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The Blue Jackets were ‘supposed to suck,’ but was the fall in Columbus predicted too soon?

Columbus suffered major losses in the off-season and pundits panned the Blue Jackets' chances. Early results have indicated that John Tortorella's team isn't ready to go away just yet, though. Is there more to the Blue Jackets than meets the eye?

Call it a motivational tactic, call it a moment of blunt honesty or simply call it John Tortorella being John Tortorella, but the Columbus Blue Jackets bench boss, who has never been one for a canned answer, didn’t hold back when speaking about the expectations surrounding his team. Noting that goaltender Joonas Korpisalo has tuned out what pundits have said about his ability to fill in for since-departed keeper Sergei Bobrovsky, the outspoken coach added that his whole team embraces the same attitude. And then Tortorella delivered an early quote-of-the-season candidate.

“We’re supposed to suck this year,” he quipped. “We’re just going to worry about our own business and just take it a day at a time.”

There was a tongue-in-cheek element to Tortorella speaking about how bad his team was supposed to be mere moments after they had gone out and defeated a projected pre-season Stanley Cup contending Maple Leafs 4-3 in overtime – a contest in which Columbus out-shot Toronto in three of the four frames – and that wasn’t lost on anyone. And it shouldn’t be lost on anyone who takes a quick glance at the standings as the Blue Jackets fast approach the 10-game mark, either. With nine games in the books and three contests remaining in the October portion of their schedule, the Blue Jackets have a 4-3-2 record, wake up on the cusp of a wild-card spot and, albeit very early in the season, look far more like a team bound to fight for the right to punch their ticket back to the post-season until the final night of the campaign than one destined for a lottery pick.

Again, it’s still early. Probably far too early to lean one way or another on the Blue Jackets or make any bold predictions based on how Columbus has performed through the first three weeks of the season. But after Tortorella’s comments – and given how dead-on he was about the pre-season predictions, as many pundits, including us here at The Hockey News, picked the Blue Jackets to be woeful – it’s difficult not to dig in to what we’ve seen and attempt to understand Columbus' potential this season.

One point of interest through the early part of the campaign, at least as it pertains to potentially predicting the future success or failure of these Blue Jackets, is Columbus’ underlying numbers. Last season, while the Blue Jackets weren’t necessarily a possession juggernaut, they were a middling team, ranking 12th (50.2), 11th (51.2), 12th (50.9), 12th (51.2) and 14th (51.3) in Corsi, shots, expected goals, scoring chances and high-danger chances percentages, respectively, at five-a-side. And despite the off-season departures that stood to impact those numbers, which included Artemi Panarin and deadline additions Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel, this season’s Blue Jackets have thus far managed to post similar numbers. Truth be told, Columbus' numbers have actually be more favorable in the early going, ranking 10th (51.9), fifth (53.8), sixth (53.1), 11th (51.8) and 11th (52.1) in the respective categories.

Of course, what should result in some pause with respect to the early performance we’re seeing from Columbus is that those numbers are guaranteed to shift throughout the season. Through their first nine games last season, the Blue Jackets’ percentages were similar, but the numbers either declined or increased by anywhere from .33 percent to as much as four percent by season’s end. So, while positive in the early part of the season, cautious optimism is the best way to approach those numbers. That’s also the same way to approach what we’ve seen out of Korpisalo, who sparked Tortorella’s supposed-to-suck comment.

Considered a potential Achilles heel for the Blue Jackets ahead of this season, the crease has actually been a position of strength early. At 5-on-5, Columbus ranks 12th in the NHL with a .925 save percentage following Monday’s action, and Korpisalo has been among the league’s best keepers at fives. Of the 28 goaltenders who have played at least 200 minutes at 5-on-5 this season, Korpisalo’s .944 SP ranks eighth, all the while he boasts a .66 goals saved above average, which puts him ninth out of the same group of 28 netminders. (Bobrovsky ranks 28th in both categories, for what that’s worth.) Small sample that it might be, it’s at the very least promising with regards to Korpisalo’s ability to handle the workload and promising about his ability to deliver the above-replacement-level goaltending the Blue Jackets are going to need in order to battle for a return trip to the post-season.

But not everything has gone swimmingly in Columbus, and if anything has let the Blue Jackets down early, it’s been the offensive production. On base numbers alone, Columbus’ struggles on the attack are apparent. Their 2.44 goals per game are the sixth-fewest, the 14.3 power-play percentage is the seventh-lowest and the team’s 7.03 shooting percentage at all strengths is one-hundredth of a percent better than that of the league-worst Ottawa Senators. And it’s that last number that is either the most concerning or brings with it the most hope.

Some would assume the Blue Jackets' shooting percentage is bound to increase, level out and end up somewhere close to last season’s 9.9 percent mark. It’s difficult to be so sure, though. Panarin was almost inarguably the top offensive driver in Columbus last season, and his departure stings the offense more than maybe any other loss suffered by any other club throughout the summer. He averaged 28 goals and 85 points across his two seasons with the Blue Jackets, leading the team in scoring in each of the past two campaigns. And without him, an attack that was middle of the road last season hasn’t quite shown it can be that again this season. Thus, at least through the earliest stages of the season, it seems converting possession, power play attempts and shots on goal to red lights behind the opposing goaltender is going to be the biggest challenge Columbus faces this season.

In a sense, this might be why most picked the Blue Jackets suffer such a precipitous drop, the feeling that Columbus would have to be greater than the sum of its parts. But if the Blue Jackets can squeeze every ounce of production out of the pieces they do have – and in Cam Atkinson, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Gustav Nyquist, there are weapons present – and continue to receive quality goaltending from Korpisalo, there’s no reason to believe Columbus can’t be a surprise wild-card contender, a place few expected them to be before the season began.

(All advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)

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