Taming The Wild Wild West
The Blue Jackets are off to a good start -- particularly given their past history and current injury status. The forthcoming California swing will provide the litmus test for the young squad.
The Blue Jackets are out of the starting gate with a 3 - 2 - 0 start, which is better than many anticipated and right in the thick of things in the Eastern Conference. Of course, relative standings are meaningless at this point in the season, but avoiding the negative start is important psychologically, and pays dividends down the line in March, when the pressure ramps up. If you bank some early points, you build some security for the future. Looked at another way, if Columbus plays at a 3-2 clip for the rest of the season, they will finish with 98 points, which should be solidly above the line for the playoffs.
As might be expected for a young team afflicted with early injuries, inconsistency has been the order of the day over the first five games. They've had two relatively dominating games (Buffalo and the Rangers), a game where they played badly and won (Calgary), a game they played well and lost (Ottawa), and a game that featured a schizophrenic assortment of good and bad play (Dallas). Still, the two losses were one-goal affairs, and the club seems to have the ability to roust itself from periods of poor play more quickly than in the past.
Offensively, the Blue Jackets are tied for 11th in the NHL in scoring, earning 3.00 goals per game, but lag somewhat on the power play, sitting 18th with a 15% conversion rate. They've won the Corsi battle as a team in three of the five games (including the Ottawa game), and have a respectible overall Corsi of 54.33% in all situations. Given the underperforming power play, the stats suggest that the 5-on-5 possession has been very good, which jives with what I've seen on the ice.
Defensively, the Blue Jackets rank 13th, allowing 2.40 goals per game. This has been helped by a penalty killing percentage of 100% -- tied for the top spot in the NHL with Detroit -- and the fact that the club has thus far been stingy in surrendering penalty minutes, ranking 5th best in that category. It naturally follows that the even strength defense has been relatively more problematic, despite the possession advantage suggested by the Corsi numbers. Again, this corresponds to what I've seen on the ice, where it has largely been individual defensive breakdowns that have hurt the Blue Jackets. This was particularly true against Ottawa, where some individual goofs led directly to goals. While this is not necessarily unexpected early in the season with a young team trying to integrate some new faces, it's an area worth keeping an eye on.
Predictably, Sergei Bobrovsky has been solid in between the pipes, posting a 2.00 GAA and .931 save percentage. He cruelly got tagged for the Ottawa loss, despite stopping 17 of 18 shots. With Curtis McElhinney now sidelined, Anton Forsberg has been called in to pinch hit. While it is doubtful that he'll see much action, it's an organizational positive to have him spend some time with the big club now, as he and Oscar Dansk are the heirs apparent to the backup role.
Individually, Nick Foligno and Ryan Johansen have led the pack for Columbus, with each posting seven points in the early going. Foligno has been particularly impressive, as he has shown the consistent ability to maintain possession and be in the right place in the offensive zone. It's not surprising that he leads the team in individual Corsi at 5-on-5. After shaking off the cobwebs from his contract dispute, Johansen has shown that lethal wrist shot we came to know and love last year, and could be poised for another big year. Cam Atkinson is also playing at a point-per-game pace, and is showing signs that his all-around game might be moving to the next level. Jack Skille has also had a nice start, notching two goals, despite receiving only 11 minutes of ice time per game. Note to Todd Richards: that number needs to go up. While Scott Hartnell has notched four assists, the "40-something" line of Anisimov, Hartnell and Wennberg remains a work in progress. Anisimov has two goals, and the line has created a lot of chances, but has thus far not been rewarded in kind. It will come, as Wennberg is the real deal, and this line could post some big numbers over the long haul.
On the defensive side, the blue liners have yet to get untracked in terms of point contribution. David Savard has the only goal by a defenseman, so there is considerable room for improvement here. There's no reason to think that Wisniewski and Johnson in particular will resume their normal scoring ways, so the fact that the club has scored well to date without significant defensive contribution is a positive sign for the future. The defensive performance of the unit is a bit more difficult to quantify. The plus/minus stat is inadequate for a lot of reasons, and even the individual Corsi numbers do not tell the real story, as players with less ice time tend to get disproportionately rewarded. With defenseman, the numbers are also far more derivative of the forward units on the ice at the time, as the forwards possess the puck at even strength the vast majority of the time. However, these are all we have as a general statistical guide.
