Facing a veritable Murderer’s Row of opponents at the beginning of the season, and with more questions than answers, many feared that the first eight games of the 2016-17 campaign would be a horrific reprise of the 2015-16 debacle that cost Todd Richards his job. That has proven not to be the case, as the Blue Jackets are 4-3-1 through eight games, including a thrilling comeback OT victory over the Stars in their last outing. They have survived the California swing, are done with San Jose and Dallas for the year, and are over .500. How have they done it? Luck? Mirrors? Grit? Something else? Let's see if some numbers can augment the optics.
Now, as most of you know, I am not one to rely upon numbers to tell me what is happening with a team . . . in any sport. I tend to rely on the eyeballs, and use the numbers simply to confirm, deny or explain what my eyes tell me. This is particularly true early in the season, when the sample size is small and volatility is high. I also tend to focus more on the team level than the individual, looking for those "outlying" areas of performance where the team is either excelling or lagging. With those caveats out of the way, let’s dig in.
It’s no secret that the Blue Jackets have started out well . . . very well, in fact . . .on special teams. They rank first in the NHL in power play conversion percentage at 35%, and an eye-popping 55.5% at home. Meanwhile, the PK ranks sixth in the league, killing off 88.9% of opposition chances. Impressive numbers, indeed, which can lead to justifiable concerns that the Blue Jackets will likely be unable to maintain this pace for a full season.
Historically, both power play and penalty kill percentages trade within a relatively narrow range. Since the 2004 - 05 lockout, the best power play teams have converted at a clip ranging between 20.7% and 26.8%, with the majority falling in the range of 23% to 25.5%. Similarly, the best PK units have converted between 85.8% and 88% of their opportunities. The bottom of the ranges fall between 12% and 14.8% for power plays, and 74% to 78% for the penalty kill. So, while the PK success for the Blue Jackets is high, it’s not that far out of the expected range, such that any reversion to the mean would have a significant impact on the overall numbers. (For those interested, the Blue Jackets are doing a credible job of staying out of the box — ranking 20th in the NHL in penalty minutes, averaging 9:07 of box time per game.)
The power play, on the other hand, is significantly out of the mainstream in terms of percentage. However, looking at the raw numbers paints a slightly different picture. Columbus ranks 30th and last in the NHL in power play opportunities, with 20. (For comparison purposes, Winnipeg leads the league with 44 chances). While certainly this is impacted by the fact that Columbus has played only eight games, its ranking remains the same on a per game basis. So, while the Blue Jackets cannot realistically expect to convert 35% of their power play chances over an 82 game season, they can expect to increase the number of power play opportunities they receive. Whistles tend to follow respect, and that is yet to be earned. However, the net impact of a reduced percentage over an increased sample should be negligible to the goals per game equation.
Much has been made of John Tortorella’s urgent plea for the team to shoot more — specifically to generate 60 - 65 attempted shots per game. His entreaty comes as music to the ears for many Blue Jackets’ fans, who have been screaming “Shoot the puck!” for years. So, how are they doing? Charitably speaking, only fair.
Columbus ranks 23rd in the NHL in even-strength SAT (Corsi), at 47.4%, slightly worse than their 2.63 GPG ranking of 18th -- reflecting the contribution of the power play to scoring productivity. For comparison, the 9 - 0 -1 Montreal Canadiens rank just 22nd in even strength SAT. The Columbus even strength shooting percentage of 6% is also 23rd in the NHL. That’s the same rank as the shot attempts differential, which has Columbus at - 40, and better than the absolute shots at all strengths, where the Blue Jackets are dead last with 224 shots.
In short, the Blue Jackets are over-passing and simply failing to adhere to the well-proven adage that “if you put the puck on the net good things will happen.” But, that’s actually a good thing in evaluating the likelihood of the team meeting or improving its current performance levels going forward. If they can do what they are doing with these kinds of shooting numbers, enhancing those stats will undoubtedly pay some dividends going forward.
Bob, Luck & Grit
It’s also no secret that Sergei Bobrovsky has been terrific this year. The Blue Jackets rank 6th in the NHL in even-strength save percentage, with .939, partially offsetting the substandard even strength shooting percentage of 6%. Combine the two, and you get a PDO of 99.9. What does that mean? Sometimes called the “statistic of luck”, it attempts to account for the fact that puck luck changes over time, impacting both save percentages and shooting percentages. At the team level, 100 means a totally neutral “luck factor”, while numbers over 100 suggest some aberrant good fortune, and numbers under 100 portend some rotten luck. Bottom line is that the Blue Jackets have not been the beneficiaries of undue amounts of luck thus far in the young season, and their rank of 14th in the NHL in that category confirms it.
But what about those “grittier” statistics? Surely the Blue Jackets dominate those? Listen and learn, young padawan. Columbus ranks only 23rd in the NHL in hits, with 176. Sacrilege? No, progress. A player can only register a statistical hit if the other team has the puck. So, if the Blue Jackets are using their legs and spending more time in the offensive zone, hits should naturally decrease, no matter how physical you want to play. Interestingly, if you look at faceoff distributions, Columbus is virtually equally divided between offensive and defensive zone draws (126 vs. 127). Last year, the stat was skewed heavily toward the defensive zone.
Surprisingly, despite Tortorella’s reputation for having players sacrifice their bodies to block shots, the Blue Jackets rank only 22nd there, with 123.
In summary, while the special teams percentages are gaudy, the raw numbers mitigate the overall impact. With only average luck, and plenty of areas for improvement, the numbers suggest that what our eyes are observing is authentic, and there is no reason it can't continue, or improve. The Blue Jackets appear to simply be playing solid, responsible hockey. Imagine that . . . Stay tuned.