In praise of the Columbus Blue Jackets (What We Learned)

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TAMPA, FL - NOVEMBER 25: Brandon Saad #20 of the Columbus Blue Jackets celebrates after scoring during the third period in the game against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena on November 25, 2016 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mark LoMoglio/NHLI via Getty Images)
TAMPA, FL - NOVEMBER 25: Brandon Saad #20 of the Columbus Blue Jackets celebrates after scoring during the third period in the game against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena on November 25, 2016 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mark LoMoglio/NHLI via Getty Images)

Early in the season there were a lot of reasons to be skeptical of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

They were awful last year (due to many factors), their coach was demonstrably doing a bad job and they’d made very few changes in the summer thanks to a raft of pretty rotten contracts. And yet by mid-November, they were inexplicably 8-4-2.

But it was one of those things, though: Bad possession team getting every bounce to go their way for about four weeks.

After all, they’d scored eight on St. Louis and 10 on Montreal to account for a lot of their high-level offense, then had a lot of one-goal decisions that, in the end, are usually coin flips. Moreover, they’d gone to OT five times in 14 games and come out 3-2. Lots of bonus points there, and in regulation that meant they were a mere 5-4, which is probably more in line with what you’d expect from a team like this.

Again, they were simply not good in “the process.” In those first 14 games of the season, Columbus had an adjusted CF% of 47.8 and xGF% of 47.4. Those numbers both ranked 25th in the league, so while they had the wins, their actual position in the league among competitive teams felt about right: Pretty close to the bottom of the barrel, almost what you would have called a “lottery team” before the league made every team that doesn’t make the playoffs a lottery team.

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So at that time, the Blue Jackets were looking like just another Avalanche or Flames or Leafs or Panthers: PDOing their way to a better record than they deserved and likely to catch a second-half walloping. Easy to write them off, especially given the coach’s penchant for a) losing the room, and b) not being a very good coach in the first place. This is especially true because their power play was dramatically outperforming anything anyone could have rightly expected from them.

But then something weird happened: The results kept coming, special teams play got a little worse, but Columbus was actually playing well. Well enough to have become arguably the best team in the League over the past month.

In terms of adjusted 5-on-5 performance, Columbus spent the last month or so as the second-best corsi share team in the league (55.6 percent, one spot behind league-leading Nashville), and fifth in expected goals (57.6 percent, behind only Toronto, LA, Montreal, and Pittsburgh).

And that’s not a fluke — well, not too much, anyway — because from Nov. 16 on, no has done more to increase their attempts for per 60 than Columbus, nor has anyone reduced their attempts against more. And in fact, when you account for everything not directly related to luck, Columbus looks to have simply improved significantly in a short period of time.

NHL
NHL

What you have to keep in mind about those percentage-driven goals stats is actually two things: First, they’re still well above water even after a huge PDO correction. And second, the entire decline really only comes from the fact that their sky-high shooting percentage is no longer sky-high, which you’d expect given their talent level.

Actually, it’s three things: The season is still very young, so even a handful of good performances — especially those against good teams — can really skew your numbers. That’s not to say it’s in any way bad to have one really great performance in your season that boosts your numbers. At the end of the day you want every shot attempt and goal you can get, regardless of any other mitigating factor. But when you’re 25 or 30 games into the season, you need to take that kind of thing into consideration.

So yeah, while Columbus looks really, really good, you have to consider the context of a handful of great games they’ve had recently: They’re won seven of their last eight, and the loss was in overtime. If you stretch it back to Nov. 12, they have one regulation loss in their last 14 games, and the way they’ve gotten there isn’t like Florida last year; they’ve outshot their opponents in all but three of those games.

But one performance in particular stands out: On Dec. 3, they put 60 shots on goal in a shootout win at Arizona. You can see below that the upward trend started a few weeks before that, but that made them go from a little above average to one of the best teams in the league:

NHL
NHL

The fact that this team — or really any team — got into the area of 60 percent expected goals for a seven- or even 10-game stretch isn’t that surprising. It happens when you have a soft stretch in the schedule, which Columbus inarguably has. Their last 10 games were against Colorado, Calgary, Tampa, Florida, Tampa again, Colorado again, Arizona twice, Detroit, and the Islanders. But you have to say that they’re not only beating those teams, but caving them in.

You also have to say that at least part of their high PDO is talent-driven. To be specific, Sergei Bobrovsky, when healthy, is one of the eight or so best goalies alive, and for once he’s been healthy all year. That’s going to help you win a lot of games even when you’re not playing well (and indeed, you can look at the first month of the season). In fact, even as the team shooting percentage has collapsed, the team’s 5-on-5 save percentage actually improved very, very slightly, and it was already super-high to begin with.

The question is how long this lasts.

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When about a third of your season has been against the dregs of the league, it’s going to make you look pretty good. The third-period performances aren’t likely to hold up either, in much the same way they didn’t for Calgary a few years ago when they were the third-perioding-est team in the league and everyone chalked it up to compete and conditioning. Before the end of this month, the Blue Jackets have a brutal home stretch against LA, Pittsburgh, Montreal and Boston. That might tell us a little more about their actual quality than this near-perfect stretch has.

Let’s put it this way: Columbus isn’t one of the best teams in the league, but their play of late is enough to convince even the most cynical observer that they’ve figured out a thing or two with their previous problems.

