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November 24, 2011
Angles and Caroms
Fixing The Blue Jackets, Part 1

by Jonathan Willis

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The Columbus Blue Jackets are now almost all but officially eliminated from postseason contention. Barring an unprecedented and exceedingly unlikely late season comeback, they will once again finish another season without a playoff victory to their name, as they have in every other year of their existence.

The fact that we can say all these things just two months into the season points to just how poor the Blue Jackets' start has been. In fact, since the NHL Lockout, only one other club has posted a record as ugly as the Blue Jackets 10 points through 19 games—the 2005-06 Blue Jackets.

What has gone wrong? Are the 2011-12 Blue Jackets really the worst team the NHL has seen in the post-Lockout era? Most importantly, what can the club do to fix itself?

Let's start by breaking down exactly what has gone wrong, statistically. From NHL.com, here is how the Blue Jackets have performed in a variety of categories (as of 11/22):

Record: 4-13-2; 10 points (30th in the NHL)
Goals per game: 2.26 (27th in the NHL)
Goals against per game: 3.53 (30th in the NHL)
5-on-5 goal ratio: 0.72 (27th in the NHL)
Power play: 14.1% (23rd in the NHL)
Penalty kill: 73.1% (30th in the NHL)
Shots per game: 31.3 (11th in the NHL)
Shots against per game: 28.6 (9th in the NHL)

The first six categories paint an ugly picture. In addition to boasting the worst record in the league, Columbus is bad at scoring goals, bad at preventing goals, bad at even strength, bad on the power play, and bad on the penalty kill. They have a total goal differential of minus-26 (once again, the worst total in the league), and so perhaps it isn't surprising that in every category measured primarily by goals, the Blue Jackets are struggling.

The last two categories tell us something else entirely, however. The Blue Jackets are in or near the top third of the league both at preventing shots and taking shots themselves. How is it possible that the team can fare so poorly in the goals department but still be outshooting the opposition?

Part of the answer lays in score effects. Teams that take the lead early in a lot of games tend to sit back, to fall into a defensive shell, and that leads to a lot of shots against. The reverse is also true—teams that are down in the early going tend to pick up a lot more shots towards the end of the game.

That is not, however, the entirety of the answer. Recently, Gabriel Desjardins of Behind the Net made available a new tool on his site: Fenwick percentages by game state. Fenwick is a simple calculation—basically, it's a plus-minus system where a team gets a plus-1 for every shot or missed shot they fire, and a minus-1 for every shot or missed shot fired at them (blocked shots are not counted, thus giving each team's defense credit when they block a shooting lane). How have the Blue Jackets done by this measure? The results are measured in percentages, where a number higher than 50% indicates the Jackets are taking more shots than the opposition, and a number lower than 50% means they are taking fewer:

Up by two goals: 42.65%
Up by one goal: 33.74%
Tied: 50.70%
Down by one goal: 60.41%
Down by two goals: 49.63%

We can see the impact of score effects—when the Blue Jackets are up by a goal, they get (metaphorically) taken behind the woodshed on the shot clock, and when they're down a goal they tend to outshoot their opposition. The really interesting number is what happens when the score is tied: the Blue Jackets hang in around the 50% mark (meaning they take as many shots as their opponents). Good teams don't typically hang around the 50% mark (they tend to outshoot their opponents), but neither do bad teams, as a rule—so we can argue that when it comes to gaining territory and generating shots, the Blue Jackets really aren't nearly as bad as their record.

Then what, exactly, is going on? If they're keeping up with their opposition when it comes to taking and allowing shots, why are they getting outscored so dramatically?

The answer lies with the percentages. Courtesy of Behind the Net, here are the Jackets' team shooting and save percentages in 5-on-5 situations:

Shooting percentage: 6.5% (tied for 28th in the NHL)
Save percentage: 89.9% (28th in the NHL)

If we take that save percentage and convert it into "opposition shooting percentage", the number we get is 10.1%, meaning that any given shot taken by their opponent is more than one and a half times as likely to score than any shot taken. With those kinds of numbers, the Jackets would need to outshoot the opposition by a 3:2 ratio just to keep the score even.

Given the huge disparity in percentages, does that mean that the Jackets are simply taking lower quality shots than their opposition? No.

Thanks to the excellent SBNation blog Jackets Cannon, and the work of Matt Wagner and Derek Zona, we have scoring chance totals for every Columbus game this year. Let's compare the scoring chance totals to the shot totals in Columbus:

Even-strength scoring chances: 238 for, 235 against
Power play scoring chances: 78 for, 15 against
Shorthanded scoring chances: 9 for, 45 against
Shots Ratio: 1.09 shots for per every shot against
Scoring Chances ratio: 1.10 scoring chances for per every scoring chance against

The latter two numbers are the ones to focus in on: the Blue Jackets' scoring chances ratio, through 19 games, is an exact match to their shot ratio through 19 games. In other words, total shots do an accurate job of reflecting shots from scoring areas.

There is strong reason to believe, then, that the Blue Jackets are not as bad as their record. They probably aren't as good as shots or scoring chances indicate (remember score effects) but they aren't nearly as atrocious as their record would seem to indicate.

What, then, is going on, and how can it be fixed? We'll consider those questions in Part 2.

Jonathan Willis is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Jonathan by clicking here or click here to see Jonathan's other articles.

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