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Why the Blue Jackets are the NHL’s biggest surprise

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Coming off of a season where they finished with the fourth-worst record in the league, expectations were remarkably low for the Columbus Blue Jackets entering this season. Being on the outside of the playoff picture for the third year in a row seemed like a given. Being one of the worst teams in the league again, if not the worst team, seemed like a real possibility.

But entering play on Saturday they have been, by far, the NHL’s biggest surprise with a 13-5-4 record through their first 22 games, putting them in third place in the Metropolitan Division just one point behind the Pittsburgh Penguins, and only three points behind the New York Rangers with multiple games in hand on both teams. It is still the best start in the history of the franchise.

Let’s take a look at what is behind their newfound success.

Sergei Bobrovsky is back

One of the biggest factors in Columbus’ miserable start a year ago was the struggles of starting goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. A former Vezina Trophy winner, the 2015-16 season was by far Bobrovsky’s worst campaign since arriving in Columbus. So far this season, he is back on track and once again playing like one of the top goalies in the league.

In 20 starts this season he owns a .929 save percentage and has already recorded three shutouts.

At this point last season he was carrying around a .905 save percentage and talking about how he had little confidence in his game.

How much of a difference is that swing in his performance making? A massive one. He has faced an almost identical number of shots through his first 20 starts (562 in 2015-16, 566 this year), but the difference in his performance has shaved 13 goals off of the Blue Jackets’ goals against total. Add 13 goals to that total right now and they go from second in the NHL, all the way down to 15th. That alone has to be worth a couple of wins.

Goaltending is the great equalizer in hockey, and if you have a good one, or one that is simply on an incredible hot streak, it is going to mask a lot of flaws. Likewise, a goaltender that is struggling can make an otherwise good team think it has a lot of problems.

Some young talent is making a big impact

One of the biggest concerns with the construction of the Blue Jackets’ roster entering the season was the amount of money they had tied up in veteran players that were starting to get into their late 20s or early 30s and how little some of them had produced a year ago. Nick Foligno. Scott Hartnell. Brandon Dubinsky. Jack Johnson. Long-term some of those contracts are still a concern (though, Foligno is having a nice bounce back season with 20 points in 22 games), but what is really helping Columbus this season is the number of young players that have stepped into the lineup and are making huge contributions.

Six of the team’s top-10 scorers, including three of the top-five, are age 24 or younger.

Among that group is 19-year-old Zach Werenski who has been a huge addition to the team’s blue line. With 16 points he is the leading scorer in the NHL among rookie defensemen and is one of the best possession drivers on the team.

Up front, Alexander Wennberg, the team’s first-round pick in 2013 (No. 14 overall) is taking a huge step in his development and has seen his production skyrocket across the board while playing alongside Brandon Saad and Foligno.

Even though his minutes have been limited and coach John Tortorella still wants to see more consistency out of him, 22-year-old Josh Anderson already has seven goals on the year.

There is probably a little bit of luck on their side

When trying to figure out if a team is for real or not there are a couple of underlying signs you need to look for.

For example: A team that is getting badly outshot and is winning because of a sky high shooting percentage or save percentage (or both) is probably a team that is getting a lot of good luck and is setting itself up for a big collapse in the future (take, for example, the 2013 Toronto Maple Leafs. Or the 2014 Colorado Avalanche. Or the  2015 Calgary Flames).

And while that is not entirely the case with the Blue Jackets right now, they have been a little on the lucky side so far.

Their shot on goal and shot attempts numbers are decent and have them around the middle of the pack in the league, but there is still probably a regression coming in the future when it comes to their offense which is currently tied for sixth in the league in goals scored.

At the moment they are scoring on nearly 11 percent of their shots, while five individual players are carrying shooting percentages higher than 15 percent. Those are all numbers that are likely to drop as the season goes on. It’s just too hard, both for teams and individuals, to maintain that type of shooting success over the course of an 82 game season. Over the past five years only 11 teams (total) have finished an 82-game season with a shooting percentage higher than 10 percent, and none have been over 11. In 2015-16 only 32 individual players (minimum 100 shots) finished the season with a shooting percentage higher than 15 percent. Again, the Blue Jackets right now have five of them. Some of that is going to regress a bit.

But again, they also aren’t the 2013 Maple Leafs or the 2014 Avalanche here when it comes to luck. They are keeping teams to less than 30 shots on goal per game, and while their possession numbers are not great, they are not exactly overly concerning, either. They are probably not playing that far over their heads at the moment.

As long as Bobrovsky stays healthy and keeps playing like the goalie he’s been for most of the past five years (the 2015-16 season excluded) they are going to have a shot to hang around in this thing.

Andrei Markov opts for KHL after saying goodbye to Canadiens

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Andrei Markov wanted to play his entire career with the Montreal Canadiens. With that option officially off the table, Markov announced that he’s headed for Russia and the KHL.

