During the course of the recent unpleasantness (2-7-3 over the last 12 contests), the Columbus Blue Jackets and their fans have been scurrying to find answers for the slump. To be sure, Columbus has not played awful hockey through this string, but has not played well enough to consistently garner points. While there has been some suspect officiating (Dallas), some more than suspect goaltending (Edmonton, Calgary, St. Louis), and a couple of general meltdowns (Buffalo, Pittsburgh), the club has been competetive, but has been guilty of making the key mistake — or not making the key play — at the times necessary.
Columbus being Columbus, the more vocal elements of the fan base are calling for wholesale changes. The blame is being placed on a variety of factors, ranging from struggling goaltender Steve Mason, to perceived slowness in the defensive corps, to a general lack of “grit” (always the fallback position in a community more familiar with linebackers than linesmen, where the solution is always to hit something… hard). However, a look at the numbers suggests that appearance may deceiving, and that other factors are at play here. Let’s look a little more closely.
So, while goaltending has been an adventure, and Mason has been a definite work in progress, the Jackets are firmly in the middle of the Western Conference peloton, so far as netminding is concerned.
Defense is a bit hard to quantify in terms of statistics. Goals Against doesn’t really tell the story if you are looking to distinguish between goaltending and defensive effort, as soft goals can make a defense look unduly bad. While it is also true that great saves can make a defense look unduly good, I have yet to find a “great save” statistical category.
What the skaters can control in their own zone is the number of shots on goal that are surrendered. Through tight defense, maintaining control of the puck in the neutral and offensive zones, and blocking shots, opponents’ shots can be minimized. Again, Columbus falls in the middle of the pack here, ranking 8th in the Western Conference, with 973 shots surrendered. St. Louis has been the stingiest, giving up only 848 shots , while Anaheim has allowed a staggering 1,227 shots.
In the course of the slump, the activity in our own zone has tended to stray from the tight “1 + 1” principles that Arniel has been preaching –retreating instead of pressuring, and providing space and time instead of taking it away. Still, with the exception of a couple of instances, there have not been the massive defensive breakdowns that many feared would come with the advent of Arniel’s more dynamic system.
the John Wayne classic, but there is a point to be made here. For many in the Columbus fan base, “grit” is the equivalent of “hits”. The lack of “grit” is a bad thing, the existence of “grit” is desirable, and the more “grit”, the better. Whenever the Blue Jackets endure a slump of any significant duration, it is invariably attributed to the perceived lack of “true grit.”
How does this theory stand up to analysis? Not very well, actually. First of all, keep in mind that the concept of a “hit” is, at best, rather fluid. There are standards, such as contact that impedes progress or causes the player to lose possession of the puck, but there is lots of room for subjectivity. The definition can vary substantially from rink to rink, and even from game to game. It’s truly a “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it” kind of statistic.
Among Western Conference clubs, the Blue Jackets rank third in hits, with 795. They have out hit their opponents in 23 of the 32 games played thus far. Their record in those games? 12-11-0. Hardly an indication of physical domination. How have they fared in the nine games where they were outhit? 4-2-3, statistically better than the games in which they win the hit battle, but not really an appreciable difference.
Part of the problem with the Blue Jackets is that they often lose sight of one of the primary purposes of hitting in the first place — to create offensive opportunities. Derek Dorsett and Jared Boll in particular appear to lose sight of this fact, and appear more interested in the hit for the hit’s sake, rather than any other purpose.
Two recent games provide cogent examples of the point. Against the NY Rangers, just 1:29 into the game, Derek Dorsett traveled half the width of the ice to lay a hit against the boards, despite the fact that the puck was long gone and the play was well up the ice. He took a charging penalty and had nothing to show for the effort except time in the box.
The difference between the two events was that Murray was aware of the puck and acted consistently with the opportunity. Hitting has its place, but often a simple poke check, a bump or the mere threat of a big hit are more effective than attempting to deliver a knockout blow. The Blue Jackets are 5-2-2 when they have fewer than 20 hits. Just saying . . .
