Why the East should be worried about Columbus

While their most recent eight-game win streak was ended by the NHL’s worst team, the Columbus Blue Jackets have been on the rise since a bad stretch in November in which they dropped eight of nine. After losing three overtime/shootout games in a row on November 12, 14, 15, the Blue Jackets have won 21 of their last 35 games.

During their string of victories, the Jackets have seen their puck possession statistics jump significantly. They currently rank 12th in Fenwick Close and fourth in the Eastern Conference behind only Boston, New Jersey, Tampa Bay, and Pittsburgh.

Some of their recent run could be attributed to the return of Sergei Bobrovsky, who was out for over a month, on January 6 and getting Nathan Horton back in the lineup on Jan. 2 after he missed the entire first half of the year. However, the two stars’ performances have been just a part of the Blue Jackets’ run. They have a solid top-to-bottom defense and scoring that goes beyond their top line.

Could they make the playoffs? Yes. But are they a threat to make some noise there? Absolutely.

Some good baseball teams have three or four highly-paid, middle-of-the-order sluggers who slam 40 dingers and hit .300 while the rest of the lineup hits .220 with five homers. Other good baseball teams have seven or eight hitters who provide 15 home runs and .260. Both can have some success. The Oakland A’s, for example, only had one batter with 30 home runs and one hitter with a .300-plus (.301) batting average, but had seven in double digits and seven between .240 and .300.

The Columbus Blue Jackets are like the Oakland A’s.

The top teams in the NHL are often those who can run multiple scoring lines rather than relying on one line to carry them. The Blue Jackets have received production from three lines and sometimes four. They have six forwards with more than 10 goals and 12 forwards with double digits in points. Only two teams have more than six scorers in double digits (Tampa Bay, Philadelphia) and eight (Boston, Chicago, Winnipeg, Colorado, Dallas, Phoenix, San Jose, St. Louis). have six. Seven of the 10 are currently playoff teams. If Nathan Horton had been in the lineup the whole season, the Jackets would be in that class.

Ryan Johansen: 19 goals
Cam Atkinson: 15
RJ Umberger: 14
Artem Anisimov: 13
Nick Foligno: 12
Brandon Dubinsky: 11

In terms of predicting where a team will finish, even strength statistics are usually a better indicator than special teams. Columbus is second in the Eastern Conference in 5v5 goals scored, only trailing the Flying Sidney Crosbys. Ryan Johansen, Cam Atkinson, Artem Anisimov, and Nick Foligno all have double-digit even strength goals.

Columbus’ third and fourth lines add to the team’s pucks-in-net rather than upping totals of punches or hits. Young forwards Boone Jenner and Matt Calvert have combined for 25 points, third line center Mark Letestu has 23 points and fourth line mainstays Derek MacKenzie and Corey Tropp have added 17 points. Their lower lines are reminiscent of the Bruins, who received secondary scoring from depth players like Chris Kelly, Gregory Campbell, and Daniel Paille.

The Blue Jackets’ forward crew isn’t just made up of decent goal scorers, but solid two-way players. Coach Todd Richards has been able to use his group in offensive and defensive situations. Ten of their current regulars have Offensive Zone Start % between 45% and 52%.

Reflective of the current St. Louis Blues team that Jackets’ GM Jarmo Kekalainen helped build, the Jackets have quite a few hard-nosed two-way forwards. Brandon Dubinsky, who is leading Columbus’ forwards in Relative Corsi (On-ice shot attempts for minus against vs. off ice), also sees the lowest percentage of offensive zone starts. Artem Anisimov, Horton, and Nick Foligno also play a hard, two-way game that is fit for the postseason.

The A’s Effect runs through their defense as well. The Jackets do not have a true franchise defenseman. They lack a Zdeno Chara, Drew Doughty, or Erik Karlsson, but have good D-men in all three pairings. In fact, six Columbus defenseman have double digits in points. Only Ottawa and Vancouver have as many double-digit scoring blue liners.

