Blue Jackets' Slow Start: Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life
[whistle-whistle... whistle-whistle... whistle-whistle... whistle-whistle]
You don't need me to kick the dead horse of how bad the 0-8-0 start was (and is, really), and of how hard it's going to be to find any success this season because of it. But, even with the coaching change, the terrible bouts of defense, and the fact that Columbus is still in last place despite finding some degree of a turn around, there are some positives lurking there as well. This is not to say there aren't still negatives, because we all can see them. This is just to say, hey, this team might be worth watching for just a little bit longer.
No one ever accused me of being an optimist, but what the hell, right?
1. 6-4-0 record in last 10 games
It isn't fair to hang the eighth loss to start the season on either coach, really, as Richards had gotten fired and Tortorella had been on the job for basically a day and didn't even know his full roster by name yet. So, we'll leave that one in limbo. But, since then, the Jackets have gone 6-4-0, and two of those losses were games they played well enough to win on many nights.
Also, 12 points in 10 games is a 98-point pace over an entire season. Take out the eight games that preceded this stretch and the Jackets are on pace for around 89 points... or, exactly the same as last season.
2. The team is scoring.
They've scored 30 goals in these 10 games, which (obviously) is 3.00 goals per game. Way back when, when there was hope, I predicted that this team should be able to hit that number for the entire season. They probably won't get there (though they've bumped up to 2.50 gpg for the entire 18-game slate), but we're finally starting to see the payoff for the forward corps we know this team has. And, considering the book on Torts is DEFENSE-FIRST and a corresponding lack of offense, it's good to see the team scoring just the same. Some of that is the Power Play (stay tuned!), but, consider, also, that despite the slow start, the following guys are scoring at a pretty good clip:
Scott Hartnell - 8/6/14 in 18 games: on pace for 36 goals and 64 points over an 82-game schedule
Boone Jenner - 9/4/13 in 18 games: on pace for 41 goals and 59 points over an 82-game schedule
Brandon Saad - 7/4/11 in 17 games: on pace for 33 goals and 52 points over an 81-game schedule
Ryan Johansen - 2/10/12 in 16 games: on pace for 50 assists and 60 points over an 80-game schedule
Will all of those guys hit those numbers (and not miss anymore games)? Probably not. But, it tells us that the core of the offense is as strong as we thought it would be, and this doesn't factor in Brandon Dubinsky having a strong year or the complete disappearance of Nick Foligno from the stat sheet. Hopefully the latter gets going at some point soon.
3. DAT POWER PLAY
This was one area that probably didn't have much concern going into the season, and it's frankly been the one almost constant through the entirety of the young(ish) season: this Power Play is dangerous. The Jackets are 15-for-66 on the Power Play through 18 games, which is good for 22.7% and sixth in the league. They've scored the fourth-most PPGs in the league, just two behind Boston and Dallas, and one behind Montreal. They're also yet to allow a SHGA, which considering how much other crap went wrong, is somewhat shocking.
In our 10-game slice that we keep going back to, they've scored eight PPGs and have created 17 high-danger scoring chances. The Jackets still have plenty of issues at even strength, but having a Power Play that's consistently good is a good way to keep the ship afloat while they figure out the rest.
4a. Some Defense?
37 goals allowed in the first eight games (4.63 gapg). That's bad.
25 goals allowed in the last 10 games (2.50 gapg). That's... not bad? Better? By light years?
Let's break that down a bit more.
4b. An actual PK has emerged.
The Jackets' PK was dreadful to start the season. That, combined with their seeming inability NOT to take dumb penalties, was frankly a HUGE factor to starting off 0-8-0. In that span, they allowed eight goals on 23 PKs. That was a 65.2% success rate, and they were in effect giving up a free goal each game to their opponents. Not a good way to stop a losing streak. You can pin the loss in Buffalo in game three directly on this, as the Jackets were shorthanded SEVEN times and gave up three PPGs. Who knows... if that game goes just a little bit differently in terms of just staying out of the box, or killing off one or two more penalties... ugh. I can't think about it right now. This is supposed to be a positive piece!
At any rate, in the last 10 games, the Jackets' PK has found itself. They've allowed just five goals while shorthanded on 40 times shorthanded, good for an 87.5% success rate, and they've been able to bump their season number up to 79.4%, which pushed them from last in the league all the way to 18th overall. There is still an alarming number of times-shorthanded buried in that stat, which is not good. That said, the fact that they're not hemorrhaging goals down a skater is a sign of improvement. It also is indicative of the next item on the list.
