Atop the Metropolitan Division with the fifth-best goal differential in the league, an all-world netminder seemingly en route to another spot among the finalists for the Vezina Trophy and a group of talented young players that is gelling as the season rolls along, just about everything is looking rosy for the Blue Jackets.
In many ways, really, it’s a continuation of last season's success, an impressive campaign in which a John Tortorella-coached Columbus crew kept pace with the best of the best in the ultra-competitive Metropolitan Division and earned themselves a playoff berth for just the third time in franchise history. But if there’s one area where the Blue Jackets of present haven’t been quite the same as last season’s squad, it’s on the offensive side of the puck, where the group is scoring about a quarter of a goal per game less than in 2016-17, when scoring is up by about the same margin. And the impacts of a sometimes struggling offense can be seen throughout the lineup.
In some cases, the decrease in offensive production has been modest. Defensemen Seth Jones, Zach Werenski and David Savard, for instance, are on pace to score only a few points less than last season. Even forwards Boone Jenner and Brandon Dubinsky aren’t all that far off of their production from the 2016-17 campaign. But there are those who are seeing notable decreases in their scoring rate as we move into the middle third of the season. Nick Foligno, for instance, is on pace for 18 fewer points than he scored last season. Alexander Wennberg has it even worse, staring down a 24-point decrease if his scoring doesn’t pick up. In the worst spot of all, though, is last season’s breakout star for the Blue Jackets, Cam Atkinson, who has found himself mired in a slump that he hasn’t been able to shake.
How bad have things been for Atkinson? Well, one year after pacing Columbus with an impressive 35-goal, 62-point performance, he found himself sitting in the press box for the Blue Jackets' outing against the Arizona Coyotes on Saturday, having played his way out of Tortorella’s good graces and into the doghouse. The scratch was a culmination of a brutal month-plus stretch in which Atkinson scored two goals and four points across a 15-game span, going on an eight-game goal drought which was followed immediately thereafter by a span of six games where he didn’t find the scoresheet at all. Worse yet, the trying season for Atkinson has seen him slowly lose ice time to the extent he skated 9:36 before the scratch, and if he can’t shake his slump and pick up the pace, he is in line to end the season with 18 goals and 27 points.
Columbus has to be hoping the start of this season isn’t a harbinger of what’s to come for Atkinson, too, as they signed him to a seven-year, $41.125-million extension in mid-November.
If Atkinson is looking for any players to commiserate with, though, he’s not alone in facing serious struggles through the first third of the season. Here are four others still searching for their game:
Craig Anderson, Ottawa Senators
Anderson was brilliant for the Senators last season, putting up all-star caliber numbers — a .926 save percentage and 2.28 goals-against average — across 40 games before backstopping Ottawa to the Eastern Conference final with a .922 SP and 2.34 GAA in the playoffs. In the end, the Senators came one goal shy of earning a berth into the Stanley Cup final. Add it all up, and Anderson played so well that the Senators handed him a two-year, $9.5-million extension despite signing solid second-stringer Mike Condon to an extension only months earlier.
Unfortunately, Anderson’s play hasn’t been anywhere close to what it was last season. Through 22 games, he has an ugly .895 SP and bloated 3.11 GAA, has had nine games in which he has allowed four-or-more goals and even his once solid 5-on-5 numbers have abandoned him. He had a career .928 SP at even strength coming into the campaign, but has managed a mere .896 SP this season.
From top to bottom, the Senators have had their fair share of issues throughout the campaign, but Anderson’s inability to provide even average goaltending thus far has been one of the most disappointing aspects of what some believed would be another promising season.
Victor Rask, Carolina Hurricanes
Coming into the season, Rask was slotted in as Carolina’s top-line center. With good reason, too. Over the past two years, Rask’s ice time and responsibility had increased, and it seemed only a matter of time before the 24-year-old had his breakout year. Many thought there would be no better time than the present, either, with the Hurricanes a sexy pick to be the most improved team this season. Turns out neither Rask or Carolina has had near the success that was expected of them, though.
The Hurricanes have struggled to get above .500 on the season, remaining outside of the playoff picture, while Rask’s production has dropped from 0.55 to 0.37 points per game. He’s also producing half a point less per 60 minutes compared to last season. He’s on pace for 15 fewer points over the course of the season. The real kicker here, though, is that Rask has fallen down the lineup. Expected to be a top-six forward, centers Jordan Staal and Derek Ryan have leapt ahead of Rask on the depth chart and recent outings haven’t seen his ice time go up.
The good news, though, is Rask has scored in three straight games. Maybe that can give him a jolt and put him back on track to keep moving forward as a future top center in Carolina.
Jason Spezza, Dallas Stars
Every player not named Jaromir Jagr eventually falls victim to Father Time, but there may not be a veteran skater who has seen his production drop off as steep as Spezza this season. Last year, Spezza managed to score 15 goals and 50 points in 68 games, keeping in line with the three-quarters of a point per game he has scored throughout his time in Dallas. This season, however, Spezza has been lucky to keep his scoring pace even close to half of that. After a good start to the season with three points in four games, Spezza has only added another five goals and eight points in 27 games.
One major issue is that Spezza has found himself firmly entrenched in the bottom-six of the Stars’ lineup. Really, it hasn’t been all that uncommon for the once top-line, top-scoring center to play less than 14 minutes a night. In 20 of his 31 games this season, he hasn’t hit the 14-minute mark and he’s even failed to reach a dozen minutes in five games this season. Without the playing time, Spezza hasn’t been able to produce, but given the Stars are forking over $7.5 million to the veteran center this season and next, you can rest assured Dallas would love if he could start finding ways to put points on the board in limited minutes.
Trevor Daley, Detroit Red Wings
Put aside for a moment the fact that the Red Wings’ Daley signing was one of the more puzzling decisions of the off-season and look purely at it from a production point of view. If Detroit wanted to add some offense to their back end, bringing Daley aboard seemed a sure way to do it. While Daley is no Erik Karlsson or Brent Burns, the two-time Stanley Cup-winning rearguard had scored more than one-third of a point per game over 700-plus games dating back to the 2007-08 campaign. He has a history of producing. You wouldn’t know that, though, if you were to take this year’s numbers alone into account.
Through 28 games in Detroit so far, Daley has two points, both assists, and is scoring at a rate of .07 points per game. Defenders who have played half as many games and have nowhere near the offensive ability have managed more points. And it’s not as if Daley’s defensive play is making up for it. At 5-on-5, he has the second-worst possession rate among Red Wings blueliners and second-worst goals for percentage.
The Red Wings have to hope Daley figures it out, though, and have to hope he does so fast. He inked a three-year, $9.5-million deal in the summer, but it’s not a contract that was signed with the expectation he would be on pace for six points with subpar defensive numbers.
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