What We Learned: Can Blue Jackets really challenge for Stanley Cup?

(Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend’s events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.)

After a prolonged slump without much to cheer for, the Columbus Blue Jackets had a heck of a week.

A big ‘W’ over the Wild — behind a 40-save Sergei Bobrovsky shutout — gave way to a loss at Ottawa, but then three straight wins against New Jersey (twice) and then Buffalo. It was enough to get people in the dressing room and the greater Columbus area once again talking about taking a run at Washington’s claim to the Presidents’ Trophy.

(No word, yet, what blowing a 3-0 lead to the Sabres on Saturday night does to those designs.)

But to call this team’s season a roller coaster isn’t totally accurate. They won 27(!) of their first 36, including 16 straight — albeit mostly against soft competition — but are only 16-12-2 since then. That’s a pace for 93 points, which is a playoff pace, but only by a hair. Moreover, they’re only 12-13-6 in regulation over the last 31 games, which is also a little bit worrying.

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Now, before we go any deeper into the issue, let’s just acknowledge that your old friend RL has become Public Enemy No. 1 in Columbus because he had the audacity to suggest that a team with a lot of capital-‘W’ Wins “isn’t one of the best teams in the league, but their play [circa mid-December was] enough to convince even the most cynical observer that they’ve figured out a thing or two with their previous problems.”

The results-related struggles they’ve had since their impressive winning streak ended — 12 regulation wins in 31 games is not very good and heavily reliant on one-goal games to get their wins — kind of point me back in that direction, as well they should. It didn’t take a genius to figure out why they were winning back when that was happening consistently. Their power play was operating at an incredible efficiency early in the season, well above 30 percent and not doing it simply with a high shooting percentage (though they had that too); they were generating a lot of high-quality chances and, to their credit, converting on them.

When you come up with a new-look power play — and hey, Torts, where was that for the World Cup, huh? — and you execute it well, it’ll take the league a while to catch up. It took the league a while to catch up here. And indeed, it has. In terms of overall numbers, that power play still looks very good, running sixth in the league at 21.6 percent. But given that white-hot start, you have to consider how much they’ve dropped off as well, and it’s not pretty:

That’s a lot of goals per 60 to shed over the past two months or so, especially when you consider the decline started while the team was still in the midst of that winning streak. It seems that a lot of teams have figured out how to take away a lot of the looks they used to be able to get. Much like a relatively new pitcher can maybe look pretty good the first few times they play each team in the league, hitters eventually get enough reps to find out how to get on base. I think that’s a reasonable take on what “went wrong” with Columbus’s power play: They’re just not surprising anyone any more.

(For example, Columbus fans like to talk about how they have two wins against the Caps this year. They won the first two meetings 2-1 and 3-2 in a five-day period in mid-November; they got shellacked 5-0 in early January. Randomness of individual games aside, the Caps had more than a month of video/scouting the second time around, and that’s gonna help.)

Again, the ability to score so many goals on the power play is going to buoy your results to a signficant extent; they scored 30 of their first 113 goals this season on the power play, a huge percentage.

There were so many goals that it papered over a few of the underlying problems alluded to above: so-so on-ice performances against top teams chief among them, despite the Ws that kept on piling up.

Meanwhile, Sergei Bobrovsky, finally healthy after all these years, is showing why he won a Vezina. He’s a high-end goalie, and that’s always going to make your percentages look better. It’s always going to keep you in games where you’re getting outplayed, and snuff out any meager resistance when you’ve got it all going right. It’s also going to make your PK look pretty good (Columbus’s is currently ranked 10th).

The extent to which winning really does cloud people’s judgment is significant: Because the Blue Jackets don’t have morning skates, and they had so much success in the first two-and-a-half months of the season, people were legitimately talking about the league as a whole maybe doing away with them. And when I say “the league,” I mean “The National Hockey League,” which hates changing things for the better so much that it, well, operates as it does. So this was a big deal.

But again that doesn’t really address the whole “this is a mediocre team” issue. Again, lots of teams rode hot percentages to great records they didn’t deserve, but a lot of them were outright bad, rather than what Columbus is, which is only pretty good. Right now I’d put them in the No. 12-15 range in the entire NHL in terms of quality.

Here’s the fundamental difference: When bad teams have uncharacteristically high shooting and save percentages, they look solidly middle-of-the-pack or maybe a little better. When just-okay teams like Columbus have those same kinds of percentages, they look unbeatable. And again, some of that comes from having a power play that caught a lot of teams off guard, but nonetheless, look at this rolling 10-game shooting percentage for the first 35 games of the season or so:

It should also be noted that the 9-plus percent shooting success they’ve had in the last 15 games or so is still a little high (the league average is 8.7), but even still, the results are thinning for them.

This has always appeared to me to be a team that could, at most, win a round in the playoffs, then bow out quietly against an actual elite team like Washington or Pittsburgh. If they’d been able to win that division somehow, I would have liked their chances against a wild card team. But the way the last 30 or so games have gone, they’ve all but assured themselves a date with one of those Pittsburgh or Washington in the first round, and then the other in the second. It’s hard to like that matchup for them, regardless of how they’ve done in a small handful of games this year. Both the Pens and Caps are 1-1-1 against them, and Columbus hasn’t beaten either in regulation in three meetings since the streak ended.

