Perhaps later than scheduled, the Columbus Blue Jackets are finally arriving as they boast top scoring, stingy defensive numbers.
First in the NHL in points. Second in the league in scoring, third with 108 goals. The Columbus Blue Jackets' PowerPlay -- and this team has the third fewest chances (93) in the league -- is first at a blistering 26.9% clip. Defensively, they're just as good, coming in second fewest in terms of goals allowed. Yup, the Blue Jackets are without a doubt, the surprise of the NHL.
Never have the Columbus Blue Jackets had this kind of start to a season. Never has a previous iteration of the franchise played a more complete 60 minutes on such a nightly basis. Never have the Columbus Blue Jackets been in first place this late into a season.
Maybe it's not such a surprise to see how the team is getting it done in 2016, once you really look beyond the numbers and just watch the style that this team identifies with; what makes them tick. However, considering the past and how everything up to this point has gone -- as recent as last year -- it's definitely more than a mystery wrapped in a riddle. At least as far as the rest of the NHL is discovering.
While fans outside of Columbus, and even some in the Buckeye state, might be hesitant to completely buy what Columbus has been selling to the 0ther 29 teams, Columbus appears to be the real deal.
Key word being, appears.
I bought into this team last season. The season before that they were expected to make the playoffs. A slow start, mixed with an asinine amount of injuries and a record-setting level of man-games lost sunk their season. Their end of season run, 15 out of 17, was inspiring but the question became, could they carry it over into 2015-16.
Opening Night 2016 started out well, but ended in tragedy. They were then shellacked by the same New York Rangers squad 24 hours later. An 0-7 start to the season saw John Tortorella into the fray.
The previous good-will was lost. Ryan Johansen, a budding star would leave. Yet the optimism surrounding the team was largely intact. Mainly, a budding core and offensive-laden group including Matt Calvert, Cam Atkinson, Brandon Saad and the list can go on.
Seth Jones, a rather decent pickup for Johansen, would represent a tremendous asset and building block on the blue line for years to come. But in the end, all this potential is just that. And it was going to take a great start to turn some heads.
The Blue Jackets Are Having a Historically Great Start
I was less than enthused going into 2016-17. Based on last year, but from a personal standpoint, the team has always done well when I least-expect it. Not that reverse psychology was what I had in mind. I was pleasantly surprised with a 3-1 lead over the Bruins on opening night. That surprise lead turned into typical scorn amid a 6-3 loss. I looked at the bright side when they lost to the Sharks 3-2, scoring late to make the score look better.
Would you know it, those are only two of three teams that would defeat the Jackets in 60 minutes to date.
After their opening night defeat, Tortorella's message was clear: 'I don't think we were even close.' This message went beyond blowing two, two-goal leads that night. The team, to Torts' own assertion, and several players also chiming in with the same opinion, that they needed to be better, across the board, going forward.
With the season resuming Tuesday night, against the same Boston team that played the role of the proverbial cat and mouse, snatching away the toy at the end, the Jackets come in on the heels of a 12-game winning streak, and leading the entire NHL with 50 points.
Looks like message received. With the Blue Jackets slogan 'safe is death' becoming the teams' slogan, Tortorella even scrapping game day morning skates and the young players blossoming together with the veterans, consider what has transpired since mid-October a complete 180. Let alone last season.
Torts' comments following the Bruins loss that the team had a way to go was less than inspiring. Then again, what was he supposed to say? I'd rather keep it real than be fed false optimism. It can also be coach speak in lightening the mood, the expectations.
We fast forward from those days to where we are now. My excitement began to take shape around their first win over the Washington Capitals. And even now, while leading the NHL, it's important to remember this team really hasn't accomplished anything yet. It's certainly a privilege to be in this spot, and there's a reason fans are as excited as they are.
We've never experienced this before.
Going into the Pittsburgh matchup last week, Penguins fans had to remind us about their four Stanley Cups. I acknowledge their organization as I do any other, Cup or not, with respect. As those Cups represent bragging rights for at least a year, they also hold no weight on the outcome of any game played now. Just as the Jackets, considered a losing stigma in years past, aren't that same team. It's a two-way street. Past results bear no meaning now.
All teams go through losing, and winning is always earned. The Crosby-led Penguins out of their dark days. The Ovechkin-led Caps, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews leading the Hawks. Those fanbases suffered their own misery, and fans experienced the giddiness of contending again. For Columbus, this is uncharted territory, and with that, comes the beginning of expectations.
Yes, the Blue Jackets have to prove themselves more and more now. On the other hand they're leading the NHL in points. Penguins fans, or fans of any other team, feeling the need to bring up their cups must not remember their own dark days. You mean to tell me you weren't excited the moment you were contending again?
