It’s been a long time since the morning of October 23rd, 2015.
“We’re 0-8. Moral victories aren’t going to help us right now.”
-Head coach John Tortorella
On that day, the Columbus Blue Jackets were just recovering from their eighth straight regulation loss, a 3-2 defeat at the hands of the Minnesota Wild. It was the second game with new head coach John Tortorella after former head coach Todd Richards was let go following the seventh disappointment. The Jackets, a fairly new NHL franchise with its inception in 2000, clinched an unenviable spot in the NHL record book, setting a modern-day NHL record (Post WWII), with their eighth consecutive regulation defeat to begin a season. The way they were losing, however, was alarming compared to a competent 3-2 loss. Each contest before, Columbus gave up four-plus goals, and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky finished the month with 35 total goals given up to go with a .865 save percentage. He’d make just 27 starts the rest of the way due to injury.
In a season that came with such promise with the team finishing 14-2-1 the previous year after they were decimated by injuries, the 2015-16 campaign was pretty much over before it really got started and fittingly they finished the year 5-11-1, last in the Metropolitan Division. Finishing 22nd in team Corsi-for percentage (48%), 21st on the power play (17.3%) and 19th on the penalty kill (81%), structure was a prevalent issue and it was apparent no more than in team defense, as they finished 29th in goals against per game (3.03). Up front, the team really missed the offensive leadership and firepower from Nick Foligno as well, as he struggled to match his 31-goal, 73-point campaign from the previous season scoring just 12 goals and 37 points in 15-16.
There were some promising things about this squad, however, in pieces. Alexander Wennberg (eight goals, 40 points), Boone Jenner (30 goals, 49 points), Brandon Saad (31 goals, 53 points), and Cam Atkinson (27 goals, 53 points), who were all 26 and younger, formed a solid group up front to account for Foligno’s regression. Defenseman Seth Jones, acquired in the Ryan Johansen trade, potted 20 points in 41 games while holding his own logging 24:17 of ice time on a team that would give him the opportunity to play. Joonas Korpisalo fit in admirably in the 30 starts he made in Bobrovsky’s absence, winning 16 games while potting a .920 save percentage.
Still, the Blue Jackets needed to put it all together as many pundits had been repeating for the past few years, making the playoffs in 2009 and 2014 before bowing out in the first round twice.
This year, with some new additions, emergences, and individual rebounds, Tortorella’s group has done just that, winning nine of their last 12 en route to a 15-5-4 start, the best in franchise history.
Resurgences, Emergences Fuel Columbus Blue Jackets Start
Coming into this season, the Blue Jackets already seemed to have an edge in a department they struggled so much in a year before, defense. In international play including the World Championships and World Cup of Hockey, Bobrovsky posted a .932 save percentage and 2.11 goals against average in 15 contests. It seemed like he was back to his 2013 Vezina Trophy winning form that graced the Blue Jacket crest in 2013 after four consecutive seasons of a drop in save percentage from as high as .932 that season to .908 in 2015-16.
So far this season, the international numbers have ultimately proven to be a good omen. Among goaltenders that have started at least ten games, Bobrovsky’s been on the case ranking seventh in save percentage (.930) and sixth in goals against average (2.03). In turn, Columbus ranks third (third!) in goals allowed per game at 2.17 per contest. What a difference a year makes.
On the blueline, one has to look no further than the sparkling debut of rookie Zach Werenski. Selected eighth overall in 2015, he has not looked out of place and has made an incredible difference with six goals, 17 points, and 71 in 24 games to lead the defense as a 19-year old. The Grosse Pointe native has been a major key to Columbus’s league-best power play (25%), scoring three goals and eight points so far on the man advantage playing 45 minutes more than the next defenseman. To put it in perspective, the leading power play goal scorers and pointgetters on the blueline brigade last year were Jack Johnson with three goals Ryan Murray with 11 points all season. In addition to an offensive force, he’s been no slouch in moving the puck up the ice, driving possession at a 53.50% Corsi rate and logging 22:08 per contest, both second on Columbus. His contributions have allowed the defense as a whole to play within themselves, allowing 29.2 shots to rank 11th and allow coach Tortorella to offer some praise.
“There are some great young players in this league, and you hear their names all the time. Well, we have a defenseman.”
Up front, most of the usual suspects from last year have contributed to the cause of the league’s fourth-best offense (3.17 goals per game) and 12th best possession rating (50.94%), but others have surprised forming quite a deep team.
It starts with Foligno, regaining his 2014-15 form notching ten goals and 22 points in the first 24 games, including a team-leading five power play goals and 11 man advantage points parking himself in front of the net. Remember how many goals he had last year? Wennberg has taken the step forward the team hoped he would, scoring six goals and 22 points already to tie for second on the team in scoring. They would love for him to shoot more however, firing only 30 pucks on net so far. Saad, after a slow start, has reacquainted himself scoring seven goals and 21 points. All Atkinson is doing is leading the team in scoring continuing to be an under-the-radar NHL star, totaling 23 points. All of these forwards combined have driven possession at a 53% rate.
This group of Blue Jackets, however, has been able to take the next step with contributors on every line. Third liner Josh Anderson has been a force offensively out of his top-nine role, scoring seven goals thus far using his 6’3″, 221-pound frame to toss 45 hits. The biggest surprise up front however, has to be the wonderful play of the one-year, $650,000 man, Sam Gagner. Tied for fourth on the team in shots at 58, He’s scored ten goals and 17 points, two more makers and one more point than all of last season where he played 53 games. He’s been a big contributor on the power play, slotting in as the center on the top unit where he has notched three markers and seven points. The former 6th overall pick’s career high for goals is 18.
“In a league that struggles scoring goals, and you’re looking for someone to help a power play, He [Gagner]’s been a huge addition to our team.”
One could even throw veteran Scott Hartnell into the mix of contributing bottom-six players, notching 15 points so far after a 23-goal campaign last year.
It is now December 9th, 2016. Last year at this time, the Blue Jackets were 11-16-2, good for 26th in the NHL. Today, they are 6th-best in the NHL with a +24 goal differential and 34 points, a ten-point increase. The contributions of newcomers and bounce-back performances of team leaders have enabled them to finally break out as many in Ohio and around the hockey world have been waiting for them to do.
“We Come to work, and we work that day, if it’s a good day, it’s a good day. You don’t get too high. If it’s a bad day and things don’t work out, i don’t think they’ve gotten too low. for a team and organization trying to get some footing in the league, i think we’ve all bought into that pretty well as far as just one game at a time. it is the most important thing for this team and organization to live by.”
The contributions along with Tortorella’s message and mindset have the Jackets in the history books again early in this campaign.
Only this time, it’s a record worth remembering.