Entering this regular season, the anxiety among the Blue Jackets fan base was so thick, it was chewable. After the calamitous start that doomed Todd Richards last season, the predictions of doom were many. John Tortorella would be the first coach fired. The brutal first eight games on the schedule would put the club irrevocably behind the eight ball. The absence of big moves by the front office would simply perpetuate the downward spiral. And so on, and so on . . . When Columbus dropped the first two games of the season to Boston and San Jose, the pressure ratcheted up geometrically.
Since that time, the Blue Jackets have gone 11 - 3 - 4, and hold the first wild card slot in the East with 26 points. They also hold at least one game in hand on every club ahead of them, and all but two of their pursuers. Only the Montreal Canadiens — whose first regulation loss was a 10 - 0 whipping in Columbus — has fewer regulation losses. The Blue Jackets rank 6th in the NHL in point percentage, 3rd in Goals per Game, 5th in Goals Against per Game, 1st on the power play and 12th on the penalty kill. They were 2-1-2 over the recent string of five games in seven nights . . and would tell you that they did not play particularly well against either Colorado or Calgary. Still, they have posted the most successful November in club history, with one game remaining in the month.
Yes, it's only 25% through the season, but as we have been reminded — ad nauseam — in prior years, ultimate playoff fortunes are largely determined by American Thanksgiving. Historically, only 22% of clubs who were not in playoff position at that point in time have made the post season. Now, those statistics work in the Blue Jackets' favor, rather than against them.
With that backdrop, let's hand out the overall report cards by position for the 1st Quarter of the season:
Goaltending — A
You could quibble on this one and argue that early bad outings against San Jose and Boston merit a downgrade, but in evaluating the entire body of work, this grade cannot be anything but an A. Sergei Bobrovsky has been confident, mobile . . . and healthy. His .925 save percentage and 2.15 GAA rank in the NHL's top 10 in goalies with more than 10 starts, and his three shutouts are second only to Devan Dubnyk's total of four. Meanwhile, Curtis McElhinney has posted similar .925 and 2.09 numbers in his two starts and one relief effort. Combined, they have kept the Blue Jackets in the close games, allowing the offense to play patiently and allow their structure and conditioning to ultimately create chances. You really can't legitimately ask for more from a goaltending duo. McElhinney will have to get more starts going forward, to minimize the risk of injury and even out the pace for Sergei.
Defense — B
I went back and forth between B and B+ for this one, and settled on this grade as being most descriptive of the performance to date. I expect this to improve, but to this point the defense has been good — sometimes very good, sometimes mediocre, but on the whole, good. Needless to say, this is a huge performance improvement over last year at this time.
The phenom, of course, has been rookie Zach Werenski, who has placed himself squarely in the upper echelon of defenders -- not only on the Blue Jackets, but in the NHL. His 16 points in 20 games leads the NHL for rookie defenseman, and ranks fifth among all defenseman. His point production on a per game basis is 4th for NHL defensemen, and 3rd among all rookies with five or more games played, trailing only Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. That's heady stuff, and the league is abuzz with Calder Trophy talk. His distinguishing characteristics are the coolness with which he handles the puck and quarterbacks what has become the most productive power play in the NHL.
The trio of Werenski, Ryan Murray and Seth Jones give the Blue Jackets the foundation for long term success on the blue line. However, as the season thus far has shown, that path is not linear. Murray has alternately been terrific and highly suspect. Both Jones and Werenski have had some highly visible gaffes, and as Tortorella reminds us -- that's the price of admission for featuring young defensemen. I'd expect significant upticks for both Murray and Jones.
Jack Johnson has held to form — a bit scary in his own zone, and a bit of a force in the offensive zone. He has yet to convert his skills into meaningful points, but hope springs eternal. David Savard has assumed the Fedor Tyutin role — solid and nearly invisible when playing well. (Johnson & Savard lead the Blue Jackets defensemen with a +/- of plus-7. While not a fan of +/- in general, it can be helpful in comparing guys on the same team.)
Markus Nutivaara has been a welcome surprise to the starting line-up. Generally solid, with few glaring mishaps, he brings some speed and deft puck handling to the squad — and keeps Dalton Prout off the ice.
As a unit, the defense has generally done a good job of keeping the crease clear, starting zone transition, and providing good support for the offensive efforts, while promising a lot more. Expect this grade to improve for the second quarter.
Forwards — B+
The leading stories among the forward ranks are the resurgence of Nick Foligno as an offensive force, the continued maturation of Alexander Wennberg, the Camsanity story and the significant contributions of Sam Gagner and Josh Anderson.
In terms of raw numbers, Cam Atkinson ranks 7th in the NHL in points per game, while Foligno and Wennberg rank 19th & 20th, respectively. Wennberg's 15 assists ranks him 3rd in the league in that category, and Columbus boasts five players in the top fifty in assists. Six Blue Jackets are on pace for 20+ goal seasons.
All of this has happened while some anticipated key contributors have struggled. Foremost among these is Boone Jenner, who has but two goals and six points through twenty contests, a far cry from his performance last season. His minus-6 gives him the Green Jacket among regulars, as only Jenner and Brandon Dubinsky (minus-2) have sub-zero plus/minus rankings among the regular forward ranks. Dubinsky has played well defensively, but has yet to find offensive touch. Matt Calvert has not been statistically rewarded for his contributions, and his 36 stitch blocked shot, followed by his game winning goal, is an apt metaphor for the entire squad this year.
Lukas Sedlak was a bit of a surprise out of camp, and has yet to find the back of the net. Gagner is the steal of the off-season, as he has been consistently dangerous, providing both scoring and possession. Ditto for Anderson, who has surprised with his offensive productivity.
As a unit, the forwards have played well enough to allow Tortorella to frequently roll four lines, keeping legs fresh for late in the game, and no doubt facilitating the results seen to date. Scott Hartnell has managed decent production on reduced TOI numbers, and Brandon Saad seems to be finding his pace. Hard to argue with a unit that is producing goals better than all but two of the NHL rosters.
Coaching — A
Make no mistake — the task faced by John Tortorella & Co. this season was enormous. Exorcise the demons of lack of confidence, incorporate an ethos of conditioning and speed operating within a framework of responsibility and structure, and do so in quick order. The staff has done all of that, and more. That elusive combination of structure and speed has been found, and the conditioning so desperately lacking in the past has been fully evident. As Tortorella has noted, the players are not only playing the game fast, but they are "thinking the game fast", and that is a huge step. The addition of Brad Shaw to squire the young defense was a stroke of genius, and is paying huge dividends. Even video coach Dan Singleton has materially contributed to a couple of Blue Jackets' victories.
While the players have to play the game, the coaches have to set the plan and the tone, play surrogate parent/psychoanalyst, and do so with a larger vision in mind. Through the first twenty, the Blue Jackets' coaching staff gain full marks.
Overall — A-
Even the most hardened skeptic has to grudgingly give a lot of credit to this squad. They are finding multiple was to win/earn points, and rarely appear flustered. They are doing it without some reliable sources of contribution (Dubinsky, Jenner), and without some expected contributors (Bjorkstrand). They are an exciting, fun team to watch, and that by itself is a huge stride. A successful first quarter, to be sure. Stay tuned.