At this point, there’s been enough digging into the Columbus Blue Jackets to broadly get an idea of what they’re about, especially relative to the Leafs. This is a matchup where the teams’ strengths will go head to head, and their weaknesses will too. On the face of it, these teams have similar 5v5 results.
The Leafs have a 5v5 GF% and xGF% of 50.2% and 51.9% respectively. For the Jackets, those numbers are 50.7% and 51.7%. The teams have identical PDOs of 0.997 to boot. The way they get to these results is, of course, very different.
Toronto has a strong offense and mediocre defence. Combining it with above average shooting talent, but very poor goaltending, results in the team being less effective 5v5 than their raw shot or expected goals numbers would indicate. Columbus flips the script with an elite defence that props up a poor offense, with essentially average goaltending and shooting (accounting for the quality of their shots). How these interact is going to be the story of the series at 5v5, and you could convincingly argue either team has an advantage in that area. Both teams were injured heavily this season (Columbus moreso), and the Leafs have the caveat of performing more strongly in the Sheldon Keefe era than under Mike Babcock. None of this is news to you, dear reader, because you are intelligent and have read all of Katya’s excellent articles that go into greater detail about exactly this (among other things).
What I want to discuss here is a little different. I want to know what John Tortorella thinks of his team, and how well that matches what I can glean of them from afar. Coaching decisions are a window into the eyes of the person who in theory, should have the best idea about how to run their team. Coaches lie all the time in the media. They tend not to when they choose who to put on the ice. Getting a sense of what Tortorella views his team to be will help us understand the players that the Leafs will likely get a large dose of, and what they do well and poorly. We’ll focus on forwards to start, and talk about defencemen in a separate article.
Lets start with the simplest of coaching levers — ice time.
You can visually see how injured Columbus was this year based on the sheer amount of names that appears on this graphic. Starting at the top, we can see that their seven most played forwards are Nick Foligno, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Gustav Nyquist, Boone Jenner, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Cam Atkinson, and Alexander Wennberg. There’s a significant TOI drop-off after these players (especially as Josh Anderson is currently injured and is unlikely to play a part in the series against the Leafs). If we look at 5v5 only, Nathan Gerbe sneaks in over Wennberg, who plays both special teams, but the other names stay the same.
Those names probably don’t strike crazy amounts of fear into you. It’s not an offensively imposing set of players, even if Atkinson had one of the most anonymous 40-goal seasons ever in 2018/2019. Nonetheless, there are good players there.
One thing worth mentioning off the top is Columbus has a relatively more egalitarian TOI distribution among forwards than the Leafs do. This is to be expected, as the Leafs are a more top-heavy team. But it also means that Columbus has another lever to pull that the Leafs may not... simply increasing the playing time of their best forwards will make them tougher to beat in the playoffs than they were in the regular season. Tortorella has stated in the lead-up to this series that he’s going to lean on the guys he trusts. So lets get to know who those guys are.
Columbus’ Driving Forwards
Bjorkstrand and Foligno are the most played overall and the most played at 5v5. This appears to be a smart decision, because they also get the best on-ice results of any Blue Jackets players. They’ve spent time both together and apart, and get good shot and expected goal results regardless. When we look at the situations in which these two play, it’s clear how much Tortorella values them.
This plot tells us how Tortorella uses his players based on how pivotal the game situation is. Bjorkstrand being in the top right suggests that he is the ‘break glass in case of emergency’ option, both offensively and defensively. Foligno is used to a similar degree in defensively important situations, but not in offensively important ones, where Dubois becomes more prominent.
Nick Foligno - The modern day Jere Lehtinen
Looking at Foligno’s estimated defensive expected goal impacts across his career, you can understand his usage.
This suggests Foligno suppressed opposing offense about 13% better than an average forward this season, which would rank him among the very best defensive players in the league, and coupled with his average offense, makes him a strong play driver. He’s clearly not in a sheltered role either; this isn’t like calling Matt Martin a great shot suppressor.
These are genuinely stunning defensive impacts, and make Foligno a very valuable player. He should have gotten Selke buzz at some point in his career, but alas, he’s a winger, and that’s just not a thing that happens now. While his offense at age 32 has faltered from his prime, his defensive ability will make him an endless frustration for whichever of the Leafs top two lines he spends his time against.