5. Bob? BOB!
This has been perhaps the biggest change of late. Sergei Bobrovsky is starting to resemble the guy we hoped he would be (and that, frankly, we saw in the pre-season). He played in six of those first eight losses, and his numbers were staggeringly bad:
6 GP, 26 GA on 162 shots (.840 sv%) and a 4.72 GAA
Some of that was the crappy defense, but also some of the crappy defense was Bob playing badly and having no confidence. We can debate the "why" aspect of why things have changed since Torts has come on and settled things down, but the numbers don't lie. Over the last 10 games for the team, Bob has started nine (and finished eight). The numbers, which include the total clunker against Winnipeg from which he was pulled after one period, allowing three goals on 11 shots:
9 GP, 20 GA on 260 shots (.923 sv%) and a 2.42 GAA
Differences don't get much more stark than those, and if you take out the bad game against the 'Peg they look even better (but, you can't do that, of course). Bob's season averages are still in the toilet (.891 sv%, 3.34 gaa), but when you look at those first six starts for him, you can see why.
The biggest change has been at EV, where Bob has .928 sv% over this 10-game stretch for the team. His EV sv% during the eight-game losing streak was .840.
Marinate in those two numbers for a minute.
You marinated? Good.
I mean, wow. He's saving almost 9% more of the shots he faces just at even strength. Some of that is the defense tightening up, but a lot of it is Bob. I think we can all agree that this team only goes as far as Bob can take them given the defense they still have, so the night-and-day change over the last 10 games... man, if only it had come sooner.
The PK has been more of the same, as we touched on above. Bob's PK sv% during the eight game skid was .800. Over the last 10 games (in which he's played in nine), his PK sv% is .925. He's seventh in the league in that stat over that time period (minimum 20 minutes of ice time shorthanded for a goalie). And, that's a 12.5% improvement in save percentage while the team is short-handed. I mean. Come on.
6. They might be finally getting some of that famed "luck".
I am not sold that PDO is purely "luck" in terms of a stat. It's figured by combining the team's shooting percentage and save percentage over the desired time period. The larger the sample, the more it tends to the average of 100. The stat intrinsincally believes in the overall average ability of players across the league, so it posits that the more data you get, the more the numbers will trend toward that average.
We saw Bob's abhorrent save percentage numbers above, which contributed to the Jackets having a criminally low PDO over the first eight games: 89.8. That was, by far, worst in the league; they were an entire 5% behind the 29th team (Anaheim) over that stretch. And a lot of it was Bob, as he was saving 84.0% of his shots (and CMac wasn't any better, as the TEAM'S sv% was 83.9%). BUT, if we consider how this stat is tabulated, it also means the ENTIRE TEAM was shooting 5.9% at all strengths. That's just awful, and was fifth-worst in the league. We lamented the lack of any puck luck (and that's why this stat is often called the "luck" stat).
Well, consider the last 10 games: the Jackets are shooting at 10.7% at all strengths, and their save percentage is up to 92.0%. The result? A 102.7 PDO at all strengths, which is good for third-best in the league over that time span. This isn't sustainable, most likely (remember, it always trends back to 100, or average, and for the season they're still at 97.0, third worst in the league), but it's a big reason the team is playing better: stopping more shots, and converting more shots.
Wait, it's almost like that's the entire point of this game. Shocking, eh?
There's still plenty to be concerned about.
Look, I know there are still plenty of things to address:
- The team *just* won its first home game of the season.
- They're still in last place.
- They're still taking waayyy too many penalties.
- Their CorsiFor% at EV was 52.6% for the first eight games, and sits at 45.5% over the last 10 games.
- They were +7 in scoring chances at EV for the first eight games, and are -12 over the last 10 games./
But, like Neo once said, "I don't know the future. I didn't come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it's going to begin." The playoffs are a pipe dream at best. This team isn't good... yet. They still frustrate the hell out of me basically half the time, even with the improved play of late.
However, as I've tried to illustrate, they've managed to find some pretty big band aids to put on many of their self-inflicted wounds from the first eight games. There are still 64 games left. They need a pretty heavy does of points (let's say 84 points to be conservative) if they want to think about playoffs. That's a nearly impossible task.
Yet, the team has figured some things out about themselves, I think. The underlying numbers are mixed, but it's fair to say that some of the biggest issues are starting to trend in the right direction. Consider that, even in spite of those worrying possession numbers at EV over the last 10 games, the team has scored two more EV goals than they've allowed (not to mention they're +4 on special teams, with 8 PPGs and 1 SHG scored against 5 PPGA) and are +5 overall in scoring (the reason it's not +6 is that the ENG Vancouver scored isn't listed as an EV goal allowed).
There are some slivers of optimism hiding in there. Even I, as a perennial pessimist, can find some reason for hope. Maybe not for this season in terms of playoffs, but at least for the future.
It's up to the team, however, to keep building.