Dan P.'s Mailbag: Tuesday, August 28th

Welcome back to another edition of Dan P.'s Mailbag here at The Cannon! Thanks to everyone who sent in a question. As always, you can send me an e-mail with your question. Be sure to include your Cannon commenting name, so that everyone knows who's writing in if your mail message gets chosen for the week.

Alright, this week there are two items that I wanted to touch on. Here we go!

Where do you see the Jackets's power play ranking against the other teams of the NHL? Maybe I'm being a tad too optimistic, but I think we'll finish in the upper half of the league primarily because of our blue line quarter backing the PP. So many of our defensemen have (Cannonesque) booming shots and can pass the puck around well, freeing time and space for our wingers to bury the biscuit. What say you, good sir? --CannonGoesBOOM

You know, this one really gets me at the core. You may remember my expectations piece from around this time last year:

If we decide that 20% is our stated goal of conversion, that would give the Jackets 69 goals. That's quite a bump up, but when you look at the raw numbers of the players who will be joining the unit and combine that with Todd Richards' experience at running a Power Play unit, these numbers aren't unrealistic.

At the end of the day, this gives us some variables and parameters for predicting where the 2011-2012 Power Play might come out. I'm going to use all of those, and go with:

2011-2012 Power Play: 66-for-345, 19.1% - 9th in the NHL

Cue the sad trombone. The actual numbers? 49-for-317, 15.5%, 24th in the NHL. In other words, right around where they'd been for most of the past five seasons.

As for this year's unit, there are two factors to take into account, in my estimation. First, you lose Rick Nash, and you lose your top PP scorer. Nash had six goals and 13 assists on the PP. On top of that, the PP goal leader for the club last season was actually Jeff Carter (8 PPG), and he only played 39 games for the club.

That's a pretty big chunk, when you consider that 14 of your 49 PPG--or, more than 28.5%--are gone now. And, the guys that have come in--Nick Foligno, Artem Anisimov, and Brandon Dubinsky--weren't really counted on to be PP contributors: they combined for five goals and five assists. Adrian Aucoin also brings one PPG from last season to the table. So, by pure (and not apples-to-apples, of course) numbers, the team has a deficit to make up from last year. That's factor one.

Now, factor two goes the other way. We've added Jack Johnson for a full season. Johnson had just three PP assists in Columbus, but his whole season's numbers were five goals, 12 assists. So, that should be a plus. In addition, James Wisniewski will hopefully play more. In just 48 games, he had two PPG and 10 PPA. If he can play closer to 70 games, that should add a few more goals and/or assists on the PP. If those two can combine to form a solid top PP defensive pairing, they could certainly affect the unit: Wiz has the calm presence at the blue line, and the booming shot. Johnson has the mobility and the shot to pinch in on the backside of the play. That should help the Jackets, provided those guys stay healthy and continue to play well.

By my estimation, the Jackets' biggest flaw last season, however, was systemic. They struggled at times consistently just to establish themselves in the zone on the man advantage. All the boosts to your D pair in the world won't help you if you can't hold the zone and set up. Johnson's skating can help with that as well, as they push the puck up the ice.

Beyond that, if they can establish the zone regularly, that improved blue line play should help unclog the middle a little bit. The Jackets should have a few more guys willing to get into the dirty areas to score. As you note in your question, a great Power Play is predicated on being able to move the puck to open up shooting lanes and then having guys willing to take a beating down low to clean up the trash. It's why R.J. Umberger has averaged over seven PPG per season since coming to Columbus.

That said, I'm not tricking myself into thinking they will be able to climb into the top half of the league until I see it. I've been burned by expectations so many times before. So, in an answer that's not really an answer, I think there's potential for the PP to be better this season, provided everything breaks right. That said, there just isn't enough scoring talent for me to really buy in that they will be a ton better. Call me cynical, I guess.

When trying to project lines I’m always faced with the question of who plays on the right side? So, which left-handers among our forward(s) are likely to play the right wing? And who plays the right side between Tyutin and Nikitin? --jkcpwilkin

I'm sure there are more hockey-coach type people that can speak to this better than I, as I've come to trying to actually play the game a little later in life. For me, I shoot right-handed (the efficacy of my "shot" is up for debate, of course), and I feel more comfortable playing the right wing because I'm much, much better with the puck on my forehand, as are most beginners in hockey.

I really do think, however, that once you get to the NHL level, it's not a huge factor. I remember talking to Marc Methot last pre-season, and him saying that for a defenseman it was much easier to play on your natural side. Then again, Methot always struggled on his backhand. Conversely, when I asked Rick Nash about moving back to the right side, he told me it didn't really matter to him, though he preferred the right (which would technically be his backhand side).

With respect to the Fedor Tyutin--Nikita Nikitin pair, they lined up last season with Niki Six on the right almost exclusively. That pairing was rock-solid, so look for Niki to be back on the right again.

As for the roster and forward line combinations, I think it warrants mentioning that the Jackets are not exactly devoid of right-handed shots: Ryan Johansen, Cam Atkinson, Mark Letestu, Derek Dorsett, and Jared Boll are all righty shooters, and that spans all four lines.

In the end, I think it really comes down to personal preference. There are also some other factors, however. For example, there's one other guy that I think needs to be in the right-wing discussion, too: R.J. Umberger. The night that Umberger netted his hat trick against Carolina this spring, his third goal came on a play where he was coming down the left wing off of a turnover, and Derick Brassard was looking to feed him the puck from the right. Part of the difficulty in getting Umby the puck was that Umby shoots left-handed, and Brassard noted in the post-game that it was tougher because it wasn't on Umby's "one-timer side":

For a player like Umberger, that may make a difference. Playing on the right side, he's able to open up for a one timer much more easily. For example, check out Umby's second goal from that game:

So, there's that, too.

But, all in all, I can't really say that there's one thing that makes a player more or less comfortable. Each player is different, and has different strengths and weaknesses to his game. Again, I'll defer to those more experienced with the nuts and bolts of playing hockey at a higher level, but I don't think this is really a big issue for the Jackets. Johansen played on the right side when he played wing last year. Umberger has time on the right wing as well. Atkinson is a right-handed shot. Between Dorsett and Letestu, you have two righties on the third line most likely. And Boll has always played right wing on the fourth line.

As for the D pairs, Wisniewski is a right-handed shot. Aucoin is a right-handed shot. Nikitin has shown the ability to play on the right side, and so I think the club will have no problems there. In addition, David Savard, Dalton Prout, Cody Goloubef, and Theo Ruth are in the pipeline as right-handed defensemen as well. So, the Jackets have plenty of options to balance out the blue line.


Thanks to everyone who sent in questions! See you next week!

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