyone loves to hate. Vegas still has him as the favorite to be fired first among NHL coaches, despite the fact that he has been nothing but measured and professional in his dealings, and guided last year's squad to a record just over .500 after taking over the reins. He spent last season studying and planning, promising a "brutal" training camp . . . then delivering. His input undoubtedly played a part in the departures of Boll, Tyutin et al., and in the ascension of Zach Werenski, Josh Anderson, Lukas Sedlak and Markus Nutivaara. More importantly, he has installed a structure and system that allows the Blue Jackets to leverage their speed, while maintaining defensive integrity. More on this later, but with everyone ready to pounce when he makes a mistake, it's only fair to give him credit.
The Youth/Maturity Continuum — The Blue Jackets are young — really young. Their opening night roster was the youngest in the NHL. When you have a team coming off of a horrific year, that can cut a couple of ways. One school of thought has the youth being fragile, unprepared to handle the adversity and volatility of an 82 game NHL schedule. The other school says that the youngsters are less set in their ways, have that feeling of youthful invulnerability and no concept of not being able to accomplish something. For Columbus, the latter school seems to be prevailing, aided in no small part by the success the Monsters had in winning the Calder Cup. Success breeds confidence — a quality sorely lacking last year. That success derives in part from accountability, and this crew of youngsters seems to be able to learn from mistakes and move forward. Just a few weeks ago, it would have been unthinkable that Oliver Bjorkstrand would be in Cleveland, that Sonny Milano would be on the roster — but not playing — and that guys like Nutivaara and Anderson would be acquitting themselves so well on the big stage.
The veterans have also had to do their share of maturing. Nick Foligno in particular has seemingly unhitched the albatross of last season from around his neck, and is playing dangerous, intelligent hockey. Alexander Wennberg has quietly upped the quality of his game in all three zones, and William Karlsson has found another gear. While Dubinsky and Jenner have yet to unhitch the wagon from their offensive horses, their play away from the puck is improving. Sam Gagner seems revitalized, and has filled an important gap on the squad. Add Scott Hartnell and there is a calmness of leadership in place — a stark contrast from last year.
The Three S's — Structure. Speed. Stamina. Just keep repeating those words, as they fully describe what we are seeing on the ice. Tortorella has put together a system that hinges on defensive responsibility, but uses that responsibility as the launching pad for speed and pressure. While he continues to manipulate lines to leverage the hot hands — and send a message to those who are underperforming — he is largely rolling four lines. There is physical play, to be sure, but it is a dynamic form of physical play, rather than the relatively static system used by the former administration. Skates are constantly moving, and the momentum is forward. Which brings us to speed.
You can teach structure, but you can't coach speed. This club has plenty of team speed, and Tortorella's system makes full use of it. Active sticks poke pucks free, and the club has the speed and quickness to get to those pucks. There no longer appears to be an invisible force field at the offensive blue line, and the speed within the zone facilitates possession, which is the best defense of all. The 4 - 0 win over Anaheim last night was an absolute clinic on how to use speed to opportunistically grab the lead, then control the game for the final 40 minutes. Let that last thought roll around in the brain for a minute. The Blue Jackets actually controlling the game. Good stuff.
Finally, stamina deserves a mention. The players all knew that camp would be a conditioning nightmare, and from all reports, most came to camp ready to tackle the challenge. Combined with the enhancements to the overall strength and conditioning side of the organization that took place this off-season, this is clearly the best-conditioned Blue Jackets team ever. There is no lagging in the third period, and any coasting is usually identified and addressed via reduced ice time. Knowing that you can skate for sixty minutes is a big confidence boost when the going gets tough.
- Bob — He's back. The guy with the Vezina on his shelf has returned to his hard-working, confident self. Two shutouts in the first seven, and a basketful of terrific saves to keep the club in games when the skaters are not clicking. The club appears to be riding him for now, when there are some relatively extended breaks in the schedule, and while Joonas Korpisalo recovers from his own groin issues. Bob's confidence flows outward through the squad, and the impact is palpable.
Are we making too much of a club that, after all, sit just at .500? Perhaps. But if you look at the landscape of the full season, and compare it to a golf tournament on a difficult course, the Blue Jackets have just come through the most difficult stretch of holes at even par, and that is going to pick up strokes on the field. The California swing is over. Those pests in San Jose can go bother other clubs for the rest of the season, and Dallas will be in the rear-view mirror as of Tuesday. The club has been able to learn, develop some chemistry and make some mistakes in a part of the schedule devoted exclusively to teams outside the Metro. They are building confidence and a track record of success before having to deal with the four-point games against division foes. That's significant.
Most importantly, whatever the record, the club is playing a brand of hockey that is fast, responsible, watchable . . .and successful. Will there be mistakes, bad games, injuries, turnovers, etc.?? Absolutely — that's the nature of the game. But the evidence of the first seven suggests that the club is prepared to address those issues and overcome them, rather than being mired in despair. The quality of our problems is improving, and that's a good thing. Stay tuned.