Following a record-setting November in which they proved themselves to be serious contenders in the toughest division in hockey, the Columbus Blue Jackets somehow found a way to one-up themselves in the month of December. In addition to posting a fabulous 14-0-0 record, the Jackets outscored their opponents by a total of 56 goals to 25 and scored a league-leading 4.00 goals per game during the month. Selecting winners and losers from a team flying this high is a difficult task, and yet here they are: December’s winners and losers.
1. Cam Atkinson
Like the Jackets themselves, Cam Atkinson found a way to improve upon what was already a stellar November with an absolutely unbelievable scoring tear throughout the month of December. Across the Jackets’ 14 games that month, he chalked up a total of 17 points in the form of nine goals and eight assists, and secured fourth overall in scoring for the entire NHL during that time span. What’s more, his impressive work on the man advantage contributed eight points and solidified his place as an essential component of the league’s best powerplay unit.
If Atkinson is able to continue this scoring pace throughout the season, he will be on pace for a 70-point season, yet another rarity in the Blue Jackets’ history. One thing’s for sure, however: that $3.5 million contract is looking like quite the steal right about now.
2. Sam Gagner
At the beginning of the year, no one knew what to expect from Sam Gagner. Though he had consistently been a 40-point scorer most of his career, he spent a large chunk of last season on the injured reserve and finished with only 16 points in 53 games played. After the December he had, however, it’s safe to say that the gamble has begun to pay off quite handsomely for the Blue Jackets.
Though not quite on the same level as Atkinson, Gagner finished December on a point-per-game pace, tallying six goals and eight assists as a bottom-six player. Of these, fully half of his points came as a result of his starring role in the powerplay, where he has contributed four goals and three assists.
In addition to this impressive individual effort, the underlying statistics show that Gagner also helped the team around him perform better during this undefeated stretch. With him on the ice at even strength, the team’s Corsi percentage jumps to a staggering 62.76% while the Corsi against drops to 50.12%. The ability of the Blue Jackets’ bottom six to maintain possession and spark offensive chances has run through Gagner as of late, and the statistics show the level of dominance they’ve had over the competition. If Atkinson’s $3.5 million contract is a steal, picking up Gagner for $650,000 has proven to be highway robbery on the part of management.
Good goaltending wins games. Great goaltending dominates them. In what seems to be a recurring theme, Sergei Bobrovsky managed to improve upon an already stellar November campaign in December, earning the league’s first star for the month and setting the bar for all other potential Vezina contenders early in the season.
Of the 14 games played throughout December, Bobrovsky started 12, winning every one and often standing on his head to do so. He proved to be the key to extending the win streak multiple times, and put up some ridiculous stats along the way. In addition to winning all 12 games in regular time, he finished the month with an ungodly .939 save percentage and a goals allowed average of just 1.75, beating out Devan Dubnyk and Steve Mason for top goalie honors.
If the Blue Jackets hope to push deep into the playoffs, a healthy Bobrovsky is essential to their plans, and December showed the hockey world just what he’s capable of doing. If he manages to hold this form for the remainder of the season, a second Vezina trophy will likely await him on the other side.
1. Ryan Murray
The hardest part of nonstop winning is deciding who’s not playing up to par. This holds especially true when even the bottom six players are contributing to the victories at hand. Ryan Murray was one of the very few underperforming players throughout the month, despite not making any glaring errors or obvious poor decisions. While the rest of the team seemed to be scoring at will, Murray was only able to add a solitary assist and carried a Corsi percentage of 41.65%, by far the lowest of any defenseman on the team.
Despite showing improvement in terms of defensive positioning and awareness, the possession and offensive numbers are worrying. For a player touted as a possibly elite offensive defenseman, this lack of production, coupled with a $2.825 million cap hit, remains worrying to an organization that may still need to add a few pieces. Unless Murray begins to produce as expected, his contract is starting to look like a mistake.
2. Every Team Along the Way
Realistically, the biggest losers in an undefeated December were, of course, the opposing teams. Not only did the Blue Jackets win every game en route to the second longest win streak in NHL history, they did so in spectacular, almost dominant fashion. In this span, the Jackets not only led the NHL with an average of nearly four goals per game, they also held opponents to an average of 1.76 goals. What’s more, the shot counts favored the Jackets as well, who averaged 32.1 shots per game while allowing 29.8 in return.
Put simply, the Blue Jackets’ winning record, initially deemed sheer luck on account of a high PDO, became legitimized during the month of December. Instead of winning despite the underlying numbers, they started winning because of them. While it is highly likely that the team will regress a bit during the latter half of the season, this statistical improvement is essential in sustaining success through the remainder. With the Blue Jackets playing a comprehensive team game and finally winning the majority of possession battles, the next few months should see them burn just as brightly as they’ve proven they can.