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Blue Jackets at The Quarter-Mark: Improved, But More Work Needs Done

Aaron TomContributor INovember 22, 2009

GLENDALE, AZ - OCTOBER 10:  Head coach Ken Hitchcock of the Columbus Blue Jackets looks during the NHL game against the Phoenix Coyotes at Jobing.com Arena on October 10, 2009 in Glendale, Arizona. The Blue Jackets defeated the Coyotes 2-0.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Taking a look at some of the stats for the Columbus Blue Jackets through the twenty-game mark, they seem to indicate the Jackets are vastly improved, even from last season, in which they made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history:  They're on par for 48 wins, seven more than last year's playoff team, Rick Nash is on an early-season roll, and they're scoring goals with consistency.

But while numbers may not lie, they can greatly exaggerate the truth. And the truth is that Columbus, despite some good stats and some genuine improvements in the off-season, still have lots of work to be done.

On paper, their notable improvement on offense from last year is pretty darn good.  Through the quarter-mark, Columbus is tied for eighth in the league in that regard, averaging exactly three goals per game. This is up even from last season, in which they were in the bottom ten in the league, averaging 2.67 goals per game.

The problem is that their burst in offensive output is pretty much negated with the fact that they're allowing an average of 3.30 goals per game, which is 27th in the league (or next-to-next-to-next-to-last). 

In articles past, I have made no hesitation to name goaltender Steve Mason's slow start as a large reason for this problem, as he has simply been unable to stop the puck with any form of consistency.

Still, a nice 4-1 win against Dallas on Thursday night, and a 45-save effort against Nashville on Saturday night were good steps in the right direction for Mason, so let's hope he can keep that level of consistency up for the remainder of the season.

Even then, I still fail to understand why Hitchcock is so hesitant to play backup goaltender Mathieu Garon, even though he's been putting up some of the best numbers of his career.  At the very least, I don't see why Columbus can't go to a two-goalie system, similar to what the Bruins did last year with their Thomas-Fernandez tandem:  Alternate each goalie every other game. 

If one gets on a hot streak, play him in a consecutive game or two. If you have two solid goaltenders, why not? It will encourage both to play at their best to be rewarded with extra playing time. 

And what's wrong with a little friendly competition?

The powerplay, which has long been a sore spot for the Jackets, is chugging along nicely at a 25 percent success rate, which is tied for fourth in the league (with Toronto, of all teams).

Obviously, one can expect a fairly large drop-off in success as the season wears on, but as of now, it's much improved over last season. Then again, just by showing up on the ice, they're better than last season's dreadful 12.6 percent success rate, good for dead last in the league.

But, Columbus also continues its fundamental battles with discipline:  They are taking way too many penalties. Their 113 minor penalties are the third-worst in the league, which is even behind Toronto. The sheer number of penalties taken are no doubt a huge reason their penalty kill has dropped from one of the best in the entire NHL, to 19th, currently stopping roughly four-out-of-five opponent attempts on the powerplay (78.8 percent). 

Turnovers also continue to be a huge problem for the Jackets. They simply turn the puck over way too many times per game, with at least a couple coming directly in their defensive zone. This has lead to great scoring chances for opposing teams and, in more than a couple cases, goals.

Much of this can be attributed to youngsters making rookie mistakes (i.e. Jakub Voracek, who seems to turn the puck over more often than not), but it's no doubt something that must be addressed, and corrected, if the Jackets hope to make the playoffs for a second-straight year.

So as usual, it's almost a push-pull scenario with the Jackets, as it has been for most of the franchise's history: For everything they do right, there's something directly-related that they do wrong. 

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That's what's so frustrating about being a fan: They have some great talent, but always seem to fall just short of reaching their collective potential.

We saw it as they got swept by the Red Wings in the first round of last year's Stanley Cup playoffs and, if they don't focus on some of the aforementioned problems, we might watch as they slowly lose their grasp on a playoff berth entirely as this season comes to an end.

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