State of the NHL: The Blue Jackets are Actually Good But Have Yet to Show They are Great

The Columbus Blue Jackets had their best start to a season after 10 games with their win a week ago, but they have yet to notch a quality win in the early season.  The Jackets’ losses have come against Tampa Bay, Los Angeles, Chicago and St. Louis.  Except for the Blackhawks, these teams all sit at the top of their respective divisions.  So, the Jackets can take some comfort knowing that the teams they have lost to are no slouches.

However, that is where the real issue lies for the Jackets.  In the past, being on a pace to have 113 points would have been enough, but management didn’t go out in the offseason and acquire Artemi Panarin to simply make another playoff appearance.  Nor did they attempt, in vain, to acquire Matt Duchene just to make another first round exit.  Management saw opportunity with the Capitals moving players because of cap issues and the Penguins losing some of their depth as a result of expansion and their own cap issues.

It looks like management was right.  The opportunity is certainly there for the Jackets to take over the Metropolitan Division.  Yet they currently sit in second place.  The team that has taken advantage of the opportunity presented by the Penguins early season struggles and the Capitals seeming decline, to this point, has been the New Jersey Devils. So, where do the Jackets fit in the pecking order of the NHL?

As a starting point, it should be pointed out there are good reasons to believe that the New Jersey Devils hot start is a mirage. For transparency, the stats you will see below are coming from Corsica.hockey, which is an excellent resource.   The Devils have a league-leading PDO of 103.77. That stat, as you may recall is the “luck stat” which takes team shooting percentage and adds it to team save percentage. An average PDO should be around 100 because basic math tells us that every shot on goal is either a goal or a save. So, a PDO of 103.77 is above the norm. There are teams that put up PDO’s above 100 and those teams are typically teams with excellent goaltenders—ex. Washington has finished recent seasons with a PDO above 100 and it isn’t too surprising when you consider who their goaltender is. It is also important to keep in mind that while PDO should typically be around 100 that there have been teams that have gone a whole season with an elevated PDO and there doesn’t seem to be much correlation between regular season PDO and playoff performance. So, the Devils could go on a magical run and win the Stanley Cup, but it isn’t likely when we start to look at other team stats. For one thing, it isn’t solid goaltending that is boosting the Devils, it is an elevated shooting percentage of near 10%. Nothing about the Devils’ lineup suggests to me this is sustainable. The Devils also don’t look good when we look at “possession” stats. They are in the bottom 5 in Corsi For Percentage and Fenwick For Percentage and rank 21st in Expected Goals For Percentage. (Sidenote: I find it interesting that Greg Wyshynski, devout Devils fan, hasn’t tackled the Devils early season luck with the same fervor he did when attempting to proclaim the Jackets weren’t for real a year ago. I’m sure it is just an oversight.)

So, what teams are good when we start to look at luck and compare it to performance? Interestingly, we get different results depending on what metric we choose to look at. So, it is important to understand what each metric measures. Corsi For Percentage divides the shots on goal, missed shots and blocked shots for a team versus the shots on goal, missed shots and blocked shots against a team. Fenwick For Percentage is similar to Corsi, but excludes blocked shots with the argument being that blocked shots are generally not from high danger areas and/or are not true scoring chances and so they should not be factored into the calculation of a scoring chances stat. Expected Goals For Percentage gets far more complicated because it factors in things like shot distance, shot angle, shot type, etc., but for those of us who criticized Corsi for failing to account for these things (i.e. twenty shots from the point are not the same as twenty shots from just outside the crease), Expected Goals For Percentage is, arguably, one of the better metrics we have as to how much a given team is pressuring its opponent rather than being pressured by its opponent…assuming the math that goes into calculating the stat is correct because, again, this is a more complicated statistic that looks at various factors and the more variables that enter the equation, the more room for error. Also, it is important to keep in mind that I’m looking at these stats for teams playing 5-on-5. The low percentage for time on ice for special teams can result in statistical anomalies which are ultimately less important than how a team performs 5-on-5, which accounts for the bulk of their time on ice.

If we start by looking at Corsi For Percentage in the NHL, it is interesting to note that some of the teams at the top of the standings are in the middle range for Corsi For Percentage—Tampa Bay, St. Louis, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh are all clumped together between 13th and 17th. Indeed, some of the teams struggling the most at the moment are doing well in this traditional possession stat. Carolina, Edmonton and Montreal are your top 3 teams in Corsi For Percentage. Those teams are also near the top in Fenwick For Percentage, while St. Louis enters the top 10 at 8th (not surprising giving the high number of blocked shots St. Louis has), Pittsburgh is 12th, Los Angeles is 15th and Tampa is 18th.

