Blue Jackets Missing Influence of Bobrovsky & Tortorella

Saturday night at Nationwide Arena proved to be the same old horror movie for the Columbus Blue Jackets. Despite a much better first period, the Pittsburgh Penguins did what they always seem to do to the Blue Jackets: win and win going away.

Explore everything hockey with THW’s Hockeypedia pages.

The Hockey Writers HockeyPedia 800x120

The Blue Jackets built a 2-0 lead after the first period thanks to goals by Boone Jenner and Jack Roslovic. Kent Johnson later added his first NHL goal to make it a 3-1 lead.

Sign up for our regular 'Blue Jackets Newsletter' for all the latest.

However after the excitement of that moment faded, the Penguins outscored the Blue Jackets 5-0 the rest of the way. One team knew how to shake off an awful start. The other team couldn’t do anything to stop the momentum once things turned against them.

It’s a familiar theme, isn’t it? The Blue Jackets are giving up goals at a historically bad rate for the franchise. After giving up 300 goals in 2021-22, they’ve already allowed 26 goals in their first six games this season, an average of 4.33 goals against per game.

Related: Blue Jackets’ Defensive Woes Plaguing Them Early in Season

The Blue Jackets woke up Sunday morning in New York in last place in the Eastern Conference by points percentage. Their goal differential is already at a -9, which is the worst rate in the East. Does it feel to you like there’s a quick answer to this one? Because I don’t see anything quick that can fix this situation, barring a complete shift in systems.

A Quick Recap

Let’s go back to the end of last season. The Blue Jackets made it clear on the record that their goal was to get better defensively and make lowering their goals against a priority.

The team reiterated that same thought before training camp started. “We have to be in the green,” coach Brad Larsen said. If they want to be in the playoff hunt, they have to have a positive goal differential.

Just six games into the new season, they are already at -9, an average of losing each game by more than a goal. Yes it is only six games in so it is early and there is time to adjust to their systems and for players to take steps to improve.

Putting the Johnny Gaudreau signing aside, the Blue Jackets made just one move to add to their blue line. They added Erik Gudbranson. They felt that a physical presence was needed back there.

While there is some validity to that argument, it was clear that the Blue Jackets were banking on their current players to improve and prioritize their goals against. So far in 2022-23, it’s the same old story.

Wheels Keep Coming Off

All of the Blue Jackets’ losses this season have the same theme in them. Once the wheels come off, they have no answer for it. Let’s look at those games.

  • at Carolina, Blue Jackets up 1-0, lose Patrik Laine to injury, eventually lose 4-1.
  • vs. Tampa Bay, Gaudreau makes it 1-0 for his first Blue Jackets’ goal, eventually lose 5-2.
  • at St. Louis, it’s 2-2 in the third period, a turnover becomes a goal against and they eventually lose 5-2.
  • vs. Pittsburgh, the Blue Jackets dominate the first period and lead 2-0, only to eventually lose 6-3.

The pattern is the same. At some point in each of these losses, the Blue Jackets are in the game. However they have yet to show an ability to wrestle momentum back their way once they lose it. It’s almost like they forget the basics and let panic take over.

Case in point. It’s 3-3 in the third period Saturday night. The Blue Jackets are in the game but are trying to hold off the mighty Penguins. Somehow Sidney Crosby is left wide open in the right circle. No goalie in the world is going to stop that shot when there is no defender even close to him. That’s a defensive breakdown of massive proportions. That’s not a one-off either. These breakdowns have been happening for far too long going back to last season.

Here’s Larsen after the game Saturday night. “There’s some things, it’s unfortunate. But we’re still 3-3 going into the third. You gotta gather yourself. That’s part of pro hockey. We took the first. They took the second. You gotta gather yourself for the third. It’s awful. We gave up two faceoff goals in the third period. It’s just killer. That should never happen. You know what? We let some things distract us tonight in some areas later in the game I thought and it hurt us.”

YouTube player

On the Crosby goal, Larsen said that doesn’t happen if they were able to do other things first. Let him explain. “There’s something leading up to it (Crosby goal) that wouldn’t even matter. If we get A/B right because it got to C because we couldn’t get A/B right. That’s the problem.”

There indeed lies the problem. The Blue Jackets are making far too many mistakes that are allowing these easy goals to be scored. Consider this insane stat. In their last 50 regular season games, the Blue Jackets have allowed three goals or more in 40 of those 50 games, an 80% clip. You can’t consistently win games in the NHL giving up that many goals. Even when they do win, they generally have to outscore opponents. That is not a recipe for success.

A Hard Truth

Now comes the hard part and a hard truth the Blue Jackets are currently facing. Remember the days of Sergei Bobrovsky and John Tortorella? Bobrovsky was an anchor in net showing an ability to make highlight reel saves at key moments. Tortorella focused on defense and structure that helped the team to four consecutive playoff appearances.

Do you miss that? Yes towards the end of their tenures it felt like it was time for them to move on. But would you feel better if Bobrovsky was making those saves again for the Blue Jackets and Tortorella’s structure was in place to limit the goals against?

Here’s the hard truth. The Blue Jackets not only miss the influence of Bobrovsky and Tortorella, they haven’t been fully replaced yet. Let the numbers make the point.

  • Bobrovsky from 2016-17 to 2018-19 had a .922 save percentage. The Blue Jackets allowed just 195 goals against in 82 games, an average of 2.38 goals per game for the season. Then it was 2.80 and 2.83 goals per game for the next two seasons.
  • Elvis Merzlikins’ GAA in his career also show the pattern. Under Tortorella it was 2.35 and then 2.77. Under Larsen it’s been 3.22 and so far this season it’s 4.19 in the early going.
John Tortorella Philadelphia Flyers
John Tortorella and Sergei Bobrovsky’s influence are sorely missed by the Blue Jackets. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

It is unfair to blame Merzlikins for this whole situation, although there’s no question he can play better. The defense and structure has not been the same since Tortorella and the Blue Jackets agreed to part ways. When a team gives up shots at the rate they do, the goaltender can only do so much. Bobrovsky had a gear to him where he could make incredible saves that most goalies couldn’t make. His stability is missed.

Can This Be Fixed Soon?

This season, the solution will need to come from the guys in the locker room. If they’re going to start trending in the right direction in goals against, everyone is going to need to commit to making it happen.

The offense is not an issue. They can score goals. However that means nothing if they continue to allow goals at the current rate. If the Blue Jackets want to make something out of this season, they must commit to defense. The domino effect of this should lead to an improvement from Merzlikins and the goaltending.

Can this current group make that commitment before it gets too late in the season? If the first six games are any indication, the answer would seem to be no. There’s time but it will start to run short sooner rather than later.

You Might Also Like

The defense has been not been nearly good enough for far too long. If improvement doesn’t happen soon, then big changes will need to be made. It simply cannot continue on the current path if they expect to contend. Bobrovsky and Tortorella are not walking in the door tomorrow. But there is no question their influences are missed.

The issue is clear. Now what are they doing to do about it? That’s the question every fan should be asking of them right now.

Your move, Blue Jackets.

Latest News & Highlights