So while winning now also means the Blue Jackets proving themselves more and more, the Caps, Pens and Hawks all once had to prove themselves. The Detroit Red Wings, with the longest-active playoff streak currently, was at their heyday when those three teams began challenging for the Cup on a constant basis.
Coach John Tortorella knows the Jackets are trying to garner the respect of their peers. Honestly, it's not a bad thing to be under-respected and, even with the league's No. 1 winning percentage, having to prove that this isn't a fluke.
It's good when the players who are turning heads themselves are saying all the things you want to hear. Such as when they beat the St. Louis Blues in November 8-4 and they really weren't all that impressed considering the goals allowed to St. Louis, especially on the penalty kill. Before such a display this year, fans would likely be impressed with the goal total, knowing that's about as good as it was going to get.
"It's a crazy game. It's definitely not happy for a goalie. Four goals is a little too much." -- Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky
"It's nice to see a lot of pucks go in the back of the net right now. We have to continue to work on our defensive game. If we put the two together, I like our team and we can be really dangerous." -- Blue Jackets forward Brandon Dubinsky
"It's nice when you're able to score some goals and get some confidence that way, but we can't let our habits slip and we have to make sure we're playing the right way." -- Blue Jackets forward Sam Gagner
But now, though in still a relatively small sample size as the NHL exits the Christmas break, we, and more importantly the team, have come to expect more.
I know most Jackets fans expected a big season in 2015-16. An 0-8 dud to start the season threw that out the window. Not only is this team contending as many fans figured to be the case last season, they're undoubtedly doing so in a way that on one could have expected. Not based on the prior 15 seasons. Not from the most giddy of Jackets fans.
If you told me that the Jackets would be 23-5-4, have a 12-game winning streak and the league's No. 1 goal differential, I'd call you crazy. Then you throw in the quality of wins -- twice over the Washington Capitals, a win over the Chicago Blackhawks, Anaheim Ducks, New York Rangers, a good Edmonton Oilers team, the Penguins, a capable Calgary Flames squad, the St. Louis Blues -- and the fact they're lighting the lamp on a consistent basis, across the team, rolling four lines as capably as they are, and a stingy defense anchored by Seth Jones and probably Calder candidate Zach Werensky, well it all makes sense.
Then there's a healthy Sergei Bobrovsky, too. He's flashed the Vezina-brilliance on occasion this year, but the good thing is he hasn't had to bail them out that much. Not with the offense, but perhaps most importantly, a very good defense in front.
But still, that all seems like too good a dream. No one could have possibly predicted all that.
While relatively new to this kind of success, what the rest of the league and its fans want to know is if this team can sustain it. Maybe not at the blistering rate, but overall as far as contending for high playoff seeding. No matter what the team accomplishes in the regular season, the same questions and, lack of respect we shall call it, will continue to waver until the team can prove they can win in the playoffs.
Not just a game, but at least a series.
No matter how this team finishes the season, Stanley Cup or Bust is a term not applicable. Not until the team has proven their winning consistency and being able to routinely make it to the playoffs.
But while pundits and fans are quick to deny the notion that the Jackets can win in the playoffs, those same people likely never predicted this team would be No. 1 in the NHL — Let’s face it, no one predicted that — and they’re not wrong to cast doubt. But it’s obvious you have to do more than have a nice start to a season before you win over the toughest of crowds.
I say, bring it on. If those casting doubt is the only problem in what has turned out to be a fun and great start to the season, that’s not a bad thing at all. Let them doubt. Let the team on the ice do the talking. We know this team has to earn the respect before it’s given, and we know what losing feels like. We can bask in our moment in the sun while we can, keeping in mind there’s bigger goals to be had.
My long-time elementary school friend from Groveport, Ohio, and I recently met up in Richmond, VA. He just moved there and I’ve been in VA for years now. We talked about the team, which were riding high on a 7-game winning streak, and would take out Vancouver that weekend to make it eight.
He was obviously excited about the team, while a tad reserved. “I want to see how the team does after a loss. If they can win the next three of four, then we’ll really see how good they are.”
As much fun as a long winning streak is, I, too, am anxious to see how the team responds after a little adversity.
If the Jackets’ fanbase main concern at the Christmas break was that the team’s start is being called a fluke and unsustainable, be happy. Would you rather be floundering around the league basement?
The Washington Capitals are a team that has generated winning regular seasons, but have yet to find that same success in the playoffs. They’re constantly being bandied about as a Stanley Cup contender and with good reason. Then when they fail to go all the way, they’re heavily scrutinized.
