What We Learned: Can Columbus right the ship?

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It won’t take a lot to get this very good, talented-at-every-position team back into the playoffs, but it shouldn’t have taken anything in the first place. (Getty)
It won’t take a lot to get this very good, talented-at-every-position team back into the playoffs, but it shouldn’t have taken anything in the first place. (Getty)

The Blue Jackets won on Saturday night, and did so convincingly.

They not only put up six on New Jersey, a team with which they are ostensibly competing for a playoff spot, but they also put up 50 shots on goal. This after games in which they put up 37, 39, and 49.

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The difference then was that they lost those three games, as well as 15 more of the previous 24. And if you took OT wins out of the equation, their only regulation wins in that stretch were against the Coyotes on Jan. 25, Stars on Jan. 2, Leafs on Dec. 20, and Islanders on Dec. 12. That is, they’ve now won five games in regulation in their last 26 tries, after starting out 19-10-1 in their first 30.

Which is what makes their season so confounding. Last year was, of course, a bit of a fluke in terms of what kind of regular-season results they pulled, but they got better in the summer and should have probably learned a few lessons from what happened. Whether they did is up for debate, but early in the season, it certainly seemed as though they had things figured out; they were winning a bunch but all the underlying numbers supported a pretty strong setup.

If we want to take that first 30 games as the point at which the season started to turn sour, and run the splits, well, they’re not pretty.

In those opening few months, the Blue Jackets scored almost 56 percent of their goals at 5-on-5 on an expected-goals number of 54 percent, so not too out-of-whack with what they should have done, especially given the talent level (i.e. high-skill players and great goalies often outperform expected-goals numbers and Columbus has both those benefits).

Since Game 31, Columbus has been perfectly good (51ish percent of most underlyings, and almost 52 percent of the goals) but that’s a sharp step down, and it’s gotten worse as time went on:

The red line here indicates what percentage of the goals they should have scored based on the quality of shots they took and gave up. If you really want to drill down into this, it’s a situation where the team has suffered a decline in both shot generation and shooting percentage, even while the save percentage has remained extremely high.

It’s worth noting that a lot of this likely has to do with the spate of injuries Columbus suffered at that time of year, with guys like Cam Atkinson, Alex Wennberg, Brandon Dubinsky, Murray, and Werenski, all missing at least a decent amount of time (Murray is still out, in fact). But the results didn’t straighten themselves out when almost all of those guys got healthy again. It’s fair to say injuries can put you behind the 8-ball, but after this long? Probably not so much.

Of course, anyone who watches Columbus at most points this year isn’t seeing a team that struggles too much at 5-on-5. The special teams are rotten to the core, of course, at least in terms of results. They have the worst power play and fifth-worst kill in the league.

The numbers suggest they “should have” scored about eight more goals on the power play than they have, which may not sound like a lot but Columbus could use another two or three points in the standings here. Call it bad luck, especially given the talent level of the guys on this team, but one wonders if the loss of Sam Gagner is that a big factor here, or if it’s just that the system got figured out after that freak start last year. Either way, doesn’t seem like anything has been done to address it, and a team with this much skill shouldn’t be fifth from the bottom of the league in expected goal generation on the power play.

Meanwhile, the PK has been awful no matter which was you slice it, but unlucky here as well, with opponents scoring more than four additional goals above the expected rate. I have a theory here, though: Check the PK TOI leaderboard for Blue Jackets defenders. No. 1? Yeah, it’s Jack Johnson. Of course it is. No. 2? David Savard for some reason. No. 3? Seth Jones, who wow, he’s actually good. No. 4? Ryan Murray, and he’s played fewer than half of the team’s total games. Then at No. 5 you hit Zach Werenski.

Of course, you can make the argument that if you’re gonna apportion only 23 minutes a night to a guy like Werenski, you want him spending more time at 5-on-5 and on the power play than on the penalty kill, that’s fair and reasonable. He is, however, averaging less than a minute a game killing penalties for the fifth-worst penalty-killing team in the league and he’s really good. Maybe you run him out there to see what happens. It can’t reasonably be worse than the current results (they’re currently 20th in expected goals against per 60 on the kill, and 28th in actual goals against). Even the idea that you would continually give Jack freaking Johnson big PK minutes is absurd on its face.

I’ve long said that play at 5-on-5, which makes up the vast majority of your ice time in any given game, is sort of set-it-and-forget-it in terms of coaching. You’re not going to make too many tweaks to a system during the season unless things are going very wrong for you.

But if the power play or PK isn’t working — and folks, neither is — then you have plenty of room to experiment, because when you’re not getting results, well, you might as well go in a different direction. And to be fair, Columbus is 8 of its last 38 on the power play (21.1 percent) since the new year, so things are getting back on track a little there.

The PK, however, remains horrible, going 18 for 32 (56.3 percent) over the same stretch. And folks, you’ll never guess who the ice time leaders on the kill are since then: Jack Johnson, David Savard, Seth Jones and Zach Werenski (but again, that’s only because Ryan Murray is still out).

