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Reviewing October 2021: The more things change...

The team is different on paper, but are the results any better?

Columbus Blue Jackets v New Jersey Devils Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images

RESULTS

W 8-2 vs. ARI
W 2-1 (OT) vs. SEA
L 1-4 @ DET
W 3-2 (OT) vs. NYI
L 1-5 vs. CAR
W 4-1 vs. DAL
L 0-4 @ NYR
W 4-3 (SO) @ NJD

Given the low expectations that many had for the Columbus Blue Jackets this season, staying above .500 for the first few weeks is a pleasant surprise. Unsurprisingly, a team with new coaches and new players in new roles has struggled with consistency. For the most part, they’ve hung with bad or average teams and have been outclassed by teams like the Hurricanes and Rangers who are much more talented.

STANDINGS

As of this writing, the Blue Jackets hold the first wild card position in the East, by one point over the Flyers. By points percentage, however, they are eighth in the Eastern Conference. Once again, the East — and the Metropolitan Division in particular — appears to be stacked. Only Ottawa and Montreal have a points percentage below .500, and even teams like Buffalo (5-2-1), New Jersey (4-2-1) and Detroit (4-3-2) have been more competitive than they have been in years.

STATS

CBJ stats for October 2021

Stat 2020-21 October
Stat 2020-21 October
5v5 CF% 46.51 (27th) 47.36 (25th)
5v5 FF% 47.03 (27th) 45.56 (31th)
5v5 Save % 91.28 (22nd) 93.95 (8th)
5v5 Shooting % 7.19 (30th) 7.02 (20th)
5v5 xGF% 46.09 (26th) 44.77 (30th)
GPG 2.39 (29th) 2.75 (16th)
GAPG 3.29 (25th) 2.75 (12th)
PP% 15.4 (27th) 25.0 (9th)
PK% 79.0 (20th) 77.8 (21th)

So, uh, per the underlying metrics at 5v5, things really haven’t changed that much from last year. The Jackets are still losing the possession battle. On the plus side, both the power play and goaltending are significantly improved. The goaltending keeps the team in close games, and the power play helps compensate for the shortcomings of 5v5 scoring.

THREE STARS

Third Star: Power Play

Speaking of the power play, let’s highlight two players in particular who have driven and benefited from the man advantage. First is Jakub Voracek, who was acquired in the offseason for this purpose. From his spot on the right half-wall, he has helped keep the puck moving far more effectively than it has in years. He leads the team in assists with seven, with five of those coming on the power play.

The other player to mention is the new captain, Boone Jenner. From his position in front of the goalie, he has scored three power play goals. With five goals overall, he leads the team and is on pace for a 51 goal season. Just as we all expected when he signed that contract extension, right?

Second Star: Elvis Merzlikins

I wasn’t sure how Elvis would handle the pressures of the season, both the grief over the loss of his friend Matiss Kivlenieks, as well as any pressure to live up to the contract extension he signed. So far, those concerns have been put to rest. Elvis has been stellar, going 4-1-0 in five starts with a 9.39 save percentage and 1.98 GAA. Both are among the top eight among goalies with at least three starts. He’s the unquestioned #1 goalie for this team now.

First Star: Oliver BJORKSTRAND

My homer pick strikes again! Bwahaha. The Maestro is second in goals and assists and leads the team in points. He has been a key component of the power play, scoring two goals and two assists from his spot in the center of the 1-3-1, but has also collected six points at even strength. His linemates have shuffled, but his play does not change. Voracek said he didn’t know how good BJORKSTRAND was until he got here. Maybe the rest of the league will finally start to take notice this season.

3.6 ROENTGEN: Not great, not terrible

The rookies

The good news: each of Cole Silinger, Yegor Chinakhov, and Gregory Hofmann has looked like an NHL player. The bad news? None has particularly stood out yet. Hofmann has three points, Sillinger has two, but Chinakhov has zero and has been a healthy scratch for half of the games. Of these, I actually think Chinakhov has looked the best, but has had poor puck luck. If he can get one of those shots to go in, perhaps he can stick in the lineup longer and go on a hot streak.

Joonas Korpisalo

His 1-2-0 record and 3.27 GAA aren’t good, but his .913 save percentage is good enough. He has not played well enough to challenge Elvis for the top spot, but in each game he has played well enough to keep the Jackets in the game. That’s all you can ask of a backup goalie.

NEEDS IMPROVEMENT

Defense

At 5v5, the Jackets are bottom five in shot attempts, unblocked shot attempts, and shots on goal allowed per 60 minutes. They’re slightly better at high danger shot attempts allowed, but still below average. The goalies are having to do a lot, and that means they’re playing with fire.

The struggles don’t come as a surprise. This area was a weakness last year as well, and the team didn’t make any upgrades in the defensive zone. The forwards added were offensive playmakers, and the defensemen added were known more for their offensive contributions. In addition, the team had to replace the assistant coach in charge of defense just weeks before the start of camp.

The best we can hope for is that we see some progress as the season goes on. A positive sign is there appears to be more emphasis on controlled defensive exits. Those exits need to come earlier in their shifts.

Penalties

The Jackets aren’t among the most penalized teams in the league, but they’re being penalized more often than they were in the Tortorella era. They’re taking 9.00 PIM per game, up from 6.58 last season. They’re at least drawing more penalties than any year of the Torts era, including up from 2.54 last season to 3.68 penalties drawn per 60 this season.

I put some of the blame for the 5v5 woes on the frequency of penalties — both for and against. The special teams shifts throw off the rotation of the regular lines and pairs, and we often see disjointed shifts from the Jackets when things return to full strength. I’ve noticed some of their best 5v5 play when they’re able to roll four lines, and play a free-flowing game with few whistles.