It was a psychological effect, more than anything else.
When you’re winning, as the Columbus Blue Jackets were for a good chunk of the season, there’s little impetus for fans, players, coaches, or executives to question the process by which those wins were gained. In fact, even outside observers who should know better become tempted to explain away the team’s more glaring problems and instead highlight why what they’ve done right is capital-S Sustainable.
Things came to a head starting in late November, when the team began what eventually became a 16-game winning streak. Though they’d started 11-5-4, catapulting yourself to 27-5-4 is a good way to dispel any doubts about your ascension to the top of the hockey world. The reviews of the Blue Jackets’ play from all but the hardiest of skeptics went from credulous to fawning. There was, in fact, even the suggestion that their success through 36 games — some 44 percent of the season — was going to change the face of the league. For instance, because the Blue Jackets didn’t hold morning skates and had this incredible amount of success, it stood to reason that the rest of the league should follow suit.
(Of course, they should follow suit, because it’s to everyone’s benefit to cancel morning skates and everyone also hates it. But tradition is tradition and unless given a very convincing reason, it’s probably never going to change. This is the NHL, after all.)
However, more recently the Blue Jackets have been on the losing end of their results far more often than they used to be. They have losses in 10 of their last 17 games, and only have four regulation wins in that stretch. This means their opponents — all but two of whom are also in the Eastern Conference — have a .618 points percentage against Columbus since Jan. 5. Columbus’s points percentage in that same stretch is just .441.
So there are three very distinct portions of the Blue Jackets’ season, and they can be divided somewhat evenly: The first 20 games they were great, the next 16 they were unbeatable, and the last 17 they were awful. And hey, if more than two-thirds of your season to date features a combined .806 points percentage, you’re in great shape.
But the first half of the season is for figuring out what a team “is,” to inform projections about what it will do in the second half and the postseason. At this point, the Blue Jackets are basically a playoff lock, but their inability to pick up Ws for the past month-plus is something we might have expected had we been looking at something other than goals-for, goals-against, and the standings column.
Far be it for me to suggest that adjusted 5-on-5 shot-attempt data is perhaps the best predictor of future success, here in the year two-thousand seventeen anno Domini. But hey listen, folks: It kinda still is. And with that in mind, let’s just sit here and remind ourselves again that all indications were that Columbus was a mediocre team that pounded bad opponents, struggled against good ones, and came out on the winning end most nights regardless of those successes or failures.
Here, then, is how the Blue Jackets’ full-season stats (bottom row) rank from left to right, respectively, in the entire NHL: fourth in total points percentage, eighth in attempts, 11th in scoring chances, seventh in shots on goal, fifth in goals, 12th in expected goals, fifth in shooting percentage, 10th in save percentage, and sixth in PDO.
As you can see, all but those goal margins are somewhat slim, meaning that if luck abandons them in any given game (which, as you can see, it has lately) they’re going to struggle to put wins on the board. You can also see that until their previous 17-game stretch of futility, they always outperformed their expected goals by a significant margin at 5-on-5.
It’s also important to note that their vaunted power play, which many credited as having (you guessed it) “figured out shot quality” has been in the dumps for a month. This was a 5-on-4 unit that ran at more than 30 percent for much of the season, through sheer luck. You cannot “talent” your way to a team PP% that’s like 80 percent better than the league average, and even if you could, Columbus never had the horses to do it.
Power play scoring rates also help to explain the Blue Jackets’ winning ways early in the season, and why they’ve been losing lately. Breaking down those same three distinct portions of their season, the power play looks like this: 28.3 percent in the first 20 contests, 28.3 percent in the 16-game winning streak (fun coincidence there), and 11.9 percent in the past 17.
In fact, Columbus hasn’t scored on the power play at all in 10 of their past 11 games. For the entire rest of the season combined, their PP was held off the board only 18 times in 42 games.
These struggles were totally foreseeable if you wanted to actually see them. You didn’t even have to go hunting for them. They were right there for the viewing. Because honestly, there’s not a lot this team has done at any point to really make you stand up and say, “Now this is an elite team,” other than the winning. And if you looked at the underlying numbers, you understood fundamentally that the winning wasn’t going to last.
Like any team, the Blue Jackets are beholden to shooting and goaltending success, and they don’t have a sound enough process (like, say, the Kings of the past few years) to both suffer from a low PDO and ensure long-term success. The underlying numbers say they should be a slightly above-average team, the standings say they’re elite. The underlying numbers always win out over a long enough timeline.
And to circle back to the idea of psychological effects, Tortorella and others are now ascribing mysticism to their recent problems, rather than the fact that this team is, frankly, mediocre.
“It’s attrition through this part of the schedule. To me, it’s mental toughness. That’s where we’re going to have more lessons,” Tortorella told Craig Custance. “They have to understand how difficult it is. … They have to experience it and accept the challenge. They have to raise their level.”
So now Tortorella is meeting with his team multiple times a week to figure out the issues and get back to their previous success. One imagines those meetings come up with few effective answers.
This idea that you get more goals by trying hard rather than just getting bounces is of course silly and easily dismissed as the ravings of an out-of-touch coach. After all, before the hockey world started inscribing Tortorella’s name on the Jack Adams a month and a half ago, he was widely derided as a coach in over his head at both the NHL and international levels. As well he should have been.
Is it possible for coaches to adapt? Sure. The improved percentages this Columbus club posted to date (with slightly more talent than it had last year) might imply Tortorella learned something. But he was seen as clueless in the United States’ humiliating loss at the World Cup, and he cannot have synthesized lessons learned into a better on-ice product for his NHL club in, what, a two-week turnaround? Again, the numbers say this is a perfectly alright team, but if you ever thought they were elite-level or had figured out how to generate shot quality while simultaneously denying it (something no coach, let alone one of Tortorella’s past performance, has ever done), you have to ask yourself a simple, salient question: Where did all that go?
Custance says it’s the psychological and physical effect of getting everyone’s “A” game every night, and that might be part of it. But Nick Foligno, for example, wasn’t going to shoot 16 percent all season no matter how hard or soft he was covered. And hey, Foligno shot 15.9 percent in the first 36 games of the season (he missed two of them), and he’s at 12.2 percent since. That’s going to happen, and you’ll never ever guess his career shooting percentage. Okay here’s a hint: it’s 12.1.
You can do this all day: Pick a Columbus player almost at random, and his on-ice percentages were probably going to be too high to be sustainable. That includes Sergei Bobrovsky, who’s been awful for the last month.
Put simply: No one figures out shot quality on a team level — certainly not both for or against simultaneously — and over 50, 60, 82 games. Goaltending talent can often keep your team sv% quite high (look what the Rangers did for a decade before this season) but that doesn’t appear to have much to do with coaching.
You can summarize the issues this way: Over this putrid 17-game stretch, in which Columbus has just four regulation wins and were just shut out at home by Vancouver, they’ve been a lot better than their record. In the previous 36 games, they were a lot worse. These things even out, though they probably shouldn’t to this extent.
Wins are wins, but long-term you are who the numbers say you are. Columbus is a perfectly alright team but it didn’t take a psychic to see trouble was on the horizon. Their air of invincibility is gone. Maybe teams will stop giving them their “A” game every night now. Maybe they’ll start posting PDOs in the 103 range. Maybe the winning hockey will start up again as a result.
But probably not.
All stats via Corsica unless otherwise stated.
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