October 18, 2011
Conditions change in the NHL quite rapidly. Last week, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins(notes) was the undersized center who couldn't win a faceoff; one hat trick later, he's a national sensation getting teased on CBC about his resemblance to Ellen Page. Last week, the Florida Panthers were a hastily constructed oddity; after two wins against Tampa, they're beloved fan favorites.
With a 0-4-1 record, the Columbus Blue Jackets aren't toast. Especially when one huge summer acquisition, defenseman James Wisniewski(notes), hasn't played a minute yet while swallowing his eight-game suspension. Especially when the other one, forward Jeff Carter(notes), has been feeling ill when he hasn't been feeling the effects of a fractured foot.
So how bad have the Blue Jackets been? Can they turn it around? And is Scott Arniel going to be the first NHL coaching casualty?
At even strength, the Jackets are a bad team but not a terrible team. Their 5-on-5 goals for/against ratio is 0.82, putting them 21st in the league and ahead of teams like Colorado, New Jersey and Pittsburgh.
Their special teams, on the other hand, are a complete [expletive] show.
The Jackets have one power play goal in 25 chances, including 0 for 14 on home ice in three games. Again, without Wisniewski and with Carter less than 100 percent, it's not fair to link this to previous seasons of power-play futility. But still, it's costing them wins.
Their penalty killing clocks in at 73.7 percent, placing them fourth from the bottom in the NHL. (Ottawa and St. Louis have also played five games, and are under 70 percent.)
Columbus' kill last season was at 80.2 percent, for 21st in the NHL. Not terrible, just about average. One reason it may have fallen off a cliff so far: The loss of Jan Hejda(notes) in free agency, who averaged 2:50 TOI on the kill last season. Radek Martinek(notes) and Marc Methot(notes) have gotten the most ice time on the kill this year for the Jackets; Martinek having previously been among the ice-time leaders for a New York Islanders kill that ranked 12th in the NHL last season.
Mason currently has a 3.40 GAA and an .871 save percentage. He's been a sieve while the team's short-handed: Five goals on 25 shots, an .800 save percentage. (He has some peculiar company there: Jaroslav Halak(notes) at .792 and Roberto Luongo(notes) with a .667 save percentage while short-handed; welcome back, Mr. Kesler).
It's not all Mason. He's been hung out to dry more times than a pool towel on a cruise ship balcony in five starts. But the Blue Jackets are short on difference-makers when facing adverse conditions; in an 0-4-1 start, Mason needs to be one. He hasn't been.
All of this leads to what Aaron Portzline called "perhaps the most demanding practice in the 11-season history of the organization," a 60-minute bag skate on Sunday:
It alternated from skating/endurance drills to battle drills, back and forth with almost no rests between the end of one drill and the start of another. David Savard(notes) and Alexandre Giroux(notes) were bloodied by high sticks -- just nose leaks, it appeared -- but didn't miss a turn. Arniel did all of the talking, just barking out directions for the next drill and then blowing the whistle.
"I didn't want to hear anybody else," Arniel said. "Maybe they were trying to catch their breath."
Arniel demands maximum effort because his job depends on it. In his favor: That he's in Year 2 of a three-year deal for a franchise that probably doesn't want to have to pay another coach for not coaching.
Not in his favor: That another season without a sniff of the postseason could cost the guy with his finger on the "eject" button his gig; maybe Scott Howson's getting itchy.
Really not in Arniel's favor: That Jeff Carter's injury could be more damaging than expected. From Puck-Rakers:
If it's a simple issue of pain tolerance, Carter will put the boot on and play when he's able to play through the pain. He's done this numerous times the past few seasons. But if doctor's believe that the injury's recurrence is a sign that it's not being allowed to properly heal, Carter could be on the bench for a longer stretch of time. Weeks, probably. This is the same bone Carter had injured during training camp and he missed only a couple days.
"He's going to have to get healthy," said Rick Curren, Carter's agent. "A shared concern is that it's not exactly a first-time injury. It's a reoccurence. That's always a concern from a health standpoint.
"If you can play with pain, you play. Jeff has proven in the past that he's quite willing to do that, possibly to the detriment of the injury itself. If, at the end of the day, the best thing to do is to let it properly heal, then that's what will happen."
The Blue Jackets have the Dallas Stars at home Tuesday night. They face the Detroit Red Wings away and at home, with a trip to lowly Ottawa in between. Then comes trouble: At the Sabres, at the Blackhawks and the Ducks back at home.
The bag skate tells you all you need to know about the dire situation facing this team. We've talked before about how the first two months of the season can royally screw a team; for a Western Conference team, that especially holds true.
Dark Blue Jacket holds out hope, especially since The Wiz hasn't been seen in Jackets sweater this season:
The 2011-12 CBJ, the proud owners of the worst start in franchise history, have NOT been skated off the ice by anyone. The have been competitive, and have lost their games by special team dysfunction, a shot bouncing off a rookies a** with 40 seconds left to tie a game they essentially won, and blown defensive assignments leading to easy goals (Please shut the back door when you leave!). But they have not been blown out of any games.
And much has been made about our top line clicking. I don't think these guys are clicking well at all yet. They keep missing passes, whiffing on shots. Once their timing gets down, we'll get an idea of what this top line can really do. Which is my point. We haven't seen what this team can really do yet.
No, we haven't. Question is, when will we?