Bobrovsky Out -- Time to Unleash the Dogs

With their Vezina Trophy goaltender on the sidelines for a month or more, the Blue Jackets stand at a a fork in the road. The path to success lies in the offensive zone.

As Matt Wagner discussed here, the news broke yesterday that Sergei Bobrovsky will miss 4-5 weeks with a groin strain. While not as dire as a significant knee injury, it still puts the Vezina Trophy holder on the sidelines for a chunk of games, in a season where injuries have already been the Blue Jackets biggest nemesis. The focus now turns to how the Blue Jackets will weather the storm until his return.

A credible argument can be made that there is, in fact, no storm to begin with. After all, Curtis McElhinney has bested Bob statistically thus far this year -- a 2.34 GAA vs. 2.72 for Bobrovsky, and a .925 save percentage vs. .909 for Bob. While Mike McKenna may be viewed as a 30-year old AHL journeyman, he has been lighting up the AHL this season -- posting a 1.45 GAA and .943 save percentage -- earning Goaltender of the Month honors for the AHL in November. So, one can certainly argue that the blue ice is in good hands, and nothing else has to change. Of course, the counter-argument is that McElhinney has had only limited exposure to the "Mr. Hyde" side of the Blue Jackets' play, and that this tends to catch up over time.

To be honest, I don't think the Blue Jackets' fortunes over the next 14 games or so will rise and fall with "Mc1" or "Mc2".  I fully expect that we'll see credible performances in net.   Instead, let's look to what's happening up front, because ultimately that is where games will be won or lost.

The Blue Jackets have been fortunate that their colleagues in the Metro -- except for Pittsburgh -- have shared similar missteps coming out of the gate. Despite all of the injuries, inconsistent play and other maladies that have afflicted the club, they are in the middle of a logjam, sitting just 3 points out of the 3rd place playoff slot, and 5 points from the second place Washington Capitals. With nobody seemingly interested in breaking from the pack and seizing control of the playoff slots, you can't help but think that if Columbus can make it to the halfway point of the season right at the .500 mark, they would be poised to make a real run in the second half. By that point, Nathan Horton should have joined the battle and Marion Gaborik will have returned. That, combined with Brandon Dubinsky's return, should help Artem Anisimov, Cam Atkinson, Matt Calvert and Boone Jenner find their offensive games.

Make no mistake -- if the Blue Jackets are to be contenders at the halfway mark, the answer needs to come from the offense.  I'm not suggesting that defense can be ignored, but defense alone can only take you so far.  As they say in the stock market -- a stock can go up forever, but it can only go down to zero.  Defensively, the best you can do is pitch a shutout every game.  Obviously, that's not going to happen.  The best defensive team in the league -- Boston -- allows almost exactly two goals per game.  The Blue Jackets are 22nd, at 2.82.   So while there is certainly room for improvement on the defensive side, the incremental benefit is limited.  The fact remains, whether you surrender 2.00 goals per game, or 2.82, to assure success, you need to score three goals or more goals per game on a regular basis.  Columbus presently averages 2.39 goals per game, also 22nd in the league.

So, considering that our scoring and defensive rankings are the same, why am I singling out the offense as the culprit?  Two reasons.  First, the numbers are a bit misleading.  Consider that the Blue Jackets are 9th in the NHL on the power play, converting just over 20.2% of the time.  At the same time, the penalty kill is 21st in the league, at 79.6%.   So, while the defensive effort has been relatively consistent between even strength and extra man situations, the even strength offensive production -- on a relative basis -- is significantly worse than the overall offensive rank would suggest.  While a strong power play is indeed an asset, it cannot replace 5-on-5 productivity, as it effectively places a club's offensive fortunes in the hands of the guys in the striped shirts.  That falls in the "hope is not a strategy" category, and is no recipe for success.

The second reason that the solution must be found with the offense lies in more psychological factors, and the just-concluded Tampa Bay game provides a perfect illustration of what I'm talking about.  The first period of that game saw the Blue Jackets playing a static, scared brand of hockey.  They played from the standpoint of fear -- worrying more about not making a mistake than focusing on making a play.  There was virtually no possession in the offensive zone, and only four shots on goal (and no scoring chances) resulted.    Fast forward to the second period, and it was as if an entirely different team was on the ice.  They skated, exerted pressure, played with confidence . . .and put 13 shots on goal.  It was no coincidence that the only goal -- Foligno's highlight reel number -- came during that stanza.  In the final frame, they went into shutdown mode, again generating only four shots, and creating more anxiety than opportunity.  Fear Factor returned.

The point is that most clubs cannot be expected to play consistently well when the focus is on being sure that the opposition does not score.  In a game where the bad bounce is a fact of life, that is a strategy that puts enormous pressure on the club in every game, and ramps up to critical levels when the pressure of a playoff race heats up.  While a roster of veteran players can sometimes handle it, a young club will frequently wilt under the strain -- as we have seen happen already this season.

This phenomenon was largely responsible for the demise of Ken Hitchcock in Columbus.  For the dean of the neutral zone trap, a two goal game was an offensive explosion.  It's no coincidence that Hitch had a fondness for veterans, and a healthy disdain of youth.  (After spending considerable time with the junior programs in Canada, he has since loosened his approach, with good results).  Over the long haul, there was a disconnect between Hitchcock's approach and the players Howson provided, and when it reached the point of near mutiny, Hitch was gone.

It's a mistake to rely on a system that places maximum pressure on your defense and goaltending at a time when  you are turning to your backup goaltender to carry the mail.  That psychological fear component causes paralysis -- as we have seen -- and almost invariably stymies success.

I will go to my grave with the belief that there is nothing bad about putting a shot on goal.  You can't score without it, and the worst that happens is that the goaltender makes the save.  Yet, the Blue Jackets seem averse to shooting.  It has been ten games since the club put 30 shots on goal, and Columbus ranks 27th in the NHL in shots, ahead of only Toronto, New Jersey and Buffalo.  While there is nothing magic about the 30 shot plateau, if you figure that you need to put at least 10 shots on goal for every goal scored in the NHL -- over the long haul -- then to reach that desired three-goals-per-game level, that's pretty much what you need -- at least as a target.

Skeptics will point to the fact that the Blue Jackets have lost many of the games where they had more than 30 shots.  While that's true, it does not follow that the number of shots had a causal connection to the losses.  When the Blue Jackets have lost, it has been more from a lack of structure and individual failings.  In the second period against Tampa, the Blue Jackets played with that structure, and they dominated.  The same can be said of the victories over Toronto and Edmonton.  The Blue Jackets created chances through speed, offensive pressure and the absence of fear.

In the final analysis, Columbus needs to play fast, hard and free.  That doesn't mean irresponsible, it simply means that they have to play sixty minutes with the zeal and skill that they have shown they can muster.  If they do that, there is no time for fear.  Without the fear, opportunities arise in greater numbers, and more goals should result.  If they can put three or four in the net most nights, the pressure in the crease and the defensive zone lifts.  It is a symbiotic relationship that we've glimpsed, but now need to see on a regular basis.  While it's an adage that offense may start in the defensive end, it's undisputed that it has to finish in the opponent's net.  Time to unleash the dogs and make it happen.

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