Fourteen. The Columbus Blue Jackets have won 14 straight games. If I gave you an over/under before the season started at 14 for wins in 2016, I’d bet more than a handful of people would’ve taken the under. And yet, here they are at the top of the league on December 30 with an astounding 25-5-4 record.
No one saw this coming. It’s crazy enough that any team is this good, but Columbus? We had them sixth in the Metro division in our pre-season predictions, my projection model had them sixth, too, and both of those were pretty generous too. Most prognostications had them dead last in the Metro. Instead they’re at the top with almost no signs of slowing down either.
Most times when a team goes on a run like this there’s obviously some skill involved, but also a lot of smoke and mirrors clouding just how good they really are. A lot of things have to go very right for a streak like this, and it has for the Blue Jackets, but they’ve genuinely played like one of the league’s best teams this season, too.
Their PDO is sky-high at 103.4, sure, but their shot attempt and expected goal rates are top 10. They’ve been even better since Seth Jones returned from injury on November 21 with a fourth best shot attempt rate (54.8 percent) and a second best expected goals rate (56.3 percent). They’re 15-1-2 since then. Oh, and their powerplay is the league’s best by a wide margin. Columbus is actually, for real, no foolin’, a very good team. To the surprise of literally everyone.
So how the hell did we get here? Here are a few reasons why the Blue Jackets have taken over the league.
The Two Skis/Skys
Let’s get the obvious ones out of the way: this team wouldn’t be anywhere close to where they are right now without goalie Sergei Bobrovsky returning to form and rookie D-man Zach Werenski emerging as a No. 1 guy.
Yes, it might be a little early to say that, but I don’t take those words lightly and Werenski has looked every bit the part so far. He’s on pace for 58 points and has a sparkling 3.2 Corsi relative to his team in his first season. That top powerplay in the league is also a byproduct of Werenski’s premier puck-moving ability at the top, an element that was sorely lacking on their blueline. Along with Jones, the Blue Jackets basically added a top pairing in one season and that’s allowed everyone else to be a little better as they get pushed down the depth chart.
Bobrovsky meanwhile is rocking a .934 save percentage and sitting pretty in second for the entire league. That’s a big step up from his .908 last year or .918 the year before. It’s even a little better than his .932 in 2012-13 when he won the Vezina Trophy. He’s been sensational so far.
Fourth Lines Matter
This is the big one for me because it’s something I stressed in the 2015-16 season preview for this very team, one I thought was extremely overhyped that fell flat on their faces.
That year, the team was icing guys like Gregory Campbell, Jared Boll, David Clarkson and Rene Bourque on their bottom line. What they had in common was that they were gritty, blue-collar, high compete, hard-working grinders. And also that they add negative value whenever they hit the ice. You decide which one matters more.
This season, the team has an actual functioning line that can score in Scott Hartnell, Lucas Sedlak, and Sam Gagner. Imagine that line against other team’s fourth lines. It’s a mismatch. They’ve been unsurprisingly great, posting a 53.3 percent shot attempt rate, 63.8 percent expected goals rate and they’re getting 71.2 percent of the goal,s too. All three are tops for any line on the team. Other teams simply can’t compete with that, which is funny since the usual fourth line roles are filled with guys that “compete” hard.
What the Blue Jackets are showing this season is that every lineup spot matters. It shouldn’t be top six-bottom six, or top nine-bottom line; it’s 12 spots where you want positive on-ice contribution from every spot. The fourth line may seem marginal, but at the margins is what separates good teams from great teams.
By my estimates, Columbus’ fourth line is currently worth roughly two wins (which is incredible for any fourth line). Last year’s version of Clarkson-Campbell-Boll would be worth about two wins too – for the other team. That’s a four win swing all from the three spots most teams throw away to inferior players.
Skill players trump role players every day of the week, and we’re seeing that in Columbus. It won’t be long before the rest of the league catches up.
(Dimitri Fillipovic over at Sportsnet wrote something yesterday on this very subject that’s worth checking out too).
Underrated Forward Group
Speaking of the forwards, the Blue Jackets 12 never really got the respect they deserved going into the season. Nick Foligno is one of the league’s most underrated forwards as many thought his 2014-15 season was a fluke after a slower 2015-16. This year he’s right back on that pace showing he’s a lot better than most people gave him credit for, not to mention he’s an excellent possession driver. Ditto for Cam Atkinson who never really got a fair shake thanks to his size, but he scored 53 points last season and is finally putting it all together this year.
