Earlier in the season, I provided a first quarter assessment of the Columbus Blue Jackets. That was quite an easy task as the Blue Jackets stormed out of the gate to a franchise-best 14-6-0 record.
What followed was a 3-14-7 meltdown, leading to the eventual firing of Coach Ken Hitchcock and a 14th place finish in the Western Conference.
I tried to be optimistic that a repeat of last season's debacle wouldn't happen again, but I'm sad to report that while not a free-fall to that level, the Blue Jackets have once again struggled into the halfway point of their regular season.
In a manner similar to last quarter's assessment, I offer my insights both for the season, to date, as well as how the Blue Jackets have fared during their most recent 20 games of the season (Games 21-40).
And while their overall mark is better than at this time, last season, the ghosts of late-November's, December's and early January's have resurfaced, once again.
Their overall record: 20-17-3.
Their record (Games 1-20): 14-6-0.
Their record (Games 21-40): 6-11-3.
Now, to compare this to last season (2009-2010):
Their overall record: 15-18-7.
Their record (Games 1-20): 12-6-2.
Their record (Games 21-40): 3-12-5.
However, while not as horrendous a record, the groans and skepticism have begun to creep into their fans' collective minds. And the landmark accomplishments of the first 20 games have become but a distant memory, replaced by all-too-familiar patterns of ineptitude:
- Since opening the season with an 8-1-0 road mark, the Blue Jackets have since gone 1-7-2 in road contests. And with six of their next nine games on the road, in arenas that have not been too kind to them, there is good reason for panic and doubt to set in.
- After posting a 3-1 record against Central Division rivals during the first quarter of the season, the Blue Jackets have gone 0-5-1 against their Central Division foes.
Most disturbing in their recent troubles is their inability to compete with teams of a specific skill set: Primarily speed, finesse and puck possession teams. Teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins, Detroit Red Wings, Buffalo Sabres and Chicago Blackhawks have not only beaten the Blue Jackets, they have pounded them, by a collective score of 9-30 over six games.
Edmonton, although a young team who's struggling this season, also blistered the Blue Jackets by a score of 7-3, and they also are a team which can primarily go up-tempo.
To their credit, while the Blue Jackets continue to be one of the league's top teams when scoring the game's first goal (14-3), they have continued to show a penchant for fragility when their opposition scores the game's first goal, with a 6-14-3 overall mark and a 3-9-3 mark since the first 20 games of the season.
They also have continued to post stellar records when leading after the first and second periods of play. So, once they get into a lead, they can certainly hold it with the best of the NHL.
But great teams are borne from heart and an ability to come back from such adversity and this re-appearing doubt is something that until proven otherwise, will continue to plague this team from future success.
As it relates to overall statistics, here are some statistics to reflect how the Blue Jackets, as a team, rank against the rest of the National Hockey League (NHL), at both the halfway point of the season and compared to their ranking during their first 20 games:
Goals Scored/Game: 2.50 (Tied for 24th)
Goals Against Average: 2.92 (22nd)
Goaltenders Save Percentage: .904 (18th)
Shutouts Posted: 4 (10th)
At the halfway point of the season, how do you assess the Blue Jackets' chances to make the Stanley Cup playoffs?
Power Play Conversion Percentage: 7.5% (30th)
Penalty Kill Percentage: 80.6% (20th)
Rankings after first 20 games:
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, here are their statistics over their last 20 games played (NHL rankings not provided for that span):
Goals Scored/Game: 2.12
Goals Against Average: 3.61
Goaltenders Save Percentage: .885
Shutouts Posted: 0
Power Play Conversion Percentage: 3.6%
Penalty Kill Percentage: 76.0%
In short, these statistics spell one word: Awful.
Other troubling signs exist:
- The team has recently shown a penchant for not playing for a full 60 minutes. This flaw was often the source of lament by former coach Ken Hitchcock, and it appears to have resurfaced for current coach Scott Arniel.
- The defensive unit has struggled mightily and particularly against teams that are adept at stopping their attack through the neutral zone. Not only have the current stay-at-home defensive types struggled to adapt to Scott Arniel's new system, but even their two offensively-capable defensemen—Kris Russell and Anton Stralman—have struggled, both on the offensive and defensive ends. Russell has scored only two goals with five assists and possesses a minus-five +/- rating and Anton Stralman has not yet scored a goal with nine assists and a minus-five +/- rating.
- While Steve Mason has somewhat exorcised some of mid-December's horrific play, he still ranks near the bottom of the NHL's goaltending statistics. Additionally, backup Mathieu Garon has also struggled since his phenomenal start, posting a goals against average (GAA) of 3.18 and a save percentage (Save%) of .884, quite a far cry from his marks of a GAA of 1.33 and save% of .950. To their credit, the Blue Jackets shoddy defensive play has certainly contributed to their troubles in net.
- The performance of their once-dependable first line of forwards has not only plummeted, but two of those first line forwards—Derick Brassard and Jakub Voracek - have been demoted to lower lines. In fact, as a result of his less-than-stellar recent play, Voracek was benched for two recent games but has returned to perform much better during his last three games.
Amidst all of the "gloom and doom" has been coach Scott Arniel's admirable ability to do whatever it takes to jumpstart this team and get them back on the right track. Be it benching young, high-salaried or veteran players, even benching the top forward line for inept play in a recent game against the Nashville Predators, Arniel has shown that favoritism doesn't exist on his team.
In doing so, Arniel has won the respect and admiration of fans and the organization alike. But he can only do so much with what talent currently exists - or doesn't exist.
While the season is not lost—the Blue Jackets currently are 13th in the Western Conference standings but are only three points out of the last playoff spot—the time for recapturing what worked so well in the early part of the season needs to happen and soon.