If you dig into your copy of Websters, or perhaps the Oxford English Dictionary, you’ll find that shroud is defined specifically as a cloth or garment used to wrap a body before burial, and more generally as any cloth used to conceal something — usually something mysterious. Withe the Blue Jackets’ playoff hopes formally buried this past week, it seemed like an appropriate metaphor for both the season and the assessments soon to come.
The Columbus community wastes little time in looking for scapegoats and victims whenver adversity strikes, and the pitchforks and torches are being dusted off as we speak. The local newspaper created, then refuted, a rumor that GM Scott Howson’s position was in jeopardy, resulting in staunch votes of confidence from club president Mike Priest and majority owner John P. McConnell. McConnell, who has stayed largely out of the public eye since assuming the reins after his father’s death, has promised a “thorough” examination of all aspects of the operation. This news was greeted enthusiastically by the more militant aspects of the fan base, many of whom would like to see things blown up and rebuilt from scratch. Others see defined issues that need to be fixed, but an otherwise essentially solid core. In between, virtually every possible opinion is represented, and vociferously defended. Off the ice, issues ranging from the significant (the lease situation with Nationwide Arena) to the inane (the debut of the ill-fated part-time macot “Boomer”) are inexplicable debated with equal vigor and attention.
It is against this backdrop that I decided to embark on my own analysis of all aspects of the Columbus Blue Jackets Experience — from the players to the front office, the fans to the media coverage. While I cover the team for THW, I’m also a season ticket holder, and have been since Day 1 of the franchise. So, as the saying goes, I have some skin in the game. Does that color my viewpoint and destroy my abilty to detach and analyze? I don’t think so. Long before the Blue Jackets, I lived through the birth and death of the California Golden Seals, the creation of a really bad San Jose Sharks team, two decades of frustration with the San Francisco 49ers before they found their glory years, and many a frozen night at Candlestick Park rooting for the SF Giants. So, I think I bring the ability to look at the larger picture, and resist the temptation to pull the emotional trigger. Ultimately, you’ll be the judge of whether I succeed or not, but the process should promote lively debate, if nothing else. So, for the next several weeks, we’ll dig in depth to the good, the bad and the ugly of NHL hockey in Columbus, and see where we come out on the other side.
Before starting to lift that shroud, however, let’s set a bit of framework for the discussion. As this article hits, the Bue Jackets sit in 12th place in the Western Conference, 34-31-13, with 81 points in 78 games. They sit one point behind 11th place Minnesota, and one point ahead of 13th place St. Louis, 11 points shy of the eighth place Chicago Blackhawks. On a league-wide basis, Columbus ranks 22nd in points, and leads the NHL in overtime/shootout losses with 13. (More on that stat in a minute.) The 81 points represents the second highest season total in the club’s 10 year history, trailing only the 92 points garnered in the 2008-2009 season, the club’s only playoff appearance. This is not to say that this is an accomplishment worthy of note, but is just a factual statement as to where the team stands at this point in time. The “shoulds” and “what ifs” will be addressed in due course as we delve into individual topics. However, a few observations are in order.
First, let’s go back to that 13 losses in in overtime or shootout (5 OT/8 SO). If just seven of those games go the other way, the Blue Jackets are in the thick of the playoff hunt. A full 41 of the 78 games played to date have been decided by one goal. Of those, Columbus is 9-9 in regulation, 5-5 in OT and 5 -8 in the Shootout. Add in the 15 regulation victories by more than one goal, and 56 of 78 games played were there for the taking. This doesn’t include a number of 2-goal losses resuting from empty netters at the end. So, overall, the team has been competitive, and for relatively long strings, played some of the best hockey the club has ever played. On the flip side, of course, was the inexplicable collapse in December and early January, which placed the club against the wall for the rest of the season. Not to worry, psychology will be part of the discussion as well, and I believe it plays a big role in some of the schizophrenic play observed this year and last. At the same time, the club has also shown some mental tenacity and resilience that has been lacking in prior years. The ability to come back from multi-goal deficits is a new wrinkle, as is the performance on the road. Again, this is counterbalanced by a sudden inability to consistently win at home.
Another “good news/bad news” statistic for the club this year is scoring chances. This is tracked by the club, and by some media, but is not officially tracked by the NHL as a statistic. As a general proposition, this refers to shot opportunities arising in a rectangle situated between the faceoff dots in the offensive zone, and extending out from the goal line to the dots (for some), or to the top of the circle (for others). The Blue Jackets have been winning this statistical battle fairly consistently, particularly of late. The flip side, of course, is that they have had a lot of difficulty converting on those opportunities. That suggests a system that is working by creating opportunities, but individual failures in not being able to find the back of the net.
Such has been the frustrating existence for the Blue Jackets this season — close, but not quite there. Brilliant at times, awful at others. There are more than enough mysteries and questions here to keep us occupied for awhile. Check your prejudices and preconceptions at the door, be willing to consider some facts and theories you might not have entertained before, and enjoy the debate. The ride starts Wednesday, right here. Stay tuned.