During the 2009-2010 regular season, the Columbus Blue Jackets opened the season with a franchise-best record of 12-6-2. However, what followed was a horrible 3-14-7 tailspin which not only took the Blue Jackets out of any chance of returning to the Stanley Cup playoffs, but it also cost their head coach, Ken Hitchcock, his job.
After last season’s terrific start, the next 12 games set the tempo for what was to follow, as the Blue Jackets posted a 2-6-4 record. Analyzing how this could have happened really wasn’t that difficult, as the Blue Jackets, while winning, were doing so by the narrowest of margins. When they lost, it was usually of the blowout variety.
Specifically, the Blue Jackets abandoned Hitchcock’s tight-checking, defense-first, attack the neutral zone only when a fail-safe situation occurred. This resulted in the Blue Jackets giving up several odd-man rushes on defense. And although their morbid power play rate skyrocketed from one of the worst in the NHL, it also resulted in giving up an inordinate amount of shorthanded goals.
There were other issues as well, most notably Steve Mason’s sudden fall from his Calder Trophy-winning form, some locker room schism between Hitchcock and the younger core players—Derick Brassard, Jakub Voracek and mostly notably Nikita Filatov, who departed from the team to return to Russia at the 19-game mark of the season.
But it was the abandonment of the system, as well as the Blue Jackets failing to realize what got them into the playoffs in the first place: It doesn’t hurt to start out strong, but it also doesn’t really matter how well you do in October and November, it "matters" beginning in December and culminating during the New Year’s months that follow.
Can the Blue Jackets recover from their current swoon?
So, while the indications of last season imminent downfall weren’t all that surprising, even during the successful start—Ken Hitchcock, on more than one occasion, expressed his concerns over what was to come.
For Hitchcock, an ardent history, particularly a Civil War, buff, an old adage runs true:
“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
The problem then was that the Blue Jackets were in unchartered territory, having never experienced such a hot start. So it was difficult to communicate to these inexperienced—in terms of early-season success—that adjustments had to be made to prevent an ignominious fate. But that never happened, and the season was lost, from there.
Fast forward to this season—the Blue Jackets started the season with an even more impressive record of 14-6-0—and did so with a new head coach in Scott Arniel, a new system, one in which fore-checking and an attacking offensive style were the key to its success and a commitment to erase the sins of the past.
However, what’s followed is a nearly identical 2-7-3 swoon and the fears of the Blue Jacket faithful are becoming all too familiar and all too painful to possibly endure, again.
So now that the Blue Jackets have nearly repeated history, perhaps it’s time to learn from it, rather than to repeat it.
The good news is that what worked so well in the early part of the season will indeed work again. Also, the Blue Jackets have a several home games before they embark on a brutal January schedule, one in which eight of their 11 games are on the road, at venues that have historically been a veritable chamber of horrors for the team.
While that may appear to be the bad news, recall that during their playoff run, they served notice to the rest of the league that they were legitimate by winning most of their games, with quite a patchwork (due to injuries to key players) squad, at those venues, ironically during the month of January, 2009.
So, what did work and how do they replicate it? Let’s analyze how they did it:
1. Score the first goal. The Blue Jackets had the third best record in the NHL when they scored the game’s first goal, with a winning percentage of .857. For a team in which spurts of fragility occur, scoring the first goal is not only crucial, it’s downright necessary. Additionally, their record, when leading after the first and second periods of play, ranks fifth in the NHL, with a winning percentage of .909 and 1.000, respectively.
This is a vast improvement from last year, when the Blue Jackets were last when leading after both the ends of the first and second periods of play. So, when they score first and hold a lead going into the intermission breaks, they generally hold their leads.
2. Score more goals. Well, that seems simple enough, but if you compare their goals/game and their NHL rankings in this category against their only playoff appearance season (2008-2009), you will see stark similarities:
—Goals Scored/Game: 2.88 (Tied for 12th)
—Goals Scored/Game: 2.63 (21st)
Since the Blue Jackets have started their recent nose dive, they have averaged 1.83 goals/game, which would rank them only ahead of one of the worst teams in the NHL (by record), the New Jersey Devils, who score only 1.73 goals/game.