James Wisniewski: 31 points
Fedor Tyutin: 21
Jack Johnson: 18
Ryan Murray: 18
Nikita Nikitin: 13
David Savard: 11

Like the forwards, Richards has used his defensemen in all situations. Fedor Tyutin and Jack Johnson have seen the fewest number of offensive zone starts with 45.0% and 44.8%. The two D-men with the highest number of O-zone starts are Ryan Murray at 53.1% and James Wisniewski at 52.6%. Far from a big gap.

The Tyutin-Johnson pair has faced the toughest minutes and performed at an average level, but Wisniewski and Murray have been dominant vs. second-tier competition, positing +12.4 and +6.0 Relative Corsi numbers.

Columbus is blessed with depth in their minor league system, which may come in handy if the injury bug bites them down the stretch. Promising young defenseman Tim Erixon – known for being a piece in the Rick Nash trade – has had an outstanding year as part of the Springfield Falcons, who are currently own the AHL’s top winning percentage. Erixon has 23 points in 25 games, is plus-6 and has 58 shots on goal. The 6-foot-3 mobile D-man has performed so well in his third professional year, it wouldn’t be a big shock to see him in the lineup sooner rather than later.

Another prospect who may see NHL time before the end of the year is forward Michael Chaput, who has already spent some time in The Show this year and has 19 points in 24 games in Springfield.

King Bob or Bobby the Great or Big Bad Bob or whatever they’re calling him, Sergei Bobrovsky also makes the Blue Jackets scary during the run to the finish line. Before last season, the 25-year-old netminder had started fewer than 100 games for the Flyers. He had flashes, going 28-13-8, guiding Philadelphia to the postseason in 2010-11. But he struggled early in the Flyers’ series against Buffalo and he was benched during the 2011 playoffs. Bobrovsky watched from the sidelines as Michael Leighton took Philly to the Cup Finals.

After a bad 2011-12, the Bob was traded to Columbus and handed the starting gig. There were expectations for the Russian netminder, but few expected him to blow up the way he did, winning the Vezina Trophy during the shortened season with an incredible .932 save percentage.

His follow-up year hasn’t been as good, battling injuries and posting a .916 save percentage in 31 starts. The proof is in the Vezina, however, that he can catch fire and give the Jackets a chance against any team. In his first seven games after returning from injury, he won seven in a row with a .936 save percentage.

While goaltending and depth give the Jackets a chance to be dangerous, it is hard to say they have the firepower to beat the Penguins and Bruins. The trade deadline gives them an opportunity to get closer. And Kekalainen showed some willingness to take a deadline risk last season when Columbus acquired Marian Gaborik.

That move hasn’t worked out as expected, but it is unlikely to deter the Jackets’ GM from being aggressive if he believes his club has a chance. They may be a dark horse candidate for the two top UFA scorers on the market Matt Moulson and Thomas Vanek. When Columbus traded for Gaborik last season, he still had one year left on his contract before becoming a free agent. There are several players out there who might be available for Kekalainen to do the same this year, including Florida’s Sean Bergenheim and Tomas Kopecky.

The Blue Jackets may be in position to make the postseason, they are far from a lock. The Flyers, Devils, and Hurricanes are on their heels in the Metropolitan Division. Columbus is statistically a better team than all three. The Flyers are 25th in puck possession, the Hurricanes are 26th, and the Devils, despite being sixth, have received the league’s worst even strength save percentage and they lack goal scorers. However, the pressure from behind may cause Columbus to be active at the deadline.

So don’t let the Jackets slip under the radar…because they might surprise you.

Matthew Coller is host of Hockey Prospectus Radio, producer of the Howard Simon Show on Buffalo’s WGR550 and their Rochester Amerks reporter, and a multi-sport play-by-play announcer.


Follow Matthew on Twitter at @matthewWGR.

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