The welcome to the Eastern Conference hasn’t seemed smooth for the Columbus Blue Jackets so far. On the surface, the current three-game losing streak is disconcerting. Inconsistency, lapses in judgement, turnovers, the inability to score, you name it, they’ve done it (or haven’t done it, depending). Surely this isn’t the same team that had the furious season-ending run at the playoffs in 2012-2013. Where did the desperation, the effort, the winning go?
Of course, that kind of worry-talk tends to overlook something important: last year the Blue Jackets were not a good hockey team. Seriously. Quite often, they even trended toward “disastrous” or “abysmal.”
This isn’t the story you’ll hear from most when they recount the Cinderella tale of a team that stormed toward a playoff spot. People will discuss team work ethic, and the cultural catalyst of John Davidson (or maybe Vinny Prospal). They’re good topics (and can hold some truth), but the on-ice product was ugly. The Jackets were outshot most games, usually handily. That kind of hockey does not translate to wins, and if not for the brilliance of Sergei Bobrovsky, the club’s record would have sank into the depths.
But this season is different, at least so far. The reason for the change lies in the shots, a detail that isn’t always celebrated following a loss.
Shot Attempts and the Possession Change
Last season, the Blue Jackets were awful at shooting the puck and preventing shots. Over the course of the year, the team was 25th in the NHL at 5-on-5 close Fenwick %, a percentage of shot differential at even strength. It’s a bad sign for a team to be outshot by that much: the result means Columbus rarely had the puck, and were typically on the receiving end of shots against.
This season (at the time of this writing), despite the four-loss total, Columbus has climbed to 15th, only slightly below the 50% threshold. That’s quite a jump, and it would be easy to dismiss the change if the Jackets had only played teams like Buffalo and Calgary (clubs with a track record of poor possession ability over the past few years). But instead, the Jackets have managed this recovery all while facing some of the best teams in the NHL. In particular, the last three games were crucial benchmarks for the Columbus effort.
A Losing Streak Against the Best
How can we rationalize three losses as a good thing? By remember who the Jackets were playing. Boston, Detroit, and Montreal were among the elite possession teams in the NHL last year, finishing at fourth, fifth, and eighth best. And this isn’t new territory: the year before saw the Bruins in sixth and the Red Wings in third. Short of playing Chicago and Los Angeles in a three game span, the losing streak for Columbus has been one of the hardest possible series in hockey.
So how did the Jackets fare? Let’s look at it game-by-game
Versus Boston 10/12
This was the low point in the losing streak. 5-on-5 Fenwick totals favored Boston 36-25 (-11 for Columbus), or 26-14 at close scores (-12). It’s not a good result, but it’s not surprising. The Bruins are one of the most talented teams in the league, after all. However, things only truly turned sour for Columbus in the first period. After Boston established a shot total lead, they were never able to pull further away. Taken individually this game isn’t impressive, but at the very least Columbus managed to stop the bleeding in the second and third periods. After barely keeping up in 2012-13, this kind of turnaround against one of the top teams in the NHL is encouraging for the Jackets.
At Detroit 10/15
The quality of Columbus’ game was masked by the final goal total versus the Red Wings. Shot attempts were a back-and-forth affair, with neither team dominating. 5-on-5 shot attempts favored Detroit 35-32 (-3 for Columbus), meaning the Jackets were one good shift away from coming ahead in the possession battle. While the Columbus performed well against Detroit in the standings last year, shot totals heavily favored the Wings in three of the matchups. A shift toward even play with the former divisional rival is impressive for the Jackets.
At Montreal 10/17
Last night in Montreal was a roller coaster game on the scoreboard, but a tightly contested match in shot totals. Overall 5-on-5 and close-score shot attempts were -5 and +0, respectively, for the Jackets. This means that for the second game in a row, Columbus had a solid outing against one of the best teams in the league. If not for a few unlucky bounces (or a slightly off night for the visiting goalie), it’s not hard to imagine Columbus managing a victory, even with the poor scoring start.
The Blue Jackets Hunt for Offense is Actually Going Well
As a final note, let’s consider the offensive production for Columbus. A common refrain has been the need for more goal scoring, and scoreboard seems to suggest the team is still having problems. In reality, the team has improved significantly to date, even beyond the aforementioned possession improvements.
In their 48 game run last year, the Blue Jackets only had 14 games in which they generated 30 or more shots on net, or less than 30% of their matches. In fact, Columbus only managed back-to-back 30+ shot efforts three times in 2012-13, with zero three-in-a-row spans. The club averaged only 26.7 shots per game (27th in the league), and dipped to 20 or fewer shots 9 times.
This year, after only six games, Columbus has already amassed four games with 30 ore more shots, and is currently in the middle of their first set of consecutive 30 shot performances (the games against Detroit and Montreal). Their average shot total is up to 31.8 per game, currently 8th in the NHL.
Why, then, have the goals not followed? The answer is goaltending luck. Columbus has faced .931, .963, and .973 save percentages in three of their six games (from Nabakov, Gustavsson, and Rask, respectively). This does not happen in most games. If a goalie were to hit .918 (about average) and we round up to 32 shots per game, Columbus would average slightly over 2.62 goals per game. That would have been 15th in the NHL last year, up from the Jackets’ lethargic 25th ranking.
Columbus is Coming Together
The Blue Jackets’ position in the standings may not look attractive, especially following a three game skid. Luckily, the underlying performance suggests an improved team that is ready to compete with some of the best teams in the NHL. Improved possession results against elite teams and an increased shot volume are encouraging improvements that should push Columbus to sustainable success in the coming weeks. Factor in an above-average goalie and the eventual return of noted possession beast Nathan Horton? The near-term future looks promising for the Jackets.