Looking at Expected Goals For Percentage, we see Edmonton still on the top, St. Louis is 6th, Pittsburgh is 15th, Los Angeles is 18th, and Tampa is 19th. So, what is going on? Well, part of what is going on is luck. Just as with New Jersey, St. Louis, Tampa and L.A. all see PDO’s near or over 103. You can give L.A. a bit of a break when you factor in that L.A. has Jonathan Quick in goal. Do we really feel that’s the case in Tampa and St. Louis? Tampa’s shooting percentage is particularly troubling when you compare it to their Expected Goals For Percentage. It doesn’t seem that their shot quality is what is driving their team shooting percentage which is over 10%. Also keep in mind that we still have relatively small sample sizes and we may find that all of these teams are better possession teams than their stats would presently suggest.

You’ll notice I didn’t mention the Penguins above when talking about PDO. Why? Because it is something that should have teams in the NHL very worried. The Penguins may be an average possession team, but they have also underperformed…and still find themselves near the top of the Metropolitan. Their backup goaltending woes are well documented resulting in a sub .900 save percentage as a team. What has received less attention is their woeful 4.53% team shooting percentage. Does anyone believe that a team whose goaltending tandem is anchored by Matthew Murray will finish the season with a sub .900 save percentage? Does anyone believe a team that includes Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will have a shooting percentage below 5% for the season? Highly unlikely in both cases, meaning that teams in the Metropolitan have to expect the Penguins will make a big push at some point.

So, where do the Blue Jackets sit? The Blue Jackets have the 4th highest Corsi For Percentage in the league, the 4th highest Fenwick For Percentage in the league and the 2nd highest Expected Goals For Percentage in the league. Is that luck? With a PDO of 101.15 and a two-time Vezina trophy winning goaltender, any luck accounting for this is nominal. They’ve done this while having a Power Play ranked 30th in the league and a Penalty Kill ranked 7th.

So, why do I still feel the Jackets aren’t great? Because of their failure to beat teams like St. Louis, Los Angeles, and Tampa and because of their repeated failures at putting in a full sixty minutes. The Jackets still haven’t beaten a quality opponent a month into the season. Each time they have had the chance they have either come out flat-footed or slowed up when they got a lead. This was most evident in the loss to the Blues.  The Jackets, after yet another slow start, found themselves down 2-0.  To that point in the game, they had given up a horrific 19 shots and had only registered 10 of their own.  As if a switch was turned on, the Jackets suddenly started dominating possession and registered 15 shots to 6 from the Blues in the remainder of the second period.  Lines that had not been clicking earlier suddenly produced shots.  Players who had been content to skate on the perimeter were getting into the slot and taking quality shots.  It became crystal clear that the Jackets had not been outplayed because the Blues possessed superior skill, but merely as a result of being outworked.

This is a consistent storyline from the early part of this season though it is often more apparent on the individual level or when looking at the power play.  I have gone over and over the struggles of Alexander Wennberg, who found himself on the top line largely by default.  Since being removed from the top line, Wennberg has suddenly found the ability to shoot that has so often escaped him, putting in 4 shots on goal in his first two games after being removed from the top line. The moribund power play has been more focused on getting Artemi Panarin a one-timer than simply crashing the net and creating scoring chances. Much was made of coach John Tortorella essentially playing three lines earlier in the week and the message it was sending to the fourth line, but I think the message was being sent just as much to the top three lines, who waited too late to put effort in against the St. Louis Blues. The game against Boston was the equivalent of a bag skate and the team was fortunate to get two points. While they finally came out strong, they nearly gave away the game by resting on their laurels, giving up three straight goals to allow the Bruins to take the game to overtime and, eventually, shootout. It is hard to complain about a 7-3 victory, but the Jackets performance against Florida was as troubling for the play in their own end early in the game as it was encouraging to see the likes of Josh Anderson and Oliver Bjorkstrand continuing to show their potential.

This is all a long-winded way of saying that, while the Jackets are clearly very good, they will have to put in a full 60 minutes (or more) of effort to become a truly elite team and they have done so rarely to this point in the season, which explains why they have struggled against other successful teams. They cannot expect the Penguins to continue to struggle forever. If they are going to grab the opportunity to take the Metropolitan Division, they need to do it sooner rather than later and they will need to do it by beating not just the teams below them, but the other teams at the top of the standings. To do that, they are going to need to put in complete efforts night in and night out without taking periods or games off. How they do against Tampa this weekend will be another good test as to whether they can do that or whether they are merely a good team.

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