Struggling Blue Jackets will be hard-pressed to improve

What did you really expect from the 2019-20 Blue Jackets? (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
What did you really expect from the 2019-20 Blue Jackets? (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

There was never much of a question as to whether trouble was brewing.

Regardless of the pronouncements made before the season, no matter how much loyalty was supposed to matter, the Columbus Blue Jackets were always going to be in a tough situation. Some teams can absorb the loss of their best player, some can hold on losing two of their three best. None can shed their two best forwards and an All-World goaltender and come out the other side looking competitive.

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That’s especially true of a team that barely barely barely made the playoffs. That first-round stunner of a sweep against Tampa might have painted a rosier picture of what this team would be capable of, but we’re seeing the inevitable reality now.

There was a lot of talk about how they were going to be fuelled by all the bulletin-board material they got over the summer, and if there’s any team that can exceed expectation on spite alone, it’s one coached by John Tortorella. But there was never going to be enough talent in the lineup to make this team competitive. Especially because, to reiterate things for the millionth time: Their goalie tandem is a guy who went .893 over the last two seasons, and a guy who has never played in North America before.

Last night, they actually won in regulation, in Arizona, but for the season they still have just three regulation wins from 16 tries. That’s because the offense is among the worst in the league, which is the kind of thing that happens when you lose a Matt Duchene and an Artemi Panarin and replace them with Gustav Nyquist (currently sitting on 3-7-10) and the goalies are both uncomfortably below .900.

And with all that having been said: The Blue Jackets aren’t this bad. No one is that bad, obviously. But this team in particular does seem like it’s getting a good-sized dose of bad luck. The problem is, to some extent, you make your own luck and they are ill-equipped to do so.

When we talk about luck in hockey what we mean is that while high-end skill certainly exists and a number of factors can skew outcomes, the sport is such that these cases are relatively rare. A Connor McDavid or Alex Ovechkin is always going to have a higher-than-average shooting percentage because the average takes into account both guys like them and guys like, I don’t know, Milan Lucic. Meanwhile, goalies like Henrik Lundqvist are permanent .920 types whereas guys like Mike Smith can do that for a season or two in their entire careers but will more often languish closer to .900.

And so you can reasonably predict that a team with Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky for any given season would at least have a high offensive conversion rate when he was on the ice (and moving everyone else on his side of the line chart down a slot to make things a bit easier for them) and great goaltending. To downgrade to Nyquist — who’s fine — and the Korpisalo/Merzlikins battery — who aren’t — is tough. Any expectation you might have had for high percentages to save you from otherwise poor play just goes out the window.

But the thing is: Columbus is playing as well as you could ask it to, especially at 5-on-5. By score- and venue-adjusted expected-goals share, it’s in the top half of the league and a healthy distance above break-even. Unadjusted, in all situations, the numbers are even better. The problem, then, is the Blue Jackets’ 96.1 all-situations PDO, which gives them a minus-16 goal difference. And again, that’s in 16 games.

The big issue is special teams — stop me if you’ve heard that about a Tortorella-coached Columbus team before. The poor power play can be a systems thing, for sure, but also they just don’t have a ton of guys who’ve shown they can reliably put the puck in the net. As for the PK, well, they’re actually top-10 in expected-goals allowed when shorthanded, but they’re also bottom-10 in save percentage.

Will their shooting percentage come up? Yes. Will their save percentage follow suit? Tough to say. Would any of it matter? Probably not. Think what you want about Tortorella, but he’s getting something out of this group. Maybe as much as anyone could, in terms of the process. If you have an NHL roster that gets 52ish percent of the xGs across 16 games, you should not under any circumstances get outscored 38-54 in them.

This team burned a lot of capital qualifying for the playoffs last season. It has its first-round pick but would be fools to give it up in pursuit of a trade for, what, a Tyler Toffoli or Jean-Gabriel Pageau? Firing the coach might sound like a tempting move when you haven’t won in regulation in three weeks (especially after that coach acts like he’s a genius for successfully getting to OT a few times), but who’s getting more out of this group than a 52ish xGF%?

They deserve a better fate, based on how they’ve played, but the talent was always going to be an issue. There was never going to be enough of it, up front or in net, to absorb the losses this team suffered. Not with how the offseason went.

That’s hockey. Not everyone who’s “supposed to suck” can be the Blues. Especially because the Blues’ GM added legitimate depth the previous summer. Jarmo Kekalainen? Welllllll…

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats/salary info via Natural Stat TrickEvolving HockeyHockey ReferenceCapFriendly and Corsica unless noted.

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