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.