Like most Blue Jackets fans, I was very excited for this season. It finally looked like Scott Howson had assembled a group of offensive weapons that could score with the top teams in the league. Rick Nash finally had his All Star centre in Jeff Carter. The defense was still a little shallow, and no upgrade in net was brought in, but the common logic was that this team had the capability to outscore teams, and Steve Mason and company only had to give the Blue Jackets a chance to win. Nearing the halfway point of the season, this obviously has not been proven true. The offense sits at 27th place in the NHL, the defense also sits at 27th, and Columbus ranks 29th in goal differential. So what gives? Where did all the supposed offense go?
To figure this out, I went through and looked at player's career statistics to find the rate at which they have traditionally generated shots, and their career shooting percentage. Then by multiplying these numbers by the minutes they have played in a Blue Jackets uniform this season, we should be able to get a clear picture of how much offense the Blue Jackets should have by this point in the season. This creates a better idea of where they should be than simply looking at how many goals these players have scored in the past. It takes injuries, suspensions and inconsistent minutes into account. What we get is mostly what we would expect. Our best players have been disappointing, and with the exception of a handful of depth players, everyone is scoring below what we should have expected. So lets look through the list and see what players have been disappointments (and by how much), what players have been adequate, and what player has been a pleasant surprise.
Below Average Players
Rick Nash -5 Goals
Projected Goals: 17
Actual Goals: 12
RJ Umberger -5 Goals
Projected Goals: 11
Actual Goals: 6
Antoine Vermette -5 Goals
Projected Goals: 10
Actual Goals: 5
Vinny Prospal -3 Goals
Projected Goals: 10
Actual Goals: 7
Matt Calvert -3 Goals
Projected Goals: 3
Actual Goals: 0
Jeff Carter -2 Goals
Projected Goals: 12
Actual Goals: 10
Players with one goal less than projected: Derick Brassard, Grant Clitsome, James Wisniewski, Sami Pahlsson, Jared Boll, Kristian Huselius, Cody Bass and Dane Byers.
That is a long list of players. The biggest problem is the fifteen goals not scored by Nash, Umberger and Vermette. Those are supposed to be three of the Jackets top six forwards. For them to under-perform to that extent is inexcusable and nearly impossible to compensate for. The inclusion of Prospal and Calvert are probably a little misleading, as Vinny is nearing the end of his career, and three goals below his career rate is reasonable for a 37 year old. Calvert's career numbers are bumped up by an unsustainable shooting percentage from last season. Most interesting to me was Jeff Carter only being two goals below expectations. While injuries have lowered his minutes played on the season, he is not far off his career pace and given his streakiness, is only one good stretch away from catching up.
Players who have matched their projections: Derek Mackenzie, Fedor Tyutin, Nikita Nikitin, Marc Methot, Alexandre Giroux and Maksim Mayorov.
This is a much shorter list and filled with players who have played minimal games in the NHL this season and their career, defensemen not counted on for scoring, and Derek Mackenzie. If you've been counting, that is now twenty players who are playing at their career rate or worse. Not good.
Players exceeding their projections
Derek Dorsett +4 Goals
Projected Goals: 3
Actual Goals: 7
Players with one goal more than projected: Mark Letestu, Aaron Johnson, Kris Russell and Radek Martinek.
That is an ugly list. Realistically, Derek Dorsett is the only Blue Jackets player who is scoring at a significantly higher rate than he has previously. The rest of that list is three depth defensemen (one who has been dealt) and Mark Letestu.
So what does this tell us? Mostly that this season has been a nightmare and there is reason for hope moving forward. The majority of the players on the Blue Jackets have been having seasons below their career averages, and their most important players have been having terrible years. Shooting percentages have been proven to regress to the mean. Nash, Vermette and Umberger will score at a higher rate moving forward than they have so far in 2011. Only Derek Dorsett is scoring at an unsustainable rate. I'll take a few less goals from Derek Dorsett moving forward for more goals from Nash, Vermette, Umberger, Prospal and Carter.
The final question: how would career average years have impacted the Blue Jackets season? The answer: significantly. Adding up the expected goals, the Blue Jackets players should have 23 more goals than they have scored this year. That would put them at 116 goals for on the season, good for 9th place in the NHL, jumping up to 8th when going by goals scored per game. Their 29th place goal differential of -35 would improve to -12, tied for 24th with Ottawa. Still disappointing, but a big improvement. Interestingly, these changes would put them very similar to Ottawa, who currently ranks 7th in goals for. They also sit in 6th place in the Eastern Conference with a 20-15-5 record. The going is much tougher in the West, but a 116 goals scored and 135 goals allowed should equate to about 17 wins. Adding an extra 14 points to the Blue Jackets record jumps them past Anaheim and Edmonton and would put them 6 points back of the Kings for the final playoff spot, with two games in hand.
So who takes the blame for these problems? I don't blame Scott Howson, as the team he put together on paper should have a top ten offense. A lot of blame has been heaped on Scott Arniel lately, but he can't help Rick Nash bury his chances. Not to say Arniel doesn't deserve his share of the blame, but at what point should we be looking to the players to take responsibility for their inability to finish? To further aid this analysis, I used every player's career shooting percentage, and multiplied it by this seasons shot rate (see note). While Scott Arniel has juggled lines seemingly at random, the majority of the Blue Jackets players are getting shots on net at a higher rate than they have over the course of their careers. Had the Blue Jackets players had career average shooting percentages with the number of shots they have had this season, they would have scored 130 goals on the season, putting them in second place in total goals scored and goals per game. A +2 goal differential would place them 11th in the NHL, and 6th in the conference. Yes, Steve Mason has been bad this year. Scott Arniel has not shown to be a good NHL coach. Scott Howson has not done much to address much that has gone on this season. However, if the Blue Jackets players merely scored at a career average percentage, they would be a playoff team.
Note: This is somewhat disingenuous, as the Blue Jackets have taken a lot of shots this season, and part of this is because they have had trouble scoring. Not scoring on a shot creates rebound shots. Not scoring on the powerplay creates a longer powerplay, which creates more shots. Further, the analysis I did before Christmas showed that for a significant portion of the game the Jackets were getting a lot of shots that were not scoring chances (the old "get pucks to the net" approach), which inflates shot totals and decreases shooting percentages.