Columbus Blue Jackets: 7 Reasons They Missed the NHL Playoffs
The Columbus Blue Jackets sit in 12th in the Western Conference standings with 77 total points, which places them 10 points out of the eighth and final playoff spot with seven 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. They posted 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.
They posted 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 came another swoon as the Blue Jackets have since gone on a 2-8-5 spiral.
The team is searching for how this "roller coaster" of a season could have happened; particularly, their most recent struggles when contending teams rise, rather than fall, towards a playoff push.
They are searching for the reasons they missed the playoffs for a second consecutive season and for all but one of their seasons in the NHL.
With all that, here are the seven primary reasons 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.
He tallied 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 on the power play.
The Blue Jackets are left to speculate if perhaps Filatov, the top prospect in hockey merely two seasons ago, 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 vs. Arniel’s New System
Head coach Scott Arniel was brought into Columbus to bring a more uptempo 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.
Although the Blue Jackets' more offensively minded defensemen—Kris Russell and Anton Stralman—appeared tailor-made for the new system, there was still doubt as to whether this defensive pair could adapt.
Struggles did occur in the early part of the season for the entire defensive corps, but the team’s successful start gave hope for even better results once the defensemen become more comfortable with the demands and nuances of the system.
However, the entire defensive unit continued to struggle to score and struggled to carry the puck out of its zone and through the other zones.
While bringing up rookie defenseman Grant Clitsome has helped with offensive production—particularly on the power play—major changes in personnel must occur in this area for the Blue Jackets 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.
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), but those moves failed to make any impact on the team’s playoff push.
Upshall has been a welcome addition with both his scoring ability and energy.
Lepisto has become a steadying player on the defensive end, particularly in his ability to move the puck through all three zones.
The Blue Jackets have gone 2-6-5 since their arrival.
But Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson 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 the amount of 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.
Just weeks prior to the deadline, Howson was quoted as saying, “Most GMs 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.
Also worse was 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—34-10-6—of the teams who currently occupy positions 4-8 of the Western Conference standings for their last 10 games played.
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 seed 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-percent drop in full-season equivalent (FSE) ticket sales, a playoff push that 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 Woes
Howson, when asked about why he failed to make any acquisitions of consequence for the team with the fourth-worst record in the NHL the previous season, said 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, lack of a top-line center and lack of a first pair of defensemen.
There have been many other shortcomings: having only one impact first-round selection in 10 NHL entry drafts, an abundance of left and right wings and an inability to develop a franchise goalie for more than one season.
But the assumption that a new group of coaches would fix longtime organizational flaws by merely instituting a new system and a new approach—one that differed greatly from that of Hitchcock, a coach known for utilizing a gritty, two-way, defense-first philosophy and being very reliant on veteran players and brutally tough on younger players—was risky.
It's now proven to not be the panacea Howson anticipated.
The ills and shortcomings remain, so Arniel, his staff and the Blue Jackets organization are left to work toward fixing these seemingly endless holes to 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 came off 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.
The decision puzzled many, including yours 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 more than his rookie season, particularly so during both of the Blue Jackets' stretches.
The mixed bag can be summarized by Mason’s goals-against average and save percentage during these two time periods.
He had a GAA of 4.27 and save percentage of .872 during the 6-14-3 stretch. During part of the recent 2-7-5 mark, Mason had a GAA of 4.78 and a save percentage 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 percentage of .942.
Mason has been relatively steady as of late. But 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.
This "as is/status quo" approach was the key error that prevented the Blue Jackets from forming a playoff-worthy team.
So, as the Blue Jackets season winds down, they are left to contemplate "what if."
But make no mistake about it—the pressure on Scott Howson and the organization to drastically revamp the roster and the direction of the organization will be immense.
It will affect discontented fans and the team's finances, especially if another material drop in ticket sales—particularly FSEs—occurs.