At this point, for an upstart Jackets team that has excelled every prognosticator’s vision before the season, just enjoy the ride. 12 game winning streaks don’t come along often and while there’s an element of luck involved in a string of consecutive wins, that microcosm of success is parallel to the season so far. Luck is nice to have, but skill sustains it.
Right now the Jackets are proving that.
Lots of writers like to point out the Jackets have been merely lucky based on their high PDO (save % + shooting %) — basically the luckstatistic for hockey. The baseball equivalent is Batting Average on Balls In Play, taking into account any ball put into play excluding bunts and home runs. You’ve heard announcers say, he’s hitting the ball hard but right at someone. While the Jackets 1.044 represents a high number, and that regression is likely, regression doesn’t mean they can’t still carry forth a high number.
The consensus by a number of pundits is that the Jackets might be good, but they might actually just be more lucky, or furthermore, just playing above their heads. This suits them because then they don’t feel totally wrong to completely misjudge this team.
There are tons of fancy, analytical hockey numbers to crunch. Many stats, ranging from a plethora of 5 on 5, to fenwick — shots + shot attempts that missed the net — to corsi — shots + shots attempts that missed the net + shot attempts that were blocked. Then there’s numbers to crunch within those parameters such as how teams do within 60 minutes, and on the PP and in PK situations.
Though science can help break down anything, it doesn’t completely tell the story either. Advanced stats might help depict trends and raise awareness for these topic debates, but too much isn’t always a good thing. Still, that happy medium seems to suit everyone.
They’re good, but just lucky.
At least those that were sure they knew what to make of this team, and have all been baffled to come up with a soothing explanation.
Last year the Washington Capitals came in first in PDO — 1.017 — and this year they’re sixth at 1.016. It was thought they couldn’t sustain their 1.020 pace at the Christmas break last season, with the Caps in a similar position to Columbus this year with 52 points. 1.000 being the mean, even if Columbus regresses, and it’s sure to happen at some point, they’ve still shown the propensity to find the net more frequently than ever before.
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) December 23, 2016
But they can’t sustain that
Tortorella has already said the act of being able to find the net on a high frequency per game is an extreme that can’t be relied on. Well he didn’t say that exactly, but obviously no one can expect 7 goals a game, especially 10 very often. Yet Columbus has been to find the net on what seems like a nightly basis. Though there’s no one answer as to why the team can score in bunches, there are plenty of theories and more importantly, a style of grinding, physical play the team embodies, a little bit of luck and a whole lot of skill.
Six games of at least six goals. 12 games of at least four goals.
The team is rolling four lines. They’re getting breakout performances by Cam Atkinson and Alexander Wennberg to name a few, but also, and while simultaneously speaking to the Blue Jackets seemingly getting all the bounces, they won big on key free agent signing Sam Gagner, signed for only $650,000 last summer. The former sixth overall pick is having his best NHL season and is second on the team in goals with 14, one behind Atkinson and fifth in points with 26.
So while their offensive numbers, we would think, can’t sustain the incredibly high pace they’re on, even going through the type of slump one can expect for any team throughout the course of a season can slide them back into the same neighborhood among the upper echelon as everyone else.
What stands out about criticism and doubt is when something is going good, it can’t possibly keep up. When something is going bad, well they’re just bad? It’s not so cut and dry either way. Maybe the Blue Jackets are a relatively boring team outside of Ohio and for a team not so steeped in tradition, it’s easier to spin the angle that they can’t sustain something.
Fair enough. And while they probably won’t keep the same pace, this team has had good, young scoring potential and this year it’s coming together. Mixed with the stealthy veterans, healthy players and great goaltending in Bobrovsky. Then there’s the Torts factor. There’s also the steadfast opinion that the players will tire of Torts’ antics. They’ll hate him soon enough.
Is that really all fans can come up with? Well…give it two years. Then they’ll hate his guts.
They’re the same people who thought Torts to Columbus was a disaster move.
A match made in heaven?
My take is Tortorella is grateful for the chance in Columbus, amid the Vancouver disaster. Time in between coaching stints has allowed him to reassess his philosophies, while still bringing the same passion and edge that makes him successful. The team is looking to further its identity and Torts is looking for his own personal redemption story.
He won’t admit it and he doesn’t have to.
So the jury may still be out on just how good this team really is, and like any good team, it’s the playoffs where the true mettle of a team is based. Even if the success of the team is bounded through a little puck luck and a whole lot of skill among high scoring, but just as good defense, one must remember this team, so far, is not the Blue Jackets you’re used to.
Maybe this team really is that good. Time will tell. Just enjoy the ride.