If they end up making the playoffs — and with 38 points in 26 games, they’ve positioned themselves quite well for the final two-thirds of the season — and this kind of play persists, it won’t be a fluke. They’ve been legitimately good against weak competition for a while, and when they were previously considered weak competition themselves, that still tells you a little bit.

I’m not willing to give John Tortorella the Jack Adams yet, because it’s still tough to envision a 2016-17 in which he’s made himself a competent coach in the NHL, but you gotta say his boys are beating the teams they “should” beat in the short-term.

They weren’t doing that a year ago. Credit where it’s due.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: Hampus Lindholm on what he was thinking before scoring his first goal of the season: “I was just thinking, ‘Shoot, shoot, don’t miss.’” Good advice!

Arizona Coyotes: This was a, umm, surprising result.

Boston Bruins: Three straight losses for the Bruins, but at least those thirds are sick.

Buffalo Sabres: Like a lot of teams that end up being bad for several years, the Sabres struggle because they just weren’t drafting difference-makers for a while.

Calgary Flames: That’s six in a row for the Flames. They’re gonna just-miss the playoffs this year! I can feel it!

Carolina Hurricanes: Carolina continues to round into shape, but if you’re gonna lose to someone, it might as well be a team as good as the Sharks.

Chicago: If your very-good starter is gonna be out for a few weeks, it’s really helpful to have your backup play well above his head.

Colorado Avalanche: Ahh. Jeez. Yikes.

Columbus Blue Jackets: The problem with hockey coverage these days is that people still want to attribute playing well to intangible things. Columbus isn’t good now because they’re “concentrating on winning.” That doesn’t make sense. Because what team isn’t concentrating on winning? Why isn’t every team in the league 82-0?

Dallas Stars: Devin Shore had a great performance in a deeply weird game on Saturday afternoon. Just a truly wild one in Dallas.

Detroit Red Wings: You’re not gonna believe this but the Red Wings are still struggling offensively.

Edmonton Oilers: The Oilers are losers of four straight, but three of them were in OT or the shootout. So was their most recent win. New Panthers, baby!

Florida Panthers: Meanwhile, the old Panthers snapped a four-game losing streak because they got to play Vancouver.

Los Angeles Kings: Jump to 1:17:30 in this link and listen to what Don Brennan has to say about the Norris voting last year. Or read this direct quote: “[Doughty’s] representatives are paid to represent him, and I applaud them for that, but some of the methods that they used to get people to vote for their guy last year I find to be not something that they will ever admit to doing. But I’ve spoken to guy that we both know, Ian [Mendes], that are basically told at the national level — guys who are in the ‘insider’ business — and they were basically told by [Doughty’s] agency that if their boy doesn’t get some votes, the tap for inside information might kinda get squeezed off.” Big accusation but I’m inclined to believe it. No one could have reasonably looked at last season’s performances from Doughty and Karlsson and said the former had the better campaign.

Minnesota Wild: No such trade exists.

Montreal Canadiens: Here’s a stat for you: That 10-1 win over Colorado made Montreal the first team since the ’05-06 Sabres to both score and allow 10 goals in a game in the same season.

Nashville Predators: The Preds still can’t win on the road. It’s a crazy trend.

New Jersey Devils: Great take by Steve Simmons: “What’s happened to Cory Schneider? He has allowed 26 goals in New Jersey in his past seven starts. His goals against are up. His save percentage is down.” Crazy!

New York Islanders: Hey you gotta spend money on someone after Tavares leaves.

New York Rangers: Imagine you’re like, “You know why the Rangers are good again? They’re no longer playing the best goalie of the last decade.” What a world.

Ottawa Senators: Frankly Mark Borowiecki was lucky he only got two for this hit. They didn’t even throw him out of the game!

Philadelphia Flyers: Nice little goal for Brayden Schenn to wrap up a hat trick, but kid got in a fight against Stephen Johns earlier in the game, which was dumb as hell.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Remember when everyone collectively decided Sidney Crosby was done? It was like a year and a half ago. Now he has 20 goals in 22 games.

San Jose Sharks: Don’t bring infants to hockey games. It’s too loud. Get a babysitter. I don’t care how cute it is, folks.

St. Louis Blues: When I’m injured, my basic reaction to it is, “I guess I’m gonna be injured forever. I don’t even care!” Not Jori Lehtera, though. He wants to get healthy again. Weird.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Yeah man, everyone thought Tampa would be so good this year but they’ve been below water for pretty much the whole season. Very strange turn of events.

Toronto Maple Leafs: This team is starting to look very impressive. Don’t think anyone really saw this level of performance coming.

Vancouver Canucks: The Canucks’ what now?

Vegas Golden Knights: The local media is already turning on them!

Washington Capitals: Ovechkin getting hella traded.

Winnipeg Jets: Really feels like the clock is ticking on Paul Maurice.

Play of the Weekend

Jonathan Toews is the best player in the world!

Gold Star Award

Getty Images
Getty Images

Look who hit 1,500 games. Blessings to Jarome Arthur-Leigh Adekunle Tig Junior Elvis Iginla. What a legend!

Minus of the Weekend

Getty Images
Getty Images

Yeah so what are we gonna do about these Avs, huh folks? It’s very bad what is happening.

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Year

User “scan15” wants the Leafs to go for it a bit here.

Toronto gets:
Chris Tanev
Loui Eriksson

Vancouver gets:
2017 1st round pick
2018 3rd round pick
Kasperi Kapanen
Travis Dermott
One of Korostolev/Timashov/Dzierkals

Signoff

Are you guys working? Can you work any harder?

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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