The Columbus Blue Jackets were an interesting, if not impressive story last season. They finished the last 2 months of the regular season 19-5-4. Behind Sergei Bobrovsky’s Vezina-winning performance and .932 save percentage, they barely missed the playoffs.
Now the Blue Jackets find themselves in a similar position. Currently, they hold one of the two Wild Card positions on a tie-breaker, and they have 80 points on the season, tied with the Washington Capitals, Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs. If they hope to make the playoffs this season and avoid another early summer, they need to finish strong.
In searching for answers to whether or not the Jackets have what it takes to make the playoffs, I decided to have a look at last seasons numbers, specifically the advanced statistics. I’ve pored over the numbers for this current season on a daily basis, but I haven’t taken the time to examine the numbers from the lockout-shortened season. What I’ve discovered in doing so may surprise you.
Last season the Blue Jackets weren’t just bad, they were really bad when it came to puck possession. In fact, it appears that outside of Bobrovsky’s amazing performance, the team was relying on luck more than anything.
In this graph from Extra Skater we can see that out of 48 games played last season the Blue Jackets only registered a positive Fenwick For percentage (total missed shots and shots on goal percentage) in 15 of 48 games when the score was close. The end result on the season was a FF% of 47.1. This should throw up a red flag. A team running on such a bad FF% would have no chance of sustaining such an impressive record, especially over the course of a full season.
Something else that caught my eye was the Blue Jackets PDO (sum of the team’s save percentage and shooting percentage). PDO tends to level out around 100 over an extended period of time, which we would expect that a 106 is not at all sustainable and their negative shot differential would have eventually turned their season back around, or even worse, forced them out of the playoffs in a hurry.
The Toronto Maple Leafs recent 5 game losing streak, which has caused them to lose significant ground in the playoff race, is due in part to a similar performance from their team. They’ve relied heavily on their goaltenders to keep the team in contention throughout the entire season. Jonathan Bernier’s .925 SV% is incredible, however the team in front of him isn’t doing him any favors as they currently sit second to last in FF%, just ahead of the Buffalo Sabres.
The Blue Jackets Current Season
Through the first two months of the current season the Blue Jackets were not playing any better than they did last season. Even Bobrovsky had a slow start, winning 10 out of the first 23 games played. The lowest point coming on November 19 when the Blue Jackets allowed the Edmonton Oilers to score 7 goals, while they were held off the score sheet.
But something happened in the beginning of December just as the Blue Jackets would be dealt some bad news concerning Sergei Bobrovsky, who was forced out of action for a month with a groin injury.
All of a sudden everything seemed to change. I’m speculating, but perhaps having to rely on a backup goaltender, Curtis McElhinney, the players suddenly realized that they needed to play better to win games, rather than hope that Bobrovsky would steal a few games for them. This is reflected in another graph from Extra Skater.
As you can see, the Blue Jackets began to take control of puck possession just after the month of November ended. The sudden boost has taken the Jackets from a FF% team of 45% to 51.2% on the season, which is ranked 11th overall. The Leafs, Wings and Capitals all rank lower.
Curtis McElhinney played well enough, going 6-5-0 while Bobrovsky was in recovery. However, since Sergei’s return, he’s brought his save percentage back up to .919 (13th overall). He’s also gone 17-8-2 and helped the Blue Jackets climb the standings and challenge for a playoff position.
Certainly, the Blue Jackets are in a much better position to make the playoffs this season, even if the race is tighter than last season.
What Makes The Blue Jackets Playoff Worthy
One of the biggest surprises on the season is Ryan Johansen. The 21 year-old is certainly in the middle of a breakout season. He’s already surpassed his single season records with 29 goals and 25 assists. When he scores 30 goals he’ll be the 2nd player other than Rick Nash to score 30 goals for the Jackets in a single season since 2003-04. His game-breaking presence is crucial to a team that has had to rely on a “score by committee” approach.
A few other surprises include the play of the two talented rookies on the roster. Defenseman Ryan Murray, who had knee surgery in the beginning of March, has shown that he can handle his assignments exceptionally well. Alongside James Wisniewski, the two were often considered the top defensive pairing on the team. Forward Boone Jenner has also found a home on the top line next to Ryan Johansen and Nathan Horton. Jenner has 13 goals and 10 assists on the season and is a very physical player.
The Blue Jackets are young, perhaps the youngest team in the league, which brings promise to the future of this team. They’ve already set a franchise record, winning 8 games in a row earlier this season. If this group of young players can continue to develop and improve, then we’ll be talking about the Jackets come playoff time for several seasons.