The Columbus Blue Jackets currently sit in the 12th position in the Western Conference standings with 77 total points which places them 10 points out of the 8th and final playoff spot with eight games to play. So, for all intents and purposes, they find themselves missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season.
The Blue Jackets 2010-11 season — their 10th anniversary season in the National Hockey League — started with so much promise by posting an impressive 14-6-0 record during the first 20 games of the season. However, the Blue Jackets nearly repeated the swoon of the prior season, a season in which they also came out of the gate with a nearly identical 12-6-2 mark, by posting a dismal 6-14-3 mark from late-November through mid-January (note: the Blue Jackets posted a 3-14-7 mark at this identical stretch during the previous season).
Then the Blue Jackets defied the ghosts of the 2009-10 season during the period from mid-January through the end of February by posting an impressive 11-3-3 mark. At that time, the Blue Jackets were only two points out of the 8th and final playoff spot.
Then came another swoon as the Blue Jackets have since gone on a 2-7-5 spiral, causing the team to search for how this ‘roller coaster’ of a season could have happened, particularly their most recent struggles at a time when contending teams rise rather than fall towards a playoff push.
In searching for reasons as to why the Blue Jackets missed the playoffs for a second consecutive season and for all but one of their seasons in the NHL, there are seven primary factors as to how this happened.
7) Banking on the impact of Nikita Filatov’s return
Filatov left the Blue Jackets after 19 games of his rookie season, the 2009-10 campaign choosing to finish his season with CKSA Moscow of the KHL. Much of his reason for leaving the team was his frigid relationship with former coach Ken Hitchcock, who was fired later that season.
Filatov returned to the Blue Jackets for the current campaign, but his season was anything but a success; tallying only seven assists in 23 games played before being demoted to the AHL affiliate in Springfield. But beyond the lack of scoring, Filatov looked tentative and often unwilling to engage, particularly offensively and particularly on the power play.
The top prospect in hockey merely two seasons ago, the Blue Jackets are left to speculate if perhaps Filatov could be the latest in a long line of first round busts. At best, Filatov’s future with the Blue Jackets — and in the NHL — is uncertain.
6) Asymmetry between defensive personnel versus Arniel’s new system
Head coach Scott Arniel was brought into Columbus to bring a more up-tempo system, particularly with the defensive personnel. In looking at the Blue Jackets corps of stay-at-home blueliners, particularly Mike Commodore, Jan Hejda, Fedor Tyutin, Rusty Klesla and Marc Methot, skepticism towards whether the system could be run with the personnel available was understandable. And although the Blue Jackets more offensively-minded defenseman — Kris Russell and Anton Stralman — appeared tailor made for the new system, there was still doubt as to whether this defensive pair could adapt to the new system.
While struggles did occur in the early part of the season for the entire defensive corps, the team’s successful start gave hope for even better results once the defensemen could become more comfortable with the demands and nuances of the system. However, the entire defensive unit continued to struggle to score as well as struggling to carry the puck out of their defensive zone and through the other zones of the ice.
While bringing up rookie defenseman Grant Clitsome has helped with offensive production — particularly on the power play — this area will be an area in which major changes in personnel must occur in order to become competitive in the tough Western Conference.
5) Failure to act more quickly during the NHL trade deadline
This season’s trade deadline was similar to a bad, big-budget summer action film. It started out with such excitement – in this case, a slew of impact trades – but, aside from one impact trade (Dustin Penner to the Los Angeles Kings from the Edmonton Oilers), it ended with a disappointing finish to the trade activity.
While the Blue Jackets were able to obtain forward Scottie Upshall and defenseman Sammy Lepisto from the Phoenix Coyotes in exchange for their first-ever draft pick (Klesla) it failed to make any impact on the team’s playoff push. While Upshall has been a welcome addition with both his scoring ability and energy and Lepisto has become a steadying player on the defensive end, particularly in his ability to move the puck through all three zones, as the Blue Jackets have 2-6-5 since their arrival. But it was Blue Jackets’ general manager Scott Howson’s who continued a patient approach that limited any impact move by waiting until the very last day to make any type of move.
