Good signs, bad signs — the Jackets have had their share
Last season, with three games to play before the short Christmas break, the Jackets had earned 44 points, placing them third in the rugged Metropolitan Division. This season, at the same juncture, the team has 41 points, good for third place in the again-difficult Metro.
But what a difference a year and altered expectations can make. This just doesn't feel like the same team that, one year ago, was about halfway through a 16-game winning streak, one shy of the all-time NHL record. Some season-long issues have come home to roost, it would seem, in the last 10 days, during which time the Jackets have dropped two 7-2 contests (to Edmonton and Boston).
Despite some struggles at the end of last season and a disappointing first-round playoff exit, there was a reasonable belief that the Jackets were establishing themselves as an upper-echelon NHL club. An offseason in which Artemi Panarin was added to an already youthful and skilled forward corps and recent top draft picks Pierre-Luc Dubois and Sonny Milano were earning their way onto the roster, along with a young-but-exceptional top defense pair in Seth Jones and Zach Werenski and, of course, Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, had fans entering the season with (tempered) high hopes.
While the standings might appear to tell a similar story, anyone who's been paying attention knows there's something not quite right with the 2017-18 version of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The obvious place to start is the team's meager power play, which is threatening the kind of NHL record you don't want your team associated with – the PP percentage of 10.2 (at press time) is about half the league average, and closer to the all-time record for futility, the 9.35 percentage of the 97-98 Tampa Bay Lightning. On Nov. 28, following a 3-1 loss to Montreal in which the Jackets went 0-for-5 with a man advantage, Head Coach John Tortorella had nothing to add on the subject, saying, “This is my last night that I'm speaking on the power play, OK, for all of you, because I'm tired of talking about it.”
Individual players are struggling, too. Panarin leads the team in points, but there have been times he has struggled to mesh with his new teammates. After scoring 35 goals last year and getting a new contract, Cam Atkinson has often been invisible. Alexander Wennberg has also not taken a hoped-for step, instead showing signs of regression. Veterans Brandon Dubinsky (now injured) and Captain Nick Foligno have been too-often ineffective, and last year's dynamite second D pair of David Savard and Jack Johnson has struggled.
There are some good signs. The team's 5-on-5 play has been strong, and the advanced statistics (look up indicators such as Corsi and Fenwick) bear out that the Jackets are a “good” team. Josh Anderson, after a camp holdout, leads the team in goals and has meshed with Dubois. And save for some recent clunkers, Goalie Bob and backup Joonas Korpisalo have been solid.
So which trends will define the rest of the season? There is a school of thought that the recent struggles are indicative of what the team really is, and if you take 2017 as a whole (last season post-winning streak and the first part of this season) there is some merit to that. But it's also defensible that the team's power play can't continue to be this bad, and that the team, the NHL's youngest by average age again this season, is still finding itself.