Without question, the Columbus Blue Jackets have been one of the season’s best stories. Coming off of a disastrous year and with virtually nobody picking them to even make the playoffs, the Blue Jackets have exceeded all expectations while contending for first place in the Metro Division.
The power play is smoking, the goaltending is excellent, John Tortorella looks like the Jack Adams favourite, and the Blue Jackets are the hottest team in the league today, winning nine straight and counting. After years of misery, fans in Columbus finally have something to cheer about.
It’s too bad it can’t last.
I mean, it can’t… right? These are still the Blue Jackets. Seeing them beat up the Canadiens and run right alongside the Penguins and Rangers has been fun, but eventually things will go back to normal and they’ll fall out of contention.
Of course, plenty of us have been saying that for most of the season, and it hasn’t happened yet. If anything, the Blue Jackets are getting better as the year wears on.
So today, let’s try to get this settled once and for all. Let’s lay out the case against the Blue Jackets—all the reasons why this can’t be the real thing and their crash back to mediocrity is inevitable. And then let’s pick that case apart and see if it actually holds up.
Let’s start with an area where the Blue Jackets aren’t just good, but historically good.
They’re not for real because: Their power play is too good to be true. Literally.
Plenty of things have been going right for the Blue Jackets. But with apologies to Sergei Bobrovsky and Zach Werenski, the biggest story in Columbus has been the power play. And it’s a virtual certainty that that unit will be coming back to Earth soon.
Right now, the Blue Jackets’ power play is clocking in at a 27.7-per cent success rate. Only one team in NHL history has finished with a higher rate over a full season, and that was back in the high-flying ’80s when everyone was filling the net against tiny goalies who hadn’t figured out the butterfly yet.
Wayne Gretzky’s Oilers never had a 27-per cent power play. Neither did Mario Lemieux’s Penguins or Mike Bossy’s Islanders. But we’re supposed to think that Nick Foligno’s Blue Jackets have figured it out? Not a chance. This is a classic case of a decent unit hitting a hot streak for a few weeks, and once it regresses back to where it deserves to be, this team will look very different.
Yeah, but: Plenty of smart people have been studying the Blue Jackets’ power play to try to figure out what makes it tick. And they’ve been finding some interesting things, including a five-man first unit that’s doing an excellent job at consistently generating high-percentage shots from dangerous areas.
Sure, there’s clearly a degree of good luck happening here; nobody thinks that the Blue Jackets have suddenly cracked the code on 100 years of power-play strategy. But the top unit isn’t simply succeeding based on a fluke; they’ve been earning it.
And even if you don’t buy any of that, let’s not overestimate the impact that the Columbus special teams could be having. If they were hitting at a league-average rate of 18 per cent or so, their 23 power-play goals would drop to 15 or so. That’s eight goals, which conventional wisdom says translated to one or two wins.
That’s nothing to sneeze at, and it’s possible that Blue Jackets’ power-play prowess is even more important because it’s forcing teams to play them differently at even strength. But it’s not enough to make the difference between them being an elite team and an also-ran. Even if the power play settles down, this still looks like a strong team.
They’re not for real because: The key underlying numbers tell us they’re not that good.
We’re living in hockey’s era of analytics. And when it comes to team performance, the numbers have taught us a few things. The best predictor of future success is strong possession numbers. Sky-high team shooting percentages tend to regress. And we shouldn’t trust teams with high PDOs, because they’re usually outperforming based partly on luck.
Well, take a look at the Blue Jackets’ numbers, and guess what you see. They’re only an average even-strength possession team, they’ve got the second best shooting across all situations in the league, and their PDO of 103.7 is well outside the range of what we’d expect anyone to be able to maintain over a full season.
We know what these numbers mean, and they’re all pointing in the same direction. The Blue Jackets aren’t as good as their record tells us.
Yeah, but: First of all, there’s no PDO category in the standings. There are wins and losses and points, and when it comes to those categories the Blue Jackets are doing just fine.
That’s the simplistic old-school answer, of course, so let’s dig a little deeper. For one thing, shooting percentage makes up half of PDO, so we’re penalizing the Blue Jackets twice for a high number in the same category. And if we’re looking at all situations, that means we’re also penalizing Columbus for their unsustainable power play, which we’ve already covered.
If we look at 5v5 instead, the Blue Jackets start to fall into a more reasonable range. They drop to fifth in the league in shooting, which is still higher than we’d expect based on their talent level but no longer seems like a sure thing to plummet. And their PDO drops down to fifth in the league as well, at 102.3. That’s probably still too high to continue, but now it’s being driven more by team save percentage—and they do have a former Vezina winner in net.
Speaking of whom…
They’re not for real because: Sergei Bobrovsky can’t keep this up.
Yes, Bobrovsky won the Vezina in 2013, finishing with a .932 save percentage in a lockout-shortened season. That’s the exact same number he’s sporting now, which suggests that his performance so far this season isn’t entirely unsustainable.
But since that season, Bobrovsky’s save percentage has fallen every year. He posted a .923 in 2013–14, followed by a .918 and then a .908 last year. That’s a pretty unmistakable trend. Over the course of his career, his save percentage is .918, which would peg him as being slightly above average.
So what’s more likely: that Bobrovsky has reversed three years of declining play and reverted back to his peak form, or that we’re witnessing a decent goalie putting up numbers unlikely to last? It’s pretty tough to argue it’s the former.
Yeah, but: Goaltending is voodoo and nobody knows how it works.
That’s not much of a response, but it’s hard to deny. Goaltender performances are notoriously tough to predict. Tuukka Rask is having a similar (though not quite as extreme) rebound season in Boston. Brian Elliott has been all over the map for years. Jimmy Howard has gone from star to overpaid bum and back again. This stuff happens.
