Numbers & Optics: The Blue Jackets' Path of Progress
The Blue Jackets are scratching and clawing their way out of a deep hole. So, what has changed?
We're now 22 games into the season, and 15 games into John Tortorella's time behind the bench. If this was a horse race, the horses would just be getting loose, and the jockeys hunkered down for the long 75% of the ride ahead. However, for today's purposes we're not interested in prognosticating the future. Instead, we'll look at the season to date, comparing the reigns of both coaches, looking at statistics, both conventional and enhanced, and comparing the numbers with the realities of what has been experienced on the ice.
At the basic level, the Blue Jackets are 8 - 7 under John Tortorella, compared to 0 - 7 under Todd Richards. Nothing to send the fans dancing in the streets, but obviously a step in the right direction. If you deal with more recent history, Columbus is 6 - 4 over the last ten, and the San Jose loss dropped them just off the "win-two-out-of-three" pace they had been following for the previous nine contests. Of course, wins and losses are results, not causes, so let's dig deeper.
Looking at goals scored vs. goals against reveals some more significant signs of progress. For the first seven contests this season, the Blue Jackets averaged just 1.96 goals per game, and surrendered a horrific 4.86 goals per contest. Since then, Columbus has scored at a 2.80 GPG clip, and surrendered just 2.47 GAPG, which is a notable turnaround. The return to form of Sergei Bobrovsky is obviously key here, but credit also has to go to the defensive structure that John Tortorella has brought to the table, as the horrific early defensive efforts hung the goalies out to dry, which eroded their confidence, resulting in some softer goals, etc. etc. It's a vicious cycle, and one that Tortorella has had an immediate and demonstrable effect in curtailing.
These numbers get a little more interesting when viewed in context with others. Under Todd Richards, the Blue Jackets had a team Corsi/SAT of 53.23%, while under Tortorella, that has fallen to 45.71%. Of their 22 games, the Blue Jackets have won the Corsi/SAT just seven times. Their record in those games? 1 - 6. It is a strange statistical quirk that their worst Corsi/SAT performance of the season -- 27.59% -- came in their 4 - 0 shutout victory over Nashville. Of course, that game featured two early goals, and a final forty minutes where Columbus was playing with four defensemen. They were understandably cautious about pressing the pace in those final two periods. While Nashville did have a ton of attempted shots, there were few serious threats, due to the defense's ability to keep the Predators to the perimeter, block shots, and disrupt passes with their sticks.
One factor that contributes to the Corsi/SAT decline is an overall reduction in the average number of shots the Blue Jackets attempt. Under Todd Richards, the Blue Jackets averaged 32 shots on goal, and another 24 shot attempts that either missed the mark or were blocked out front. With John Tortorella at the helm, those numbers have dropped to 28 shots on goal, and 20 blocked or missed -- an overall decline of eight attempted shots per game. That's significant in the absolute, but is it endemic to Tortorella's style, or simply an artifact of the transition from one system to another. The coach himself adamantly insists that his structures, if anything, should increase offensive productivity, and certainly are not designed to quash it. The optics of the situation would tend to confirm his view. The Blue Jackets have actually demonstrated the ability to not only maintain, but dominate possession in the offensive zone. However, there has been notable reluctance to shoot, particularly from the blue liners, who have been particularly meticulous about not pinching too quickly, and have opted for the deep pass, rather than the point shot. Tortorella wants to change that, and get the blue liners more engaged. Once that happens, those Corsi/SAT numbers will likely normalize. However, as the record suggests, Corsi/SAT does not always correlate with victory.
One fact that has helped is the improved shooting percentage. Using the NHL method of calculation -- premised only on shots on goal -- the Blue Jackets have gone from 5.8% under Richards to 9.98% since. Much of this, of course, is likely a simple reversion to the mean, particularly after the Blue Jackets started to grip their sticks ever tighter as the losses mounted. Still, a case can be made that the structure that has been brought into play has improved the quality of the chances the club is getting in the offensive zone. The middle of the NHL range for shooting percentage is just about 9%, so their former pace was far more divergent from the curve than the current one.
Coming from the other perspective, shots on goal by the opposition have remained largely the same, increasing only by 0.5 shots per game, from 29.5 to 30. The opposition does have three more misses per game, and four more blocked shots per game under Tortorella. Some of this comes from an increase in penalty kill sessions by just about a full kill per game, while the new defensive structure, which allows more perimeter shots, is the likely cause of the remainder.
On special teams, power play production has dipped slightly, from 20.69% to 18.75%, but remains in the middle of the league ranks. The penalty kill, however, has seen a total transformation. The first seven games of the year had the Blue Jackets killing just two-thirds of the penalties against them -- by far the worst in the league. Under John Tortorella, the penalty kill has been clicking along at an 85.96% pace, which by itself would be in the top five in the NHL. Even with the early unpleasantness, Columbus is a respectable 14th in the league on the PK.
The turnaround in the PK is both timely and prudent, as one of the big areas requiring statistical improvement is the penalty area. The Blue Jackets surrender just about four power plays per game, on average, and rank 29th in the NHL in the PIM category, with Winnipeg bringing up the rear. While that number is somewhat skewed by a league-leading 13 major penalties, which one would figure to be usually offset by an opponent's major, there is still a big gap between Columbus and other clubs. Even taking away the 13 majors, the Blue Jackets still far outpace all clubs other than the Jets in time occupying the box. Not a great category in which to be a league leader, as you are effectively lopping time off of your offensive opportunity. This needs to go back down, and will hopefully get there with more discipline.
The other area that remains a work in progress is the face-off circle, where the Blue Jackets are dead last in the league. Columbus has won only 48.1% of its face-offs, and this has not materially changed over the course of the season. Certainly, the relatively early loss of Alexander Wennberg, followed by the loss of Brandon Dubinsky, have hurt here, as has Ryan Johansen's slow start. However, the face-off statistic is one of those things that is independent of coach, system or team. It's a simple player vs. player struggle that is part technique and part desire. As with Corsi/SAT, the Blue Jackets have had just seven contests in which they won the face-off battle, and they have won just two of those games. So, while face-off percentage in the short term may not directly correlate to victory or defeat, it is playing with fire to fall so far out of the mainstream. Face-off wins equal possession, and possession equals opportunity. At minimum, it means a lack of opportunity for the opposition. How many times would a face-off win in their own zone have stymied momentum and avoided calamity? Not sure, but likely several. Another task on the "To Do" list going forward.
Numbers aside, the optics of the games strongly support the existence of meaningful changes that have had a positive impact. The transition from individual to team play is apparent, and the structure is also there. Unlike some systems and structures, the Blue Jackets are capable of playing with pace and maintain defensive responsibility. Rome was not built in a day, however, and Columbus still needs to find the ability to do these things consistently. Ryan Johansen himself is a metaphor for the team's transition experience. He was just emerging from his funk, starting to show confidence, pace and assertiveness in his game, when he had a relapse vs. the Sharks. Tortorella notices everything, however, and immediately moved Johansen to the fourth line. Johansen responded by scoring a goal. Such is the way of the world in bringing a young team back from the brink, scratching and clawing every step of the way. We're seeing progress, and some light at the end of the tunnel. Sure hope that's not an oncoming train . . . Stay tuned.