Blue Jackets First Quarter Assessment

In a manner similar to last season, in which I assessed how the Columbus Blue Jackets performed as a team and individually at the first quarter of the season, I offer my insights for the season, to date, at the completion of the first quarter to their 2010-2011 season.

At this time, last season, the Blue Jackets were beginning to show chinks in their competitive armor, even while bolting out to a 12-6-2 record.  What followed after that was a free-fall of epic proportions:  A dizzying 3-14-7 debacle, one which lead to the firing of their head coach, Ken Hitchcock and the team finishing 14th out of 15 teams in the Western Conference.

And although it’s very early to determine their fate for the rest of the season, it’s pretty safe to say that, barring a major injury or two, the 2010-2011 Blue Jackets are a much improved team.

With that, I’d like to offer my view of how things have gone so far for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Their record: 14-6-0.

Unlike last season, this record is filled with so many positives and accomplishments not seen before with this 10-year old organization:  They have set a franchise record for the most points at the 20-game mark of the season.  They’ve set franchise marks for their historic West Coast sweep, for their greatest margin of victory and having two separate goalies post back-to-back consecutive shutouts.  They’ve also pounded a divisional foe that has recently done that to them by being more physical, being stronger on the puck and taking out the opponent, early.  They are currently 3-1-0 against Central Division rivals, this for a team who only once posted a .500 record against their divisional foes.  Finally, for a team who has historically lost twice as many road games as they’d won, the Blue Jackets currently possess an astounding 8-1 mark.

And while the Blue Jackets are 11-1 when scoring the first goal, they are also 3-5 when their opponent scores the game’s first goal.  And for a team who was considered fragile, last season, they have shown mettle in posting come from behind victories.

Yes, the majority of the Blue Jacket’s losses are of the blowout variety – four of their six losses, in fact.  Yes, the majority of their early wins were squeakers – one-goal victories, two if an empty-net goal was scored.

Here are some statistics to reflect how the Blue Jackets, as a team, ranks against the rest of the National Hockey League (NHL):

Goals Scored/Game:  2.88 (Tied for 12th)
Goals Against Average:  2.23 (3rd)
Goaltenders Save Percentage:  .923 (3rd)
Shutouts Posted:  4 (Tied 2nd)
Power Play Conversion Percentage:  11.4% (27th)
Penalty Kill Percentage:  85.2% (7th)

Now, compare these statistics against their rankings during the team’s only playoff appearance (year):

Goals Scored/Game:  2.63 (21st)
Goals Against Average:  2.67 (9th)
Goaltenders Save Percentage:  .902 (20th)
Shutouts Posted:  11 (1st)
Power Play Conversion Percentage:  12.7% (30th)
Penalty Kill Percentage:  82.1% (12th)

While there are some similarities, particularly in their power play struggles, the results also show that this team shows a bit more proclivity in scoring goals, particularly on even strength.  It also shows a stingier defensive effort as well as possessing a balanced 1-2 goaltending tandem.  During the 2008-2009 season, the Blue Jackets struggled in goal until Steve Mason came in at the end of the first quarter of the season, and posted a Calder Trophy winning performance in net.  But it was a lack of a credible backup – his backup was Wade Dubielewicz and he was only used when Mason was injured, with good reason – that impacted comparisons to the goaltending statistics for this year.

So what does that tell us?

– The team is buying into Coach Scott Arniel’s swarming, up-tempo system, one in which defensemen are often called upon to lead the offensive rush and to successfully be able to move the puck through all zones, as well as a system in which the forwards are required to support each other on both ends of the ice.  While this is a massive change from the plodding, defense-first system that former Head Coach Ken Hitchcock employed, the beauty is in the simplicity of the system and the team’s ability to adapt to it.  The results speak of a team who puts forth a more consistent effort, a team who performs far better on the road and a team who is not as prone to getting down, mentally, when falling behind, early.

– Steve Mason’s sophomore-jinxed season is a thing of the past.  Much has been written about his struggles during the 2009-2010 season, one in which Mason was a far cry from his Calder Trophy winning form.  But while Mason’s Goals Against Average (GAA) and Save Percentage (Save%) aren’t quite to that season’s levels, he has also been the victim of some early-season defensive breakdowns.  In his last three starts, Mason has posted a GAA of 2.00 and a Save% of .947.  And, in having a backup like Mathieu Garon, who leads the league in GAA (1.33) and Save% (.950), it lends to healthy competition as well as some level of overall team confidence, knowing that there is no drop off in performance when either goaltender mans the net.

– The Blue Jackets have found a dependable first line of forwards.  Due to injuries and inconsistencies in the team’s performance, Scott Arniel was forced to juggle his four lines of forwards.  He decided to put a forward line of Rick Nash, the team’s premier player, Derick Brassard and Jakub Voracek together and the results have been spectacular.  With Brassard’s ability to provide spectacular cross-ice passes, it allowed Rick Nash to go on a prolific goal-scoring binge, one in which he scored nine goals in six games.  But it also ignited Voracek out of his early-season doldrums and post 11 points (5 G, 6 A) in his last 10 games.  But it’s Brassard who has eased the organization’s concerns of never yet finding that premier no. 1 center by posting points in 13 of his last 14 games (5 G – 11 A = 16 Pts)

– There is balanced scoring from all of the forward lines.  In years past, beyond two-three players, the Blue Jackets could not get secondary scoring from any of their remaining forward lines.  In fact, during their 2008-2009 playoff season, the Blue Jackets had only three players exceed the 20-goal plateau.  If the team maintains their current pace, this year’s team can possibly have as many as seven-eight players exceed the 20-goal mark.

The bottom line, however, is results.  And, with a 14-6-0 mark, one which is tied atop the Western Conference standings, the Blue Jackets have put the rest of the conference, and the entire NHL, on notice that this team is for real.

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