If Devan Dubnyk can go from barely holding down a job to a Vezina candidate and Dominik Hasek can go from backup to the greatest goalie of all-time, surely Bobrovsky can go from all-star to all-star with a slight dip in between—especially considering he was hurt for some of that.
Could Bobrosvky’s numbers decline sharply as the year goes on? Of course they could. But it’s no sure thing. And remember, the Blue Jackets offence is filling the net, so it’s not like they need Bobrovsky to stand on his head every night just to have a chance.
Is this the real Bobrovsky or some kind of fluke? The answer is that it doesn’t matter, as long as he can keep it up. And we shouldn’t assume that we can know whether or not he will, because he’s a goaltender and they make no sense.
They’re not for real because: John Tortorella has to melt down and blow this at some point, right?
Sure, he’s got a Cup ring. But that was from 2004, and the pre-salary cap NHL might as well be the Paleozoic era. The game has changed, and other than one good run with the Rangers, Tortorella hasn’t come close to showing he can change with it. He was awful in Vancouver, and couldn’t move the needle for last year’s Blue Jackets. And we’re just months removed from an embarrassing World Cup in which he led Team USA to a round-robin exit.
Things are good now, but at some point the Blue Jackets will struggle. And that’s when Mt. Tortorella will explode and everything will fall apart.
Yeah, but: That was the old John Tortorella. This is the new model. Kinder, gentler, more progressive. He’s learned from his mistakes, you see.
And sure, that all sounds like nonsense, the sort of feel-good story we tell when things are going well and then abandon as soon as the trouble starts. But in Tortorella’s case, there really does seem to be some truth to it. Tortorella has toned down the hostility, and he’s shown a willingness to embrace some new ideas. And it might help him win the Jack Adams this year.
Sure, we don’t know what will happen if and when the Blue Jackets start to slump. But ripping on Tortorella because of what he’s done or said in the past doesn’t really work unless you also acknowledge that he really does seem to have changed this year.
They’re not for real because: Nobody saw this coming, and the chances of everybody being this wrong about a team are slim.
Here were Sportsnet’s preseason predictions, including a section for “Team most likely to exceed expectations”. There’s not one mention of the Blue Jackets to be found. Here’s one site’s entire staff making their Metro picks; everybody has the Blue Jackets either last or second last. Here’s a Blue Jackets fan site, which you’d expect to be most optimistic outlet available; only two writers have them making the playoffs, and both times it’s as a wildcard that loses in the first round.
Nobody went into this season thinking the Blue Jackets would be a Stanley Cup contender. What are the odds that absolutely everybody was wrong?
Yeah, but: The odds of everybody being wrong are higher than you’d think.
Who saw last year’s Panthers coming? Or the 2013 Avalanche? Or the 2006 Hurricanes? We could go down the list. Hockey is a random game and we all know a lot less than we think.
We might have countless season previews that said the Blue Jackets would be bad, but we’ve got 29 games and counting that say they’re good. Trust what happens on the ice before you trust the self-proclaimed experts.
They’re not for real because: Come on… they’re the Blue Jackets.
This is a team that hasn’t won a playoff round in the entire history of the franchise. They’ve only won two playoff games, period. And it’s not like they’ve had a long list of near-misses. This is a team that’s finished 15th in its conference four different times, including just last year. They’re the laughingstock of the league.
Yeah, but: All of that may be true, but none of it matters. The struggles of Geoff Sanderson and David Vyborny have nothing to do with Cam Atkinson and Brandon Saad. This is the 2016–17 season, and all that matters is what’s happened since opening night.
This is how sports work. You’re the laughingstock right up until you’re not. The Cubs were terrible for 100 years, and now they’re champions. The Saints never won anything until they won the Super Bowl. Cleveland hadn’t won anything (in any sport) since the 1950s, but now they’re the reigning NBA champs.
But we’re supposed to believe that the Blue Jackets can’t win a Stanley Cup? That’s just lazy. It’s what you say when you’ve run out of actual arguments and decided to rest on narratives.
They’re not for real because: This is still going to end badly.
Look, the Blue Jackets have been great so far. Nobody disputes that. On a points-percentage basis, they’re leading the league. You can’t take any of that away from them, and they’ve almost certainly banked enough points to at least squeeze into the playoffs.
But we’re not talking about whether they’re a playoff team. We’re asking if they’re a genuine top-tier Cup threat. Right now, they look more like a good club that’s riding a run of nice play to an inflated record.
You know what other team fit that description? Last year’s Panthers. Like this year’s Blue Jackets, they weren’t expected to be very good. And like Columbus, they won about as much as they lost, with the exception of one big winning streak. In Florida’s case, it was a 12-game stretch, one that happened right around the same time of year as this current Blue Jackets’ streak.
That hot stretch was enough to boost the Panthers to a 103-point season and a division title. But as we now know, they weren’t actually all that good. They lost in the first round, and so far this year they’ve been mediocre at best. In hindsight, it seems obvious that one good stretch doesn’t make you a contender.
The point is that hot streaks happen, and we always overrate them at the time. We may be doing it now with the Blue Jackets.
Yeah, but: Time will tell. We’re not even halfway through the story of the 2016–17 Blue Jackets, so there’s still room for some twists and turns, and some of those might be negative. But the key word there is “might.” So far, the Blue Jackets have been everything their fans could have hoped for and more.
There’s no guarantee that any of that continues. But if you’re looking to build a case beyond “Who knows what might happen?”, you’ll find that a lot of the arguments don’t hold up quite as well as you might expect.