Just as I didn’t focus on Goals Against when discussing the defense, my focus in discussing the offense is not on Goals Scored. From a statistical standpoint, Goals Scored is the result of the number of shots taken and the percentage of those shots converted. In shorthand: how many opportunities you have, and how well you convert those opportunities. Similarly, it is not important for this analysis whether the shots come on the power play, five-on-five, or any permutation of the above. A shot is a shot, and it goes in or it doesn’t.
In terms of opportunities, the Blue Jackets again are solidly in the middle of the pack, ranking eighth in the Western Conference with 962 shots on goal. So, while they could generate more shots, they are nowhere near the bottom. However, it is in the conversion of those opportunites that we find Columbus’ Achilles’ Heel. The Blue Jackets net just 8.32% of their shots on goal, ahead of only St. Louis’ 8.18%, and significantly below the torrid 11.96% pace set by Colorado.
How important is this statistic? Well, if Columbus just elevated its shooting percentage by 1.5%, placing it in the middle range of the conference, it would mean an additional 15 goals over the first 32 game span. That’s a significant move in goal production, and would have a meaningful impact on overall record. Keep in mind that we are talking about shots on goal here, not total attempted shots, so we are not even factoring in shots that never find the crease.
Colorado has been able to leverage its leading shooting percentage, and a sixth place rank in shots to third place in the conference in points, despite trailing the rest of the conference in save percentage, and ranking 11th in Shots Against. Vancouver, Dallas and Detroit are all in the top five in shooting percentage. The only interloper is Edmonton, whose 10.47 shooting percentage is offset by its 14th place rankings in Shots For and Shots Against. San Jose ranks only ninth in shooting percentage, but has the second highest shot total in the conference, which compensates.
Although you do not hear much about shooting percentage in the NHL, it is a key indicator of success. In the Blue Jackets’ case, it also matches with what has been observed on the ice. Time and again, the players have rued the inability to “finish.” Part of this stems from having too many players apparently perceiving themselves as “set up” men, and not shooters. While Rick Nash has a very solid 13.82% conversion rate on his shots, his linemates, Brassard and Voracek, have percentages of 8.43 and 7.58, respectively, and have taken a third fewer shots apiece than Nash’s 123 shots. Again, this matches what has been observed on the ice, as Brassard and Voracek appear to focus first on getting the puck to Nash, rather than take advantage of their own opportunities. When they do shoot, they appear tentative.
The second line suffers as well. Antoine Vermette has a strong 15.25 shooting percentage, but has only mustered 59 shots thus far in the campaign. With those numbers, he needs to have twice as many shots registered. Vermette struggled early, but has been rounding into form of late, which should be a good omen for offensive productivity. Similarly, the return of Kristian Huselius, who has a relatively gaudy 25% shooting percentage (six goals on 25 shots) in limited duty, should be a big stabilizing influence.
When compared to the rest of the Western Conference, the Blue Jackets rank in the top eight in most significant statistical categories: eighth in shots, third in Hits, fifth in Blocked Shots, fifth in Faceoff Percentage, eight in Save Percentage and eighth in Shots Against. Yet, they are tied for 11th in points, and 12th in Goals. Why? They haven’t been able to convert their chances.
As I prepare to publish this, Scott Arniel has announced that he is moving Vermette and Huselius up to the top line, to team with Nash. Brassard and Voracek will work with R. J. Umberger on the second line. This is in keeping with the discussion above. Vermette and Huselius, as established veterans, will take their shots as they appear. That creates greater problems for defenses, who can no longer focus primarily on Nash. It should also result in an increase in Nash’s relatively paltry assist total of nine.
Similarly, Brassard and Voracek will be free to re-establish the chemistry they have previously displayed, and become more assertive in the offensive end. Umberger provides some more veteran stability for the line, though he will not dominate the opportunities.