Then there’s those fourth line guys again, Hartnell and Gagner, two guys many thought were done. They’re not. Clearly. Even guys in down years (yes, there’s actually guys who aren’t riding the high right now) like Brandon Dubinsky and Boone Jenner are better than advertised. Go down the list of forwards on this team and most of them are guys who are low-key good, they just never get much respect for it.
Perhaps they’re starting to earn it now. Columbus is one of the few teams that can roll all four lines without skipping a beat. The team has four forwards in the top 30 for scoring, one more outside the top 30 and just for good measure, a sixth just inside the top 90. Six forwards that are scoring at a first line rate. That’s practically unheard of. Especially for a team filled with ‘okay forwards’ like Columbus. They’re looking a little better than that these days.
Brandon Saad: Elite Winger
There’s one forward I didn’t mention and that’s Brandon Saad. When the Blue Jackets acquired him, they were expecting a burgeoning power forward who would one day become one of the league’s premier wingers. That day has come as Saad is showing exactly that.
That may seem like a stretch, but he’s definitely making a case. The last two years he’s been a 50-55 point forward, but now in his prime at the age of 24, he’s jumped up to a 72 point pace. That’s probably not sustainable, but it’s a pace he’s never been at over such a lengthy stretch of time, suggesting the breakout is here, and a 65-point season isn’t out of reach. He’s also a fantastic play-driver with a relative Corsi this year at 7.6 percent.
We can go a little deeper than that and put it all together with a pet stat of mine called Game Score. Brandon Saad’s average Game Score this season is 1.06 (it’s on the same scale as points-per-game if you want to know whether that’s good or not) and just six wingers league-wide are higher for the year: David Pastrnak, Artemi Panarin, Vladimir Tarasenko, Joe Pavelski, Nikita Kucherov, and Brad Marchand.
In terms of projected value added to his team (based on Game Score over the last three seasons, and what we used for the team projections in the pre-season), some of the usual suspects jump ahead (which likely means the metric, while not infallible, is doing a decent job), but Saad is still right there in the top 15.
I’d bet very few would’ve expected that. He’s been great this year and is not only the best forward on the Blue Jackets, he’s one of the best in the league. Just as they envisioned when they acquired him.
“Step On Their Throat”
When a team is up, they usually go into a defensive shell.
When the Blue Jackets are up, they “step on their throat” instead.
That’s straight out of Dubinsky’s mouth as originally reported by Kristyn Repke for Fanrag Sports. The full quote:
“Even when we’re up by a few goals, we’re still trying to get that next goal,” Dubinsky said. “If [the other team gets] the next goal, they get some momentum and they’re right back in it. A [three goal lead] is tough to come back from in this league, but we can’t just stop there. When a good team is down, you have to step on their throat rather than let them back up, so that is what we have tried to do [in some of these games].”
A nice idea in theory, but rarely actually seen in practice. When leading, the average expected goals percentage at 5-on-5 is around 46.1 percent. The Jackets are 9th at 48.9 percent, but hardly world beaters. That does change though when you look at how they perform when they’re up by a single goal.
The average expected goals percentage jumps up to to around 46.8 percent, but this time the Blue Jackets rank third, controlling 53.9 percent of the expected goal rate. They’ve realized that a one goal lead in hockey, even with Bobrovsky in net, isn’t safe and they’re playing like an elite team would when they’re trailing or the game is tied. That’s translated into the team getting the next goal more often then not and building their lead into something much more insurmountable.
The same can’t be said when they’re up by more than one, as their shot attempt rate plummets to below average. Maybe they do play it safe with bigger leads after all, but at the very least, when they’re up one, they’re hungry for more. When the team gets a lead, they not only keep it, they try and add to it. That’s been the difference in a lot of their wins this season.
This team is good for many reasons and a lot of things have gone very right to make this all possible. Make no mistake though, the magic will wear off eventually. They won’t score on 11.4 percent of their shots forever (second best in the league), and they won’t stop 93.1 percent either (again, second best in the league), but their underlying numbers are still very good and that’s been the case for most of the year. That should mitigate any potential collapse in their percentages. They’re not this good, because no one is this good, but they’ve proven they belong among the league’s best teams. Columbus is the real deal and they deserve the respect no one gave them in the pre-season.