What is the Identity of This Season’s Columbus Blue Jackets?
How is the team going to play this season?
Through their first two games, the Columbus Blue Jackets placed a noticeable emphasis on team speed, wanting to play as a faster team and take chances to score goals. Nowhere was this more evident than with the defensemen, who led multiple rushes up ice and looked to join the offensive play at every opportunity.
This approach worked to varying degrees. On Friday night, the Blue Jackets dominated the New York Islanders to the tune of a 5-0 win (albeit one that featured some sloppy play). On Saturday night, the team crashed back to Earth as they were crushed 5-1 by the Chicago Blackhawks.
After that game, it was reported by Aaron Portzline of The Athletic that Coach Tortorella wanted to add more grit to each line. As Torts said, “We’ve added skill. But we need determination, too. [...] it’s about determination to win battles, and I don’t think in the first two games we won enough battles.”
To this end, it took all of 2 games for the Torts Line Blender to break up the highly-skilled-if-very-small first line, replacing Alexander Wennberg with Nick Foligno. Pierre-Luc Dubois, arguably the team’s most consistent forward through two games, replaced Sonny Milano on the second line. Josh Anderson slotted in in his familiar third line spot next to Brandon Dubinsky. Sonny Milano, despite leading the team in goals, moved to the fourth line, and Zac Dalpe took a seat in the press box. The lines were as follows:
Last night, these new look lines made their debut in Raleigh as the team took on the Carolina Hurricanes. The result?
The lines lasted about 30 minutes before Torts restored them to their opening night makeup. Sonny Milano in particular had a standout night, working his way back to the second line before scoring two goals to deliver two points to the Blue Jackets.
So, where does this leave us heading into the final 79 games of the season?
Last night, the lines looked similar to how they looked for much of the season last year. For a refresher, let’s grab a game at random. Say, March 2 vs. the Minnesota Wild:
What do we notice about these difference? Let’s take a look.
For starters, our center depth has lost a lot. The game from last March featured William Karlsson centering the fourth line, jackknife-in-the-middle-of-a-career-resurgence Sam Gagner played center for the third line, and Lukas Sedlak (this season’s fourth line center) wasn’t in the lineup because of an injury. The lack of depth at the center position has been a concern for some time, and rumors have been circulating that the Blue Jackets have targeted some guy named Matt Duchene to address that. Let’s assume, for the purposes of this article, that this will not happen because Joe Sakic is a crazy person who expects our three best prospects and a pick in return for a center who wants to leave.
Clearly, the center position will be a point of contention this season, especially if the team struggles. Could the Blue Jackets make a move for Kyle Turris, Ottawa’s center in the final year of his contract? That is an option should the team wish to address the position.
Another option, though one that carries far more risk, is moving Pierre-Luc Dubois back to center. GM Jarmo Kekalainen has stated that he does not believe Dubois is ready for those responsibilities at this time. But Dubois has been one of the Blue Jackets’ best players early in this season. If he can continue to develop and maintain his defensive responsibilities, he could potentially make the change.
The Columbus Blue Jackets, as a team last season, boasted a Corsi for percentage of 50.3%, good for 14th in the league, trailing just behind the Chicago Blackhawks. For those new to advanced statistics, this means that the Blue Jackets took more shots than opponents as a whole on the season, which is generally held to mean that the team possessed the puck ever so slightly more than opponents over the course of the season.
This season, the Columbus Blue Jackets boast a Corsi for of 51.22%, good for 10th in the league (albeit with a very small sample size). It is hard to glean much information from these stats right now, but they will be worth tracking over the course of the year. The Blue Jackets have historically struggled when getting out-possessed (as most NHL teams do).
THE IDEA OF MIXING GRIT AND SKILL VS. SKILLED LINES
Last season, the Blue Jackets’ lines featured, for the most part, a skilled and defensively capable center, a bruising winger willing do the dirty work in the corners, and a skilled shooter. These lines mixed and matched from game to game (and, frequently, period to period), but they seemed to follow a formulaic model.
This season, the lines have been all over the place through three games. We saw mostly consistent line play on opening night, to be expected as the Blue Jackets cruised to a 5-0 victory over a divisional opponent. Only one player played fewer than 11 minutes (Zac Dalpe), and only three fewer than 14 (Dalpe, Lukas Sedlak, and Markus Hannikainnen). It was a balanced attack that saw solid play from almost all players.
Saturday night was a different story. With the Blue Jackets playing terrible and sloppy hockey en route to a 5-1 loss, shifts and lines were juggled. Sedlak played 10 minutes, Jack Johnson played almost 4 fewer minutes than he did on Friday, Dalpe played just 8 minutes, Hannikainen played 9:45. On the other hand, Dubois played over 15 minutes (a 3 minute jump), Matt Calvert played 5 more minutes, and Zach Werenski played almost 24 minutes. Clearly, Torts was not happy and juggled his lines trying to find a spark that would help ignite some fire and bite to his lines. The first line was especially poor, finishing a collective -8 on the night (Artemi Panarin was -2, Cam Atkinson and Alexander Wennberg were both -3).
Tuesday night, Torts was seeking to add “determination to win battles,” to use the coach’s own words. Despite not changing his power play, he returned the starting lines to the formulaic method that seemed to serve the team so well last season. Each line had a skilled shooter, an experienced center, and a wing willing to do the hard work in the corners. The result of that was ... well, not much chemistry and a return to the old lines.
DEFENSEMEN JUMPING INTO THE ATTACK
This season, we have seen a new wrinkle added to the team: more defensemen have been jumping into the play. Ryan Murray mentioned on Tuesday’s CBJ in 30 podcast that the blue liners, if their defensive responsibilities are covered, have “free reign” from the coaching staff to jump into the play. Outside of Seth Jones and Zach Werenski last season, the Blue Jackets did not have a defenseman register more than 23 points (both Jack Johnson and David Savard hit that number). Ryan Murray registered 11 points, Markus Nutivaara chipped in 7, and Scott Harrington had 3.
With defensemen being encouraged to jump into the play (and lead rushes up ice, as we have seen Jack Johnson, Seth Jones, and Zach Werenski do this season), that could potentially lead to odd man rushes the other way if forwards do not commit to their defensive responsibilities. While the team could potentially see an offensive impact and see more goals scored, that strategy will not work if every player does not commit to hustling back on defense on changes of possession. There can be no loafing around and no half-hearted skating back if the team wants to succeed.
So where do we as a team go from here?
The Blue Jackets are, of course, missing one of their most crucial pieces: alternate captain and hard charging winger Boone Jenner. Unfortunately, it is unclear when he will be able to return to the team in any capacity. So, these are the guys that are going to carry the team for the foreseeable future.
I expect the team to continue to shuffle lines according to the formula that worked so well for them last year as they continue to search for a grouping that works. Guys may move up and down the lineup as players struggle, grow, develop, and form chemistry with one another.
I also expect the team to use their physical play more, but not overly so (like they did in the playoffs for some stupid reason). Being able to blend that skill with their physicality will be key to controlling the pace of play and maintaining puck possession over the course of the year.
The team is still learning to find their identity. They may not be the fast-skating and free-wheeling players like you see in Chicago or Pittsburgh up and down the lineup, but nor are they the bruising team that has rings skated around them like Blue Jackets teams of old. They can play a heavy game, but use that to spring skill players into prime positions to score.
The Blue Jackets have time to work out who they are this season. They are the youngest team in the league and finding ways to grow together. But to build on last season, the team has to find ways to string goals and wins together in the meantime.