The Columbus Blue Jackets are a strange team. They play a system created by a smart coach that makes the most out of what they have and tries to mitigate their weaknesses to create a low-event team that can still win games. Buffalo tried this and failed this season, while the Islanders have been hovering around mediocre using this technique since they hired Barry Trotz. Columbus, however, played just well enough to make the qualifying round. If the season had carried on, they would have fought hard for a wild card spot, and could have made it.
Last time we learned that the Blue Jackets are bad at Corsi, good at Expected Goals Against, and make their offence worse than even its low volume leads you to expect by just shooting so badly.
This is their basic offence:
They just don’t shoot from that net front area at all. And this is the killer, their terrible power play:
Only the Dallas Stars, the Los Angeles Kings and the Detroit Red Wings scored as few or fewer goals than the Blue Jackets this year. Ottawa outscored them by 11. But only Dallas and Boston allowed fewer goals against. However, Columbus finished the season at -7, which can get you in the playoffs sometimes, but the chances you’re anything but barely capable with a negative goal differential is small. The Leafs were at +11, which is much lower than we’d expect from them.
The Leafs had some injuries, but so did Columbus, and both teams are mostly healthy now with Andreas Johnsson and Josh Anderson remaining question marks. Columbus has added Anderson to their roster and the Leafs are holding the door ajar for Johnsson if they get to later rounds.
To look at individual contributions, most people want to look at points, and that’s fair, let’s learn the top 10 goal scorers on the Blue Jackets:
- Oliver Bjorkstrand - 21
- Zach Werenski - 20
- Pierre-Luc Dubois - 18
- Gustav Nyquist - 15
- Cam Atkinson - 12
- Boone Jenner - 11
- Nick Foligno - 10
- Emil Bemstrom - 10
- Eric Robinson - 7
- Seth Jones - 6
Alexander Wennberg also makes the top 10 in points with 7 goals and 17 assists for 22.
Now do you see what dismal offence looks like? But what we really want to do is figure out who is producing that defence, and defence is a team sport just like offence. So to do that, I want to look at an individual contribution metric that’s been adjusted for teammates and competition etc. You could use either of the Evolving Hockey’s RAPM tables or the GAR model and get similar sorts of answers to who had what effect on the ice. I want the breakdowns that GAR provides, so I’m going to use that.
GAR is a model that looks at several areas of on-ice impact — offence, defence, special teams, penalty differential — and adjusts it for teammates, competition, and usage. The result is how many goals (for and against) that individual player was responsible for over what a replacement-level player would produce. Replacement level just means the lowest acceptable tier of NHL production. For the Leafs, their replacement-level players this season were Nic Petan and Kyle Clifford.
GAR is influenced by who actually scored, so it includes some of the shooting talent in it that something like Expected Goals doesn’t — both for and against. So if you look at the top 10 in Columbus by the Even-Strength Offensive component of GAR (not rated for time on ice, so overall impact is all that’s considered here), you get a very similar list:
- Vladislav Gavrikov
- Stefan Matteau (in only 9 games, and no greater indictment of the rest of them exists beyond that)
Gavrikov is a defender, and it’s fairly common for defenders who don’t score to float up on a GAR list of offensive value if they provide valuable support to their forwards. Jake Muzzin has the highest Even-Strength Offensive GAR rating on the Leafs and is second only to Auston Matthews.
Now for the Even-Strength Defending component:
- David Savard - 5.9 (he’s 10th best in the NHL)
- Riley Nash - 5.4
- Bjorkstrand - 4.9
- Gavrikov - 4.4
- Foligno - 3.5
- Robinson - 2.9
- Ryan Murray - 2.8
- Dean Kukan - 2.5
- Alex Texier - 1.7
- Andrew Peeke - 1.4
By now, we have enough information to realize that Oliver Bjorkstrand was the best player on this team this season, and it’s not close. Now, when I tell you he only played 49 games, you will understand how pivotal he will be to the Blue Jackets’ success at their strongest event and their weakest in the playoffs. His biggest flaw is that he might have had the worst season of power play minutes for any good forward in the NHL.
Some of the players showing up in the defensive GAR list are depth defenders, and this is where we need to understand that a depth defender has an easier job defending, but the goal he seemingly prevented counts the same as one saved by the top man on Sidney Crosby. We’re not here to value the players, we’re here to measure their impact, and in the system the Blue Jackets play, their depth defenders do very well. Cheap goals from the Maple Leafs third line might be hard to find in this series.
The Core of the Roster
Now it’s time to leave the overall impact behind us and start looking at the players who play the most minutes per game. Arguing about fourth liners is for your own team, not the competition. So leaving them and the depth defenders aside and looking at the top 14 forwards and 5 defenders by TOI per game played, we get the core of the roster. It has so many forwards because injuries meant several players moved up into bigger roles for parts of the season.
If you want to look at the full table of GAR data for these players, you can find that on Evolving Hockey, or use this version on the web with the TOI/GP calculated.
Columbus has a relatively straightforward set of defenders with five that got 19 to 25 minutes per game.
Seth Jones and Zach Werenski
Jones is famous and shoots right, so he’s 10 times more well known in Toronto than he should be. He had an okay year for the Blue Jackets with all-around success of a modest sort. He plays the most minutes, and is likely not the most important person for the Leafs to be concerned with. He’s better offensively than defensively, which isn’t exactly uncommon for top pairing defenders in today’s NHL.
Werenski went on a personal shooting tear that made him second on the team in goals-scored and first in the NHL for defenders. He does not have the highest Shooting % in the NHL, merely the fourth highest for regular roster defenders. He also shoots a lot — nearly Tyson Barrie level. His offensive GAR has him in the class with Bjorkstrand, but like Jones, he’s only okay defensively.