Fedor Tyutin has been predictably steady, and his +4 and 52.0 Corsi jive with what we've seen on the ice. Ditto with Wisniewski, who has been much more defensively responsible this year, and Tim Erixon has been a pleasant surprise, sporting a +2 and 61.2 Corsi. To the eye, David Savard has played far better than his -4 and 45.8 Corsi would suggest, while Jack Johnson visually has earned every bit of his -5 and 45.0 Corsi. After a very solid pre-season, Johnson has made some terrible decisions on the ice, and has generally looked defensively clueless. Savard has been dragged down with him. As you might recall, Johnson had similar early struggles last year, but turned his game around and was stellar in the playoffs. Let's set the wake-up call for Wednesday for him, OK? Dalton Prout is another case where the visual and the statistics do not line up. He's a +2 and a 55.2 Corsi on the charts, but visually he has made some awful decisions, and has appeared slow and tentative with the puck. It is somewhat telling that he has received only 14:59 per game of ice time, considerably less than any of the other blue liners. I'd like to see Cody Goloubef get a chance to show his stuff for a few games in a row.
The youngsters -- Marko Dano, Alexander Wennberg and Michael Chaput -- are feeling their way through the early season. As noted above, Wennberg seems to be doing a lot of good things, but just is not getting rewarded. Before his injury, Dano was dynamic and similarly creating good opportunities, being rewarded with a goal and an assist in his three games. After a great pre-season, Chaput has faded a bit. While he has posted two second assists, he is following the pattern we saw last season, where he simply was not visible. The youngsters have a few more weeks before some key decisions need to be made with the return of Boone Jenner and Brandon Dubinsky, but right now Chaput is a clear third place among the three.
It's a pointless exercise to get too bogged down in statistical minutia at this stage in the season, but glancing at how the numbers match perception is always a valuable tool. With four full days off before beginning the annual California swing, the Blue Jackets have time to heal the nicks and scrapes, and work on some of the finer points on the power play and defensive coverage. They went 1-2 on this swing last year, dropping one-goal decisions to San Jose and the Kings after posting a solid win over the Ducks. However, the Blue Jackets sweep of the three California clubs in the 2010-11 season remains the only such sweep by current NHL clubs.
The Ducks, Kings and Sharks are off to a collective 13-3-2 start, so the task is clearly a tall one, particularly with the San Jose & Anaheim contests coming as a back-to back. (While I understand from personal experience that the flight from San Jose to Anaheim can sometimes be shorter than the drive between Anaheim and Los Angeles, why not have the back-to-back come with the LA/Anaheim pairing?) However, Columbus has shown that they can score, and do have Bobrovsky covering their backs. A 1-2 trip still keeps the club at .500 for the season, with this ordeal done for the year. A 2-1 or 3-0 trip will likely represent a gain on the rest of the Eastern Conference, all of whom need to endure this rite of passage during the season. The Blue Jackets and Buffalo Sabres are completing the gauntlet at the same time -- the first Eastern Conference teams to do so .
San Jose plays in Boston on Tuesday, so has a cross-country flight and one day of rest before taking on the Blue Jackets. For Anaheim, the Columbus game on Friday is sandwiched between home contests with the Sabres (Wednesday) and the Sharks (Sunday), while the Kings also are off until Thursday, when they host Buffalo, prior to their tilt against the Blue Jackets on Sunday. That promises to be an all-out affair.
Of course, the California swing provides a formidable challenge to Blue Jackets fans as well, with the San Jose and Anaheim contests beginning at 10:30 PM and 10:00 PM respectively. We get a bit of relief this year, due to the fact that Sunday's game against the Kings is a matinee, with the face-off at 4:00 PM EDT. That should make Monday a bit more tolerable . . .
The Blue Jackets have the tools to do some damage in the Golden State, even with the injury situation. Continue the possession play, penalty killing and solid net play, avoid the defensive miscues, and good things can happen. Whatever the outcomes, it should be some great hockey to watch. Grab the caffeine and settle in -- it's going to be a long week.