It’s no secret that the Columbus Blue Jackets would experience some adjustments to their new division and conference; however, a 3-5-0 start is not the way I believe they’d prefer to come out of the gate, even after a hard-fought victory against the Vancouver Canucks. Save for last night’s flat 4-1 loss against the Washington Capitals, the Blue Jackets have generally been in every game so far this season. But, unless they rectify some of the glaring issues that have plagued them so far, a sluggish start similar to last season’s 5-12-2 season may doom their playoff chances in the Eastern Conference.
So what are the major issues plaguing the Blue Jackets?
Let me start with one area that isn’t glaring…
Defending Vezina Trophy recipient Sergei Bobrovsky has been solid albeit not to the surreal level he displayed last season. Bobrovsky has posted a .917 Save Percentage (Save%), thus far. While it pales a bit to the .931 Save% of last season, posting a similar Save% wouldn’t have mattered in the outcome of most of their early losses even though Bobrovsky’s $11.25 million (over two seasons) contract would hope to result in stealing a game or two of their first seven contests. In defense of Bobrovsky, two of the more glaring areas of concern haven’t helped his cause…
While the Blue Jackets, for the first time in their history, boast a blueline that is at least in the conversation of solid defenses in the National Hockey League (NHL), they haven’t exactly been as stout as they were during last season. Bobrovsky has faced approximately 33 shots per game, so far, while facing 29 shots per game during the 2012-13 regular season. So, combining four less shots per game combined with last season’s .932 Save%, Bobrovsky would have surrendered approximately seven less goals. When combined with the Blue Jackets current goal differential of -5, even with their offensive struggles, it would result in a +2 goal differential and quite possibly 2-3 victories to add to their 2 victories, so far.
The defensive corps appears so far to be a bit sluggish in their decision-making and the speed at which they’re playing the game, often leading to Bobrovsky being caught with several offensive opponents within point-blank range to collect goals. While both defensemen display offensive prowess, James Wisniewski and Nikita Nikitin have often looked out of sorts. In Wisniewski’s case, he often appears to be overly aggressive and often over-pursues the puck in his own defensive zone. But this is what is to be expected of Wisniewski, a high-risk, high-reward defenseman. Nikitin, on the other hand, appears to be extremely slow in reacting to the opponents offensive zone pressure and has also struggled with moving the puck through the three zones up the ice. Barring injuries to the blueline, scratching Nikitin may soon be in the offing before the losses continue to mount. Fedor Tyutin has also struggled a bit this season; however, Tyutin is traditionally a slow starter and is coming off of an injury to start the season. One pleasant surprise has been the play of defenseman David Savard, who looks much quicker and more comfortable than he has in previous stints with the Blue Jackets, most of which is attributed to his greater off-season conditioning.
In the +/- statistical category, defensemen Jack Johnson and Wisniewski have posted a -8 and -5, respectively, so much more is needed from the defensive end from these two blueline stalwarts.
Here lies the main culprit of the Blue Jackets woes so far this season. To accurately convey how bad the current scoring situation is, a close friend of mine captured it best, via a text message to me, “This team couldn’t find the back of the net if it had a GPS (Global Positioning System).” Currently, the Blue Jackets rank 27th in goals scored and 23rd in goals scored per game. And while they were ranked 25th in goals scored per game during the 2012-13 regular season, they were able to generate a slightly higher goals per game average and particularly in key goals scored, those which often allowed the Blue Jackets to garner points in Overtime and in the Shoot Out. Also, the goal-scoring drought adds to the pressure placed under Bobrovsky, often knowing that he can’t surrender a goal or it may result in the outcome already being decided.
In spite of the goal-scoring dearth, there have been some contributors – primarily and solely, the Blue Jackets first forward line. Save for a bout with the flu, Marian Gaborik appears to have regained his scoring proclivity with 7 points in his first six games (2 goals). Also, Cam Atkinson has justified his place on the first forward line with 2 goals and 2 assists in his first seven games. And recently, Artem Anisimov has started to find the net during the past few games. Rookie Boone Jenner also netted 2 goals against the Montreal Canadiens and has shown the firebrand playing style that should secure his place with the parent club for some time.
However, for all of those solid offensive performances, the majority of the Blue Jackets have struggled, mightily, to score goals. Several players expected to contribute, offensively, have struggled to start the campaign, most notably R.J. Umberger for the third consecutive (early) season as well as Ryan Johansen, Blake Comeau, Tyutin and Nikitin. And, for a team who desperately needs secondary scoring to be competitive, they need immediate contributions from these players to take the pressure off of Bobrovsky.
For as they say, as Bob (Bobrovsky) goes, so go the Columbus Blue Jackets. And they need to find their way, particularly as Unrestricted Free Agent (UFA) signing Nathan Horton isn’t due back until mid-December to early-January (shoulder surgery), before they dig themselves too deep of a hole for playoff contention in the Eastern Conference.