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November 29, 2011
Angles and Caroms
Fixing The Blue Jackets, Part 3

by Jonathan Willis

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The Columbus Blue Jackets have one of the worst records in the NHL. In Part 1 of this series, we looked beyond that record and into some of the underlying numbers; what we found was that the Jackets are both outchancing and outshooting their opposition, but that their opponents have been far more likely to score on any given shot or scoring chance. In Part 2, we looked at the reasons for this percentage imbalance.

Beyond the percentages, however, Columbus still isn't a very good team. They are the sort of club that can make the playoffs if everything goes right, and can find themselves at the very bottom of the league basement if everything goes wrong (as it has this season, from suspension to injuries to performance). That is not, needless to say, where they want to be.

In this post, we'll look through the forwards and the defense, and try to identify which players are getting the job done, and which players are not. To do that, we are going to consider some advanced statistics:

Fenwick: a plus-minus for shots and missed shots when a player is on the ice, and a number that typically matches up very well with scoring chances. The data we're using comes from five-on-five situations only, meaning that players won't get a boost from power play minutes or from time on the penalty kill. We'll express it in terms of percentages, with the number indicating how often a player has been on the ice for a positive event (for example, Rick Nash's Fenwick percentage of 50.9% means he's been on the ice for just a few more shots and missed shots for than he has against).

Zone Starts: a measure of where each player starts their shifts. Once again, are data comes from five-on-five situations only. We'll express it in terms of percentages, with the number indicating how often a player has been on the ice for an offensive zone start (for example, Rick Nash's Zone Start percentage of 55.4% means he's been on the ice significantly more offensive zone shifts than defensive zone ones).

Let's start with the forwards.

Name			Zone Start	Fenwick
Antoine Vermette	47.2%		58.9%
Ryan Johansen		59.6%		57.0%
Vaclav Prospal		58.6%		56.8%
Matt Calvert		47.4%		52.5%
R.J. Umberger		49.4%		51.9%
Rick Nash		55.4%		50.9%
Jeff Carter		51.9%		50.5%
Mark Letestu		48.7%		46.6%
Derek Dorsett		24.8%		46.4%
Derek Mackenzie		49.4%		45.0%
Samuel Pahlsson		25.8%		44.5%
Cody Bass		45.5%		43.7%

We can divide the players up into three different categories:

In the first category, we find players getting lots of offensive zone minutes—Johansen, Prospal, Nash, and Carter for the most part. It's not a surprisingly list—the team's three top offensive weapons and a rookie professional. Nash traditionally does a little better in this category than he has so far this season (and it's worth remembering that he typically plays the best opponents), while Carter's injury woes and slow start are evident—last year, he killed by this metric.

In the second category, we find Pahlsson and Dorsett (that duo has played with different linemates). Both of them are on the ice for three defensive zone draws for every shift they start in the offensive zone, and they typically also play against quality. It's a tough job and they're doing good work.

In the third category, we find everyone else: players typically getting just a little more work in the defensive zone than the offensive zone. Vermette, and to a lesser extent, Umberger, are both getting their chances, and both are and have been decent supporting players. Matt Calvert's results through this lens are also fairly impressive. The rest—Letestu, Mackenzie, Bass—are eminently replaceable but hardly dragging the team into the dirt.

What about the defense?

Name			Zone Start	Fenwick
Aaron Johnson		39.5%		57.3%
Nikita Nikitin		45.2%		55.6%
David Savard		60.4%		54.4%
Marc Methot		44.4%		52.3%
Fedor Tyutin		48.5%		51.8%
James Wisniewski	47.3%		50.0%
Grant Clitsome		53.7%		48.5%
John Moore		58.3%		45.0%
Radek Martinek		30.8%		44.6%

Aaron Johnson, in 12 games, has been a revelation for the Blue Jackets. Nikita Nikitin has stepped in and is playing massive minutes on the Columbus blue line; he has four points and a plus-2 rating through five games. Marc Methot, Fedor Tyutin, and Radek Martinek are a strong supporting case, while James Wisniewski seems to be improving every day after a rough return from being suspended.

Beyond those six, Grant Clitsome has added offense but allowed too much the other way, highly-touted John Moore isn't ready for prime time, and David Savard has already been returned to Springfield.

What about special teams?

On the power play, a number of the players who should be helping the unit have been struggling, but the unit itself continues to get shots through. The Blue Jackets average almost one shot per minute in five-on-four situations, the fifth-best total in the league, and traditionally strong power play scorers (including Jeff Carter and James Wisniewski, brought in at least in part to fix the power play) are stumbling. My expectation is that the unit should right itself and start scoring soon—power play efficiency being connected in large part to getting shots through.

As for the penalty kill, shot-prevention rates are middle of the pack, but the Blue Jackets' save percentage in four-on-five situations is .778, the worst in the league. To put that in perspective, here are the worst team four-on-five save percentages for the past four seasons:

2011-12: .778, Columbus
2010-11: .835, Toronto
2009-10: .842, N.Y. Islanders
2008-09: .824, Toronto
2007-08: .848, Carolina

Here, more than anywhere else, goaltending has brought the Jackets to their knees. Even assuming that the Jackets' penalty kill allows the highest quality shots of any team in the last four years (which is a doubtful assumption), if we credit them with a .824 SV% on the penalty kill it cuts the teams goals against from 19 down to 12—a reduction of more than a third, and more than enough to move them back into the respectable range.

What should the Blue Jackets do, based on this analysis? We'll consider that in the final part of this series, Part 4.

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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In The Crease (11/25)
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Angles and Caroms (11/25)
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