“I didn’t see myself with any other NHL team,” Markov said during a conference call wrapping up his lengthy stay with the Habs. “I didn’t see myself wearing another jersey.”

(At least not the jersey of another NHL team.)

The 38-year-old also noted that he hasn’t closed the door to a return to Montreal. That makes sense since it seems like it was largely the Canadiens’ decision to part ways with Markov, essentially replacing him with Mark Streit at a heavily discounted rate.

Beyond the comforts of home, Markov was almost certainly motivated to play in the KHL because of the 2018 Winter Olympics.

The veteran blueliner did not mention which KHL team he’ll end up playing for. There were some rumblings that Markov might sign with the Florida Panthers, but that turned out to not be true.

If it’s a one-year deal, a return to the Habs is at least feasible in 2018-19. Considering his age, it sure seems like this is the end of Markov’s lengthy run with the Canadiens, though.

After making NHL debut, Jones re-ups with Isles

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One of the Isles’ feel-good stories from last season wrote a new chapter on Thursday.

Connor Jones, the undrafted 26-year-old that made his NHL debut in April, has signed a one-year, two-way extension, the club announced.

Jones certainly earned his way to the show. He spent four years at Quinnipiac before catching on with the Oilers, spending time with both their AHL and ECHL affiliates before jumping to the Isles organization in 2015.

Though he’s not an offensive producer — just 19 points in 58 games with Bridgeport last season — Jones emerged as a good energy guy that proved an effective penalty killer.

With AHL Bridgeport, he also played alongside his twin brother, Kellen, who was in attendance as Connor made his NHL debut in April.

Connor would go on to play four games for the Isles, averaging just under 12 minutes per night.

Report: Dwight King could be KHL-bound

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Dwight King, the burly forward that won a pair of Stanley Cups in Los Angeles, may be on his way to Russia.

Per News 1130 in Vancouver, King is set to sign in the KHL after failing to land a contract this summer. The 28-year-old finished last season in Montreal after spending the first seven years of his NHL career in Los Angeles.

For a time, King was an effective skater for L.A. He posted a career-high 15 goals and 30 points during the ’13-14 campaign, and followed that up with a 13-goal, 26-point effort the year following. He also had a nice showing during the Kings’ 2014 Cup run, finishing with 11 points in 26 games.

King’s biggest issue is his skating ability. At 6-foot-4, 229 pounds, he was never the fleetest of foot, but had been working on his speed this offseason.

More, from Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman:

King is still looking for work after finishing the season in Montreal. There are a few Western Conference teams poking around.

“I’m just looking for an opportunity at this point. I’m going to be on the ice more this year, doing a little more skills and skating. Any bit of improvement I can find.”

King is going to try a couple new teachers, then decide which route to take. One also works with former teammate (and new Golden Knight) Brayden McNabb. King is quite the physical specimen, but will take a new approach. He regularly played at 230–231 pounds, but is going to go to 225–226. And he believes the Western Conference is better for him.

News 1130 reported that Vancouver had shown “mild interest” in King, who just wrapped a three-year $5.85 million deal with a $1.95M cap hit.

King appeared in 17 games for the Habs after being picked up at the deadline last season, scoring once. He went pointless in six playoff games.

McLellan excited about addition of ‘utility player’ Strome

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To hear Todd McLellan explain it, Ryan Strome could be wearing many hats next season.

That’s what the Oilers head coach said on Wednesday of the former Isles forward, acquired earlier this summer in the Jordan Eberle trade. McLellan expressed excitement over Strome’s ability to play both center and wing.

“He (Strome) is a utility player,” McLellan said, per the Sun. “He has the ability to play center and has in the past. He’s been able to win faceoffs and he’s comfortable on the wing. We have the luxury of moving players around, and as the fans here know, we like to do that.”

That last sentence is clearly a reference to Leon Draisaitl. Draisaitl has flipped back and forth between playing as Edmonton’s No. 2 center and as a winger on the top line alongside Connor McDavid. The talented German’s had success at both, which is why Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli is still unsure if Draisaitl is a center or a winger.

More: Strome pumped at prospect of playing with Draisaitl, McDavid

As for Strome, he certainly gives Edmonton some flexibility — on the ice, and on the books.

With a $2.5 million cap hit (compared to Eberle’s $6M), he’s provided Chiarelli with more cap space to get the Draisaitl contract done. And there’s also the potential for him to be a real bargain. Remember, Strome is only two years removed from a sophomore campaign in which he scored 17 goals and 50 points in 81 contests. His subsequent two years with the Isles were a disappointment, but the talent is still there.

The wildcard in all this is the fact that Strome’s heading into a contract year. He’ll be a restricted free agent next July, so the ’17-18 campaign will go a long way in determining his value… and, potentially, his future in Edmonton.