David Savard, Ryan Murray and Vladislav Gavrikov
The three second pairing defenders (Murray only played 27 games with back spasms) are where the defence lives. All three are good at even-strength and shorthanded defending, and Gavrikov is not an offensive black hole, although the other two are. Markus Nutivaara is almost in this group by ice time when healthy, but he had very little positive impact this year.
The forwards are where you expect to see some glass cannons and only a few decent defensive impacts. Of all the things any current public hockey models measure, forward impact on defence is what I take the least seriously.
Oliver Bjorkstrand and Alex Texier
That said, I don’t think you can get numbers as magnificent as Bjorkstrand’s without at least having some meaningful skill at playing without the puck, defending and transitioning to offence. After him, the only serious candidate as a good all-around player is the very young Alex Texier. He only played 36 games and just barely made my minutes per game played cut with not quite 13, but he’s a sleeper in the depth ranks of the Blue Jackets.
Foligno is the axel on which the Blue Jackets spin. Yes, it’s better if your most meaningful forward can score a goal once in a while, but Foligno is the Blue Jackets’ style in human form.
He is legitimately great at defensive impact. He is going to be the guy that will harry the Leafs top lines when they’re on the ice, make their zone entries extremely difficult and play the kind of tough, physical hockey that shows up in big, bold purple bars on an RAPM chart:
If you — brace yourselves first — think back to David Krejci doing evil things to the Leafs, that’s the role Foligno is going to take. Whichever of Matthews of Tavares he gets matched to will have a very bad day, so the onus is going to be, once again, just like every year against Boston, on the line not matched hard.
One caveat on that is that Sheldon Keefe has last change for the first two games, and he hasn’t shown a lot of signs of being into line matching. John Tortorella has publicly said he’s totally opposed to it, has coached some years genuinely just rolling lines, and is largely doing that this season. He keeps his depth away from anyone good, but Zach Hyman plays a lot more against only top lines than Foligno does.
Riley Nash is an aging, less able Foligno, and he just missed my minutes cutoff. He’s overqualified as a depth forward even now he’s over 30, and if he’s healthy, he will make life difficult for the leafs no matter who is on the third line.
The Glass Cannons
Someone calculated that the Blue Jackets have the youngest team going into the Qualifying Round, and when you’re hip deep in dumb kids, you get guys who are only good at one thing.
There’s a good reason Tortorella is using Pierre-Luc Dubois in the offensive zone most of the time, as he’s the best offensive forward on the team who is also really bad at defence. Okay, Stefan Matteau is worse, but he barely played, so I’m willing to call his numbers too noisy to listen to.
Next most likely to shatter with the ring of cut crystal is Gustav Nyquist (Yes he is a Blue Jacket, I know, right? I forgot too.)
Sonny Milano falls in this category too.
Bad at Everything
Boone Jenner, who plays 18 minutes a night, has no positive impacts anywhere but special teams. So he’s not quite bad at everything, but if you get him on the ice for the regular game play, he’s not really adding anything.
Emil Bemstrom is another very young player who isn’t playing much, and has an offensive impact as bad as Jenner’s. He matters to the future of the Blue Jackets, not the present.
Alex Wennberg plays some minutes to make his contract ($4.9 million for three more years) seem less painfully bad, but you could replace him with someone like Bemstrom at even-strength and not notice the difference. He, like Jenner, has some power play positivity.
Cam Atkinson had a very down year, and he’s more mediocre than bad at everything except the PK, where he is an irritant the size of Mitch Marner. No wait, not the size of Mitch Marner, but the size of Marner’s irritation ability. You know what I mean.
Liam Foudy is playing the Nick Robertson role at Blue Jackets camp. He brings the same sort of mysterious speed and junior-grade scoring mixture that is impossible to predict.
Josh Anderson was hurt so much, it hardly seems to matter what he did in 26 games (nothing good), and he’s coming off shoulder surgery, so is a total unknown.
It’s really hard to look at all of that and not see the Leafs as dramatically better at even strength and the power play. The issue comes down to the strength of the Blue Jacket’s defending, and the way they defend vs the Leafs long-cycle possession-first offence.
One thing to keep in mind is that the Leafs are much, much less dependant on direct net-front shooting and tip-ins than they were. That seemed to dilute their offence on average this season, but it will help them against Columbus.
Columbus is reported to be excellent at breaking up offensive cycles, and yet if they are, it’s not showing up very well in the global data. They are a less than 50% Corsi team who allow as many shots against as the Leafs do, they just defend really well. If they really do break up cycles and transition, it doesn’t bring them any joy.
I said before this that I thought the weakness matchup goes to the Leafs: Andersen plus the Leafs D vs the Columbus offence. I think that even more now. The strength matchup: Merzlikins and the Columbus D vs the Leafs offence is looking less and less like the draw we’ve been led to expect.
If Tortorella does choose the experience of Joonas Korpisalo over Elvis Merzlikins, then the Columbus strength diminishes instantly.
The smartest thing said about Columbus vs Tampa last year in the playoffs was Raw Charge’s loserpoints saying he kept waiting for the skill gap to show itself on the ice, and it never happened. But, that was then.
This Leafs team, not one substantially different, but this one, took Boston to seven bitter games last year. And Boston is a hell of a lot better than the Blue Jackets. The Blue Jackets, not this Blue Jackets, but a team with some elite goal scorers, took out Tampa like a tornado through a corn field last year. And they will batter the Leafs. But I still see Toronto as better. They’d better be, because Columbus is not a good team, and losing to them would be a worse indictment by far than losing to Boston the year they almost went all the way.
A slightly deeper look at the Columbus power play (it’s like staring into the abyss) and their nasty PK system that seems awfully familiar will come along soon. Tomorrow Arvind is going to dig into the forwards in more detail, and cover how they’re used in a more meaningful way.