3. Commit to the Penalty Kill. Similarly, when the Blue Jackets were rolling with a 14-6-0 record, their Penalty Kill was outstanding, ranking seventh in the NHL with a Kill percentage of 85.2. When you compare that ranking and rate with their only playoff appearance season—12th and 82.1 percent, respectively—the result is one of great success.
Since their struggles ensued, their Penalty Kill has struggled, having killed off only .762 of their opponents power play opportunities, which would rank them ahead of only the Edmonton Oilers, who while improved, are currently 15th (last) in the Western Conference standings with a .712 kill rate.
4. Stealth Goaltending. Specifically, go with the "hot goaltender", and that would be Mathieu Garon. Former Calder Trophy recipient Steve Mason is struggling mightily, both with his confidence and his technical abilities. This confidence also carries over to his teammates, who are taken out of games, early, when Mason often gives up an early goal – or goals, as has recently been the case. While Garon hasn’t been quite as proficient as he was during the winning times—Garon posted a GAA of 1.33 and a Save percentage of .950 at that point of the season—he still possesses a GAA of 1.98 and a Save percentage of .920.
This is not the time to allow Mason to sort out his issues; however, as they don’t have a NHL-ready goalie in their system, letting Mason work on his skills in the minor leagues is quite risky. It appears the only current solution is to switch the roles of the No. 1 and No. 2 net-minder’s from Mason to Garon.
5. Power Play—basics, basics, basics. While their struggles on the man advantage didn’t seem to affect their initial success, when facing the NHL’s elite teams—i.e. the Detroit Red Wings—their ineptitude on the power play was exposed. As the time to make an impact move was not made in the off-season, doing so within the framework of the current NHL system is extremely difficult to do.
However, that is not to say that the approach to the power play, given their current personnel, cannot be improved. While Kristian Huselius has returned from injury and while he provides a key element on their power play, Huselius was also on the team when they were struggling on the power play, this season and in season’s past.
Rather, it is more about the philosophy of the current power play approach. Huselius, along with so many of the current Blue Jackets Power Play (PP) specialists, has the tendency to try for the perfect cross-ice pass and to try to create the perfect shot at the goal rather than simply trying to get hard, accurate shots on the net and allowing their forwards to plant themselves in front of the net for rebounds as so many of the elite power play units do.
To their credit, in trying to simplify their PP scheme, their success rate has risen by almost double their prior PP success rate when they were 14-6.
6. Keep the lines fresh. Arniel’s forward line changes, particularly at the beginning of the year, were both creative and effective, particularly the move to place Jakub Voracek and Rick Nash on the No. 1 line. Eventually however, the rest of the NHL were able to scout and scheme how to mitigate their effectiveness and the line was changed. While it is difficult to find forward lines that click, the key is to find it and stick with it until it’s proven ineffective. This is quite a change from Ken Hitchcock’s "revolving door" line changes.
7. Consistency of effort. One of the keys to the Blue Jackets’ initial success was their ability to exude consistent effort for 60 minutes, or as close to 60 minutes as could be expected. During their current slide, inconsistencies in their effort were quite apparent—at times, their initial energy levels were less than desirable, resulting in opponents who would take the action to the Blue Jackets, often resulting in early, large deficits and left the team both demoralized and often in a fragile state.
This consistency of effort can also be applied to when the Blue Jackets often do come out in the early portion of the game with a lot of effort and energy, only to result in their opponents scoring the game’s critical first goal. You can almost see their look of disappointment and an energy drop by the looks on the players faces. When this occurs, that is the very time when the team should turn the energy levels up, not down and that was key to their early-season come-from-behind victories.
So, in order for the Blue Jackets to return to their winning ways and avoid the ghosts of December’s (and beyond) past, they now have a blueprint and lessons learned from the past. The challenge then is to go back to what was successful before and to apply it from hereon in before the season, and any chances to return to the Stanley Cup playoffs, slip away from them.