Is this a fixable problem for Columbus, which is still mostly playing well but seeing the wheels come off on their playoff push? Tough to say, but in terms of the penalty kill, it seems like John Tortorella has tried nothing and is all out of ideas.

This is a team that is currently outside the playoff picture, having been surpassed by Carolina of late, for what seems to be a perfectly deal-withable reason. It won’t take a lot to get this very good, talented-at-every-position team back into the playoffs, but it shouldn’t have taken anything in the first place.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks won two straight after losing three straight after winning three straight, so they’re a little streaky right now and that’s fine as long as they keep winning and the rest of their division remains kinda iffy. This team should be good but I’m not sure I buy their playoff prospects.

Arizona Coyotes: Pretty shocking that a team with very little skill is also not good at special teams. Crazy. Weird.

Boston Bruins: I think I said it last week, but as much as I love Patrice Bergeron and as much as he may be having his best season ever, but he’s not the best player on his own line, so I can’t listen to this “Bergeron for MVP” stuff. It’s all a bit much.

Buffalo Sabres: Jack Eichel is out indefinitely with a high ankle sprain but the good news is the Sabres are now active for a high tank-le chance.

Calgary Flames: For the Flames’ third line to disappear wouldn’t it need to have first appeared? Just asking.

Carolina Hurricanes: They’re in a playoff spot and things are looking real good all of a sudden.

Chicago Blackhawks: Losers of five straight, hmm. No way to have seen this coming.

Colorado Avalanche: I wouldn’t want to be too diligent about keeping track of the team’s record without Nathan MacKinnon. It’s gonna get depressing in a hurry.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Hey, it happens.

Dallas Stars: Radek Faksa is not the reason they’re winning all these games lately. C’mon man.

Detroit Red Wings: One thing that I absolutely love is that a few guys in the Red Wings’ front office are guys who were on the team in the mid-2000s. Worked out great for the Oilers.

Edmonton Oilers: The Oilers are gonna trade Patrick Maroon, which is fine, but he’s also like the No. 6 guy they need to trade.

Florida Panthers: I saw some people making noise about “could this team go on a playoff push?” and it’s like “of course not.

Los Angeles Kings: Is it good if you make a big push against the best team in the league and at the end of the game they’re like, “Yeah that was pretty embarrassing for us, to do that.”

Minnesota Wild: Devan Dubnyk getting on a heater would be, like, really good for these guys.

Montreal Canadiens: Boy Brendan Gallagher is a big talker after his team gets humiliated again.

Nashville Predators: On Saturday night, crack gonzo journalist Colton Teubert got to the bottom of this question.

New Jersey Devils: Ya don’t say.

New York Islanders: The Calder race is officially over.

New York Rangers: Get ready for plenty of these takes in the near future.

Ottawa Senators: The Senators organization is honestly embarrassing. This column highlighting why is b-l-e-a-k.

Philadelphia Flyers: If Brian Elliott is HYPERLINK “http://www.pressofatlanticcity.com/sports/local/flyers/goalie-brian-elliott-injured-in-shootout-victory-over-coyotes/article_1d5c0f38-aef8-5545-a3c2-799e9788f4e1.html”out for any length of time, you can call the playoff push a bust.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Crosby up to 401 goals in fewer than 900 games. Come on, bud. One of the three best, all-time.

San Jose Sharks: Joakim Ryan’s dad is in town. He scores his first and second career goals. But his dad isn’t there because he was too sick to go to the game. What a bummer!

St. Louis Blues: Shoulda started Hutton.

Tampa Bay Lightning: This is the save of the year, maybe the decade.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Keeping JVR is just a smart course of action for this team. But trading him would be too. Not a bad situation for the Buds.

Vancouver Canucks: “I’m not allowed to.”

Vegas Golden Knights: A Vegas goalie is injured? No way.

Washington Capitals: Do you really need five years of Lars Eller?

Winnipeg Jets: It’s rare you see guys say, “please don’t trade for any deadline help,” but here we are.

Play of the Weekend

We have two Elite plays this weekend and I can’t decide between them so you get both. One is top draft prospect Quinn Hughes scoring a gorgeous one for Michigan. The other is Tampa-drafted QMJHLer Otto Sompi scoring a lacrosse goal. Bless these children, for they are both my sons.

What a goal from @umichhockey’s Quinn Hughes!!

Turned in the No. 3 play on @sportscenter’s #SCTop10! #GoBlue pic.twitter.com/XgcZk17SeI

— Michigan Athletics (@UMichAthletics) February 10, 2018

Gold Star Award

Crosby hit 400 goals on Sunday. I just looked it up and Ovechkin is now nine away from 600. How blessed are we to see these guys play live????

Minus of the Weekend

Wow it’s so crazy that any time there’s an issue of racial abuse directed toward PK Subban, everyone’s like “Oh jeez I had no idea that the racist thing I was saying was racist.” Pretty crazy that this one coincidence keeps happening over and over again.

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week

User “DALLAS90” is in great shape.

OTT: Nylander, Liljegren, Kapanen, 1st Round
TOR: Karlsson


You call hamburgers “steamed hams?”

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)

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