With so many teams in the playoff picture this season, waiting until the end of the trading period limited the available options and players that could have truly helped with a playoff run. This is similar to the law of supply and demand: the longer Howson waited to make a move, the smaller the supply of available impact players was available.
Howson was quoted as saying just weeks prior to the deadline, “Most GM’s wait until the 11th hour to make trades at the deadline.” It was this approach –while many other teams were making bold moves weeks prior to the deadline — that was his undoing in trying to land an impact move.
4) Struggles and lack of inspired play at the most inopportune times
This maddening ‘up and down’ run was covered in detail, above. But worse than the struggles during these periods was the return to a fragile team psyche during the 6-14-3 swoon, a similar effect during the prior season’s meltdown, and a combination of fragile psyche and apparent uninspired play during the current 2-7-5 funk.
An example of this uninspired play is the Blue Jackets being shut out in three of their last five games, one of which they registered only 13 shots on goal. True playoff teams rise to the occasion during the final 20 games of the regular season, as evidenced by the cumulative records of the teams who currently occupy positions 4-8 of the Western Conference standings for their last 10 games played: 34-10-6. These teams recognize the urgency of not only jockeying for playoff position, but the overall importance of qualifying for the playoffs, where No. 1 versus No. 8 seeds playoff series, as well as a home ice advantage, are rendered relatively moot.
But for a team like the Blue Jackets whose disappointing performance last season resulted in a 25% drop in Full Season Equivalent (FSE) ticket sales, a playoff push which resembled a whimper certainly can’t bring those disappointed fans back for next season.
3) Placing too much on new coaching staff to correct the organization’s traditional ills
Howson, when asked about why he failed to make any acquisitions of consequence, this for the team with the fourth worst record in the NHL the previous season, replied by stating that he believed the impact of an entirely new coaching staff was sufficient to make a significant improvement for the upcoming season.
In short, Howson was leveraging that new coaches and a new system would rectify the organization’s traditional Achilles heel(s), specifically, a lack of a top-line center and a lack of a first pair of defensemen.
There have been many other shortcomings, as well: having only one impact first round selection in 10 NHL entry drafts, an abundance of left and right wings, an inability to develop a franchise goalie for more than one season. But the assumption that a new group of coaches would fix long-time organizational flaws by merely instituting a new system and a new approach, one which differed greatly from Hitchcock, a coach known for utilizing a gritty, two-way, defense-first philosophy and a coach known for being very reliant on veteran players and brutally tough on younger players, was risky and now proven to not be the panacea Howson anticipated.
The ills and shortcomings remain, so Arniel and his staff and the Blue Jackets organization is left to once again work towards fixing these seemingly endless holes towards becoming a playoff team.
2) Inconsistent goaltending
At the beginning of this season, Howson awarded former Calder Trophy recipient Steve Mason with a contract extension. This extension was coming off of a year in which Mason experienced one of the greatest sophomore jinxes in recent history.
It was puzzling that Howson would reward Mason with such an extension as an apparent vote of confidence that Mason would regain his rookie year form, something that puzzled many, including your’s truly.
The hope was that Mason’s dreadful 2009-10 campaign was an aberration and that he’d return to his rookie year form. The results, however, have been quite a mixed bag as Mason’s performance mirrored his sophomore season than it did his rookie season and particularly so during both of the Blue Jackets struggling stretches.
The mixed bag can be summarized by Mason’s goals against average and save percentage during these two time periods: GAA of 4.27 and save% of .872 during the 6-14-3 stretch and during part of the recent 2-7-5 mark, a GAA of 4.78 and a save% of .838. Compare that to Mason’s stellar performance during mid-January through the end of February when Mason posted an impressive 7-1-0 record with a GAA of 1.83 and a save% of .942.
While Mason has been relatively steady as of late, needless to say as he goes, so go the Blue Jackets.
1) A missed window of opportunity
While this summer’s unrestricted free agent market was not the strongest, Howson elected to not participate in it.
Instead, Howson made one non-descript move, acquiring Ethan Moreau on a waiver claim from the Edmonton Oilers. Incidentally, this marked the sixth former Oilers’ player that Howson has either acquired or traded for from Edmonton.