As the Blue Jackets begin to get noticed by every mainstream media member under the sun, you are going to hear a familiar chorus, “the Jackets are riding percentages, they won’t be able to do it for an entire season.” It will annoy many in CBJ-land as that view point is perceived as simply taking a look at the team for the first time this year, and wanting to make a grand, sweeping statement about them.
The worst part about that, however, is these opinions may very well be right.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy the brand of hockey the Jackets are playing right now. It won’t last forever, according to the history of the game, but this is your fandom, enjoy it as you please. Life is too short to stress over the PDO or Corsi of a team, you’re allowed to be mindful of the poor statistics but it doesn’t have to ruin your fun. Get excited when Boone Jenner runs someone over and scores a miraculous goal despite an exceedingly poor night. Too often people tell others how to be a fan and it causes a deep disconnect between the analytics community and the readers. So instead of just calling out an obvious flaw in the team, why not try to diagnose the problem and come up with a solution?
The wonderful part about looking at shot differential numbers is that they are always changing. Since they are dynamic, it makes it awfully tough to make a bold statement about such a small sample.
Again looking at what the pundits are saying, you’ll hear that last year the Jackets had one of the worst Corsi For percentage teams in the league. In fact they were in the bottom third of the league in that regard. They are in that exact same position this year, so how could the ultimate outcome ever be different?
Let’s start by taking a look at the schedule alone. Columbus played a startling amount of games against teams that made the playoffs last year in their first eight games. Not that it comes directly into play at all in this year’s numbers, but any team that has made the playoffs the year before are likely going to be overwhelmingly stout with their CF% numbers. Returning playoff teams aren’t normally push overs.
So let’s look at the individual games.
When breaking down the match ups themselves you’ll see that outside of the wonky score effects games (10+ goals against Montreal comes to mind) and outside of games versus opponents posting CF% numbers in the league’s top ten, the Jackets have only been below 50% three times this year. In other words, the Jackets have been just fine in CF% against weaker competition. The games below 50% came against the Ducks twice and the Stars once. When your schedule has you facing off against strong possession teams like the Sharks, Kings, Blackhawks and Bruins, that isn’t a recipe for overall shot attempt success. The Jackets got absolutely whipped in most of those games looking at the underlying numbers, but it’s worth noting they beat Chicago in regulation and took a point from LA.
Starting with the Kings game, they were under 50% CF in nine of their next ten games (Anaheim being the exception). So you’re going to have to get lucky in some of those games, as if you want to be in the playoffs, these are the team’s you need to beat no matter what their record is at the moment. And the Jackets found a way to do that – in those ten games, Columbus amassed a record of 6-2-2.
While the shot attempt drop can be seen as troubling, it’s not necessarily reason to panic. On the contrary, this team is significantly improved at every position and they are utilizing minutes more effectively. All four lines are far more balanced in their usage, and point production is coming from both sides of the ice and players up and down the lineup. Out are players like Jared Boll, Rene Bourque, Greg Campbell, and Fedor Tyutin. In are players like Sam Gagner, Lukas Sedlak, Josh Anderson, and Zach Werenski, each of whom is already remarkably better than their predecessor.
In the past four games, including mostly Metropolitan conference opponents in the Capitals twice and Rangers once, the Jackets have been over 50% CF. That is encouraging because these are only the first games against these teams. Columbus will be facing a large bulk of their games against Metro opponents and taking care of business in a comfortable environment should be a priority to the team.
Teams go through ebbs and flows throughout the year and the Jackets battle with the shot attempt counter isn’t going to stop this year. They are on the uptick and are trending in the right direction. It will be paramount that they take care of the weaker teams and make headway in the standings off of their backs.
To help with this, it’s encouraging that for the most part this year, Tortorella has changed lines if they aren’t working for an elongated period of time. This isn’t just an off the handle move either, it seems like there is a real correlation of the team changing their approach when they realize certain forward groups are getting caved in.
The real percentages Columbus should be worried about, and one that could make for a much more tenuous situation, are the power play and the goaltending, courtesy of Sergei Bobrovsky. You could even throw in the defense outside the top pairing as a potential concern as well.
When you hear unsustainable percentages, you think mainly PDO (shooting percentage + save percentage). Bobrovsky is putting up numbers that are on par with his Vezina winning season right now and that is causing many to point out that the team in front of him is flawed because he is “doing all the work.” How flawed is a team that has a good goaltender? When Bobrovsky is healthy and on his game, he has been known to have these unbelievable stretches.
When he was signed to his four year deal, it was the valley in his numbers after he signed that had many worried. But the real problem for Bobrovsky hasn’t been preventing goals, it’s been preventing injuries on a night in and night out basis. If he stays healthy he can put up these type of numbers. His goaltending isn’t as unsustainable as many will tell you, it could even improve if the Jackets turn their shot metrics around. Understand that saying that he can keep this up just sixteen games into the season is a tough statement to stand behind, as there are way too many variables that go into a goaltender dominating. However, we know that Bobrovsky is capable of keeping up this level of play over a longer period of games.
The power play percentage is where things get murky. It is plain and simple not sustainable. If the Jackets had all time, Hall of Fame type players on their team, maybe they could break the mold. Since they do not, they are going to see about a ten percent drop (and that is being modest from their current 31.1%). Columbus isn’t getting a lot of opportunities either as pointed out by Greg Wyshynski in his article yesterday for Puck Daddy. Also worth noting, the Jackets are doing most of the special teams scoring on home ice at nearly a 40% clip. It won’t last and that has to be scary for the Jackets. This is probably the only percentage that will drop drastically and they need to hope their even strength numbers improve for the team to stay afloat.
It’ll be a tight rope for the team to walk but they have a chance to make this season work. It’ll have to be a confluence of percentages working out in their favor. You need a little luck to make it into the playoffs anyway, why not target your weaknesses and try to improve?