Oliver Bjorstrand - The Secret Star
Bjorkstrand has also rewarded Tortorella’s faith this year with a great season at 5v5. He’s recorded 2.25 points per 60 minutes at 5v5 this season. For context, Mitch Marner recorded 2.17. With a 6% relative expected goal rate, he’s also not an empty calorie scorer. Fancier methods like Isolated Threat or RAPM also love him, and paint him as one of the best play drivers in the league this season. This was his third full season in the NHL (he turned 25 in April), and while he put up similar point rates last year with above average shot rates, the elite play driving is new, and pretty imposing from a Leafs perspective. He’s also one of the few players on the Blue Jackets who has a history of above average shooting. Of course, that can be finicky, but regardless, he’s been the best Blue Jackets forward this season (and their best player overall) and it’s not close.
The turd in the punchbowl of Bjorkstrand’s profile is his power play impact. Columbus’ power play is frankly, assbutt, and seemingly consists of potshots from the circles. That depresses his point totals to the degree that he’s not considered a ‘real star’. But this year, he certainly played like one at 5v5.
Pierre-Luc Dubois - The Sleeper Centre
Dubois is probably the Blue Jackets player with the most hype and name recognition as a possible future star. After being considered a reach when picked third in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, he put up strong rookie and sophomore seasons to shut up the doubters. In these seasons, he flashed above average play driving, both offensively and defensively, a rarity for a young centre. His offense in his age-20 season was also notable, as he recorded 60 points and displayed the finishing talent that you’d like to see out of a high pick.
This season, his numbers took a step back, and it’s hard not to connect that to the departure of Artemi Panarin, who Dubois played with almost exclusively in his first two seasons. Dubois’ shot rate has decreased, and while his relative on-ice stats are superficially strong, models such as Isolated Threat and RAPM paint Dubois as ‘merely’ above average at play driving this season. In particular, it seems like his time with Gustav Nyquist was unsuccessful from a play driving perspective, which is driving these models to view him less positively.
Nonetheless, he’s a talented offensive player who is used as such by Tortorella. Him taking a slight step back from his previous trajectory should not be mistaken for him not being a very good player overall, especially given that his teammate quality was generally not high this season (except for the minutes with Bjorkstrand, in which they were excellent).
Summing up the major forwards
Expect to see a lot of Foligno if the Leafs are losing, a lot of Dubois if the Leafs are winning, and a lot of Bjorkstrand regardless (see the graphic below for evidence of this). For what it’s worth, the most recent reporting I’ve seen suggests that Foligno and Bjorkstrand will be centred by Dubois, in the closest thing Columbus has to a loaded up top line. However, Columbus is not a team that religiously sticks to line pairings the way the Leafs have, even under the mad scientist tinkerings of Keefe. They mix things around, and I’d expect this series to be no different in that regard.
The other top Columbus forwards are worthy of some discussion here, though I (perhaps unfairly) view them as rather interchangeable. Jenner is typically the 2C on this team, more out of default than anything, as the only guy who can challenge him is Wennberg, whose offense has completely dried up in recent years. This is the biggest hole among their forwards, to me. I’m genuinely worried about a forward line of Bjorkstrand, Foligno, and Dubois, and even if they’re not together, those guys are all individually good enough to cause serious problems for the Leafs.
Jenner, to put it frankly, just shouldn’t be a 2C on a team that has serious playoff aspirations. He’s not good enough, and either Matthews or Tavares should absolutely eat his lunch if Columbus does decide to load up their top line. With Jenner, there’s just not a whole lot of anything. Not much of a play driver, not much of a shooter, not much of anything, and it shows up in his numbers.
Jenner is really the only major forward on this team who regularly gets beat. I don’t think he’s a bad player, but he’s being asked to do something he’s not able to. Columbus doesn’t have another set of players after Foligno/Bjorkstrand/Dubois that can go toe to toe with the upper end of other teams’ lineups and genuinely succeed. This is really the matchup where the Leafs have some upside. If Columbus goes with the loaded top line, whoever gets put onto Jenner’s line needs to take advantage of it. Jenner hasn’t really succeeded this year outside of being played with Foligno or Bjorkstrand. Even in some of those Foligno minutes, Columbus loses the shots and goals battle, though they’re typically low event enough to not get crushed.
Nyquist and Atkinson are both good wingers who can play a supporting role in the top-six well, assuming they’re not asked to do too much. Based on this season, asking them to carry Jenner against strong competition without Foligno or Bjorkstrand might be a bridge too far.
