Most hockey writers don’t know how to write about this season’s Columbus Blue Jacket squad. Perhaps it’s a result of an admittedly dismal 15-year record. Maybe it’s simply an unchecked sense of hockey elitism run rampant. Likely, it’s a bit of both, mixed with hesitance to risk the besmirching of an image of legitimacy that took so long to build in the first place. Whatever the reason, this inability to accurately assess the state of a massively improved Jackets squad is hindering any sense of impartiality at the highest level, and it seems to be clouding the very evaluation of the squad itself. With no caveats, no asterisks, no not-so-subtle jabs at John Tortorella, let’s be perfectly clear: these Jackets are a good hockey team.
Perhaps the most glaring absurdity when discussing Columbus this year has come from the misinterpretation of advanced stats on a seemingly systemic level. Critics of the team point to a high PDO of 104.14 and a 46.2% Corsi percentage throughout the first 13 games as an indicator of puck luck and a squad punching well above its weight, yet conveniently forget to mention the formidable list of opponents that composed that stretch, including the likes of the San Jose Sharks, Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues, and Montreal Canadiens. To put this in another way, all but one of the opponents during these first 13 games are currently in a playoff position. Without an “easy” team in this busy early schedule, the sample size was simply much too small to make an accurate assessment of the Jackets’ actual ability, despite the media’s best efforts to the contrary.
While these possession metrics, combined with an abnormally high shooting percentage (10.4%) and the best powerplay in the league, certainly align with the vision a team set for a stark regression, the reality has proven to be far different throughout the second set of 13 games. While the shooting percentage has dropped to a much more reasonable 7.3%, and the powerplay has regressed to a sustainable 16.1%, the Blue Jackets have continued to win and win big. In this span of time, the Corsi percentage has jumped to 55.6% and the amount of shots per game has changed drastically from 27.6 to 34.5. Simply put, the Jackets are out-possessing and out-shooting their opponents in a big way, despite the below-average powerplay numbers, and this has lead to a seven-game win streak and a position amongst the NHL’s top five teams.
Change in System Proves Beneficial
As the season has progressed and the statistics have begun realigning with the mean, the Jackets are still winning games, a fact only surprising to those who aren’t actually watching them play on a game-by-game basis. To anyone paying attention, the systemic changes from the Todd Richards era are immediately obvious, and have led to the Jackets’ recent success. Gone are the days of dump-and-chase hockey, with head coach John Tortorella instead installing a system of measured possession and incisive passing, with minimal turnovers and maximum effort. For the first time in a long time, the Jackets are playing with confidence, and this confidence is directly linked to the increase in scoring opportunities and the goals that come along with it.
And it is here that we come to the root of the problem: John Tortorella himself. When the Jackets lose, pundits waste no time blaming him for the collective failure of the club. When they win, however, it is said to be in spite of him. Because of his meltdowns in Vancouver and Tampa, it has become seemingly impossible for major outlets to say a single positive thing about Tortorella, and, as such, he has received none of the credit he deserves. While it is certainly true that the introduction of Brad Shaw has drastically improved the team’s powerplay and penalty kill, he’s not responsible for the newfound confidence or improved possession in even-strength situations.
As much as it may hurt to hear, John Tortorella, the winningest American-born coach in NHL history, might just be alright after all. And maybe, just maybe, he’s starting to create something…sus-tain-able…in Columbus. Time will tell if the experiment will work, but for now, the Jackets are real contenders and John Tortorella deserves as much credit as anyone else in getting them there.