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What it boils down to for me is that this is a higher-end mediocre team that can pummel bad teams (while still getting some fortunate bounces) and squeak by good ones as long as they get lucky. Which they did for quite a while, to their credit.

And overall, their process remains sound in terms of having a lot of top-10 or so stats at full strength. But their biggest issue has probably always been that they don’t have a ton of high-end offensive talent to keep that shooting percentage high enough to outperform expected goals long-term. Certainly not against top teams.

Is this a good team? It depends how you define good. Is it a team that is going to be a tough out in the postseason? Sure. Is it one that should be favored against the Caps or Penguins? Well, Bobrovsky can certainly steal any series if he gets really hot, but two in a row, coming out of this division? No.

The answer to what this team “is” is probably somewhere in the middle of these two extremes:

That’s not bad. But it’s not enough to make you a serious Cup contender either.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: Man, remember that Ducks team that won a Stanley Cup? It was rolling 30 minutes of Scott Niedermayer and then 30 minutes of Chris Pronger. Every night. I think I figured out how they won.

Arizona Coyotes: Don’t you guys know that winning is actually bad when you’re trying to tank?

Boston Bruins: Ah yes, Bruce Cassidy is a genius. Clearly.

Buffalo Sabres: This might be my favorite result of the season. An entire city went from “Fire Bylsma” to winning a game in about 45 minutes.

Calgary Flames: Nine wins in a row, eh? Sounds like someone might make a run at the Presidents’ Trophy!!!!

Carolina Hurricanes: It really has been this kinda season in Carolina. Goalie goes to play the puck, misses it, and gets called for interference.

Chicago: The amount of shade Tomas Jurco has to throw at the Red Wings and Detroit in this column is astounding.

Colorado Avalanche: Hmm, congrats.

Columbus Blue Jackets: It’s uhh, actually good that they lost to the Sabres. Yup.

Dallas Stars: The overall point that there was logically going to be a season in which this goaltending group would totally collapse — especially in the wake of losing a first- and second-pairing defenseman and replacing them with nobody whatsoever — is well taken.

Detroit Red Wings: It’s good when you have to clarify this.

Edmonton Oilers: Headline: “Player makes team great.” Quote from coach in article: “He doesn’t add a lot statistically, but…” The Edmonton media rules.

Florida Panthers: Moves like this are why the Panthers are going to be very good sooner than later. They still have holes in the lineup but as long as they recognize inefficiencies in the UFA market they’re gonna make themselves better.

Los Angeles Kings: If I’m the Wild, I’m hoping like hell this Washington team doesn’t pull into the 8 seed by the end of the season. I wouldn’t want to play ’em.

Minnesota Wild: There’s something that’s so awesome about Chicago looming over the Western Conference like Sauron and everyone no matter how good lives in fear of that team turning its eye to them next. That rules.

Montreal Canadiens: This is why I said they shouldn’t all drink out of that one big trough in the dressing room but no one wanted to listen to me.

Nashville Predators: This is another team where it’s like, “Oh yeah, I don’t want to see them in the playoffs at all.”

New Jersey Devils: That’s 10 losses in a row. Including a 5-4 loss to the Coyotes. Yikes.

New York Islanders: On the one hand: Nice to get another W. On the other: Maybe don’t blow a late lead to the Canucks.

New York Rangers: Remember when every other story was, “Henrik Lundqvist is having an awful season?” He’s up to roughly the league average and was .931 in his last 14 games. His getting hurt now ensures this will be his first sub-.920 season since 2008-09.

Ottawa Senators: I honestly thought they’d collapse by now but they just keep rolling. Pretty impressive, especially because they didn’t do the thing I was afraid they were going to do and trade a bunch of futures for a mediocre player.

Philadelphia Flyers: That’ll just about do it. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy than the one who hurt McDavid on purpose.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Now this is a team I could see theoretically overtaking Washington for the Presidents’ Trophy. I don’t think it’s gonna happen, but it’s more likely than Columbus doing it.

San Jose Sharks: This is a very good team but sometimes the way they lose is both puzzling and upsetting.

St. Louis Blues: Seems like almost everyone’s streaking right now, one way or the other.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Losing not one not two but three centers in one game? Good lord.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Okay, how are you just noticing this?

Vancouver Canucks: Hmm, I guess this is fine. But also, like, why?

Vegas Golden Knights: This is an interesting look at how the Vegas front office will work.

Washington Capitals: I don’t like these guys any more I think they’re bad now instead.

Winnipeg Jets: Things just get continually worse for this team. It’s amazing.

Play of the Weekend

What a freakin’ goal for Nick Foligno. Granted, it was against the Sabres, but…

Gold Star Award

Brian Elliott has been lights-out for quite a while now. That signing is finally starting to look very good.

Minus of the Weekend

On the other hand Cory Schneider gave up four goals on 10 shots to Arizona and has an .881 save percentage in five games this month. Not great.

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Year

User “Canucks” isn’t a Devils fan.

To Winnipeg: Cory Schneider
To New Jersey: Jacob Trouba & Connor Hellebuyck

Signoff

Yes, eat all of our shirts.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)

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