To me, this suggests that Foligno should be played with Jenner (or Wennberg, if he ends up being the 2C). If Foligno is good enough defensively to ensure that line doesn’t get killed, Columbus is in pretty good shape. Remember, we’re always talking about probabilities here, and while some of the Blue Jackets lines are less successful than others, they’re all so good defensively that they’re rarely going to get completely blown out in any individual matchup. Keeping it close gives them a chance against a team with a lot more forward talent than they have. Bjorkstrand and Dubois can drive a line offensively, and it’s hard to see where the Leafs would blow this one wide open at 5v5 if that’s the case.
Conversely, it’s hard to see how Columbus does that either (barring a massive goaltending differential between teams). As much as I’ve spoken positively about Foligno, his offense is nothing to write home about. Atkinson and Nyquist are good, not great offensive players. Bjorkstrand and Dubois are the closest thing they have to offensive stars, and they’re good, but they’re not Auston Matthews.
The Bottom Six
So far, I basically haven’t discussed Columbus’ depth players. The reason for that is... well, there’s a lot of them. Due to injuries, they had to cycle through tons of players there, most of whom are nondescript players who are almost nameless and faceless, but adhere to the Blue Jackets’ scheme diligently.
This is where the wave after wave of forechecking comes from. The Leafs third line probably has a talent advantage on whoever their Blue Jackets counterpart is, but I’m not sure it will matter. Essentially all of these lines have strong defensive numbers and are not going to get blown up by depth players. I’m not convinced the Leafs will get much contribution out of the lower part of their lineup as a result. In that xG map above, look at all those players who are clumped right around the Columbus team average. That’s what the depth is doing. Low event, boring hockey that isn’t going to get beat by a lot, and will keep it close enough for it to never be comfortable for Toronto. Riley Nash is probably the most familiar of these names to Leafs fans due to his time on the Bruins, and he largely sums up what they’re about. Almost no scoring talent, but goddammit, they are not going to make it easy on their opponents.
In a sense, this is what you want to do when there’s a talent differential. Keep it tight, don’t get blown out, and you’re only one mistake away from coming out on top. This is Columbus’ ethos as a whole, and it’s personified by the hordes of depth players they have who all execute to about the exact same thing. It takes a game that might be 60/40 on talent and turns it into a 50/50 proposition.
The Blue Jackets are going to be annoying. Tortorella has identified his top forwards and uses them in ways that mostly complement the results they produce. His two favourites are both excellent defensively and if he does lean on them more than he did in the regular season, the Leafs are going to be facing strong defensive forwards a lot of the time.
Columbus’ depth is like a zombie horde. They just keep coming. Shutting down offense to the degree that they do is impressive, and once again, is likely to keep it close. Against a team like Toronto, whose depth has been problematic this season, it’s hard to be incredibly optimistic about those matchups.
The upside for the Leafs is really in those top six matchups. I’ve sung the praises of Foligno and Bjorkstrand here, and they are genuinely good. They will pose problems for Toronto... but at the same time, this is not Bergeron, Marchand, and Pastrnak. These guys are not unbeatable, not even close, and it’s not a situation where the best you can hope for is to go even against them. I expect Bjorkstrand to acquit himself well against whoever he faces, but if you’re Auston Matthews or John Tavares, you’re getting paid eight figures to win matchups against good players, not just bad ones. Matthews and Tavares (under Keefe) have largely done that.
Similarly, Foligno is very good defensively, and I think he’ll slow down whoever he faces, and turn that matchup closer to a coin flip than people expect. But he’s not Mark Stone.
The fact that Columbus is forced to play a guy like Jenner or Wennberg on their second line is a big problem for them. This is not the same team that beat Tampa. If you added Panarin and Duchene to this team, then they’re clear favourites. They don’t have those guys anymore.
Throughout, I’ve described Columbus’ style as one that keeps it low event, and keeps it close. That’s what they need to do against teams with more talent than them. It’s smart, and it works, tilting the odds closer to Columbus’ favour than you’d expect reading the names off the team sheet. It’s a strategy betting on the enormous variance of hockey, and its perfect for teams with worse skater talent. Make not mistake though, they do have worse skater talent.
Next time, we’ll take a look at their defence, and see whose driving the strong shot suppression on this team from the back end.