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Blue Jackets are either good, lucky or doomed

The stats tell three very different stories.

Calgary Flames v Columbus Blue Jackets Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

We’re now through with a third of the 2016-17 NHL season. The Columbus Blue Jackets are still one of the better teams in the league.

This is still confounding. It still makes my brain hurt. The rest of the Metropolitan Division has caught up with them only because every single one of those teams is streaking like Paleolithic fashion is back in style.

But the Blue Jackets are still good. Or are they? Are they just lucky? I didn’t know. I still may not know, but I went into my office and pressed my face against some hockey numbers until osmosis occurred. I have reached a Higher Plane™️ of understanding.

Only, it came to me in three possibilities. Science is imperfect and hockey is dumb.

Possibility #1: The Blue Jackets are actually this good

Columbus Blue Jackets v Colorado Avalanche Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

I guess we’ll start here. I can't believe we’re starting here.

First of all, let’s decide if there’s precedent for an NHL team picking in the top three overall in the draft one year and then becoming one of the top three teams in the NHL the next year.

The answer is not quite. The Quebec Nordiques jumped from second-worst in points in 1991-92 to fourth-best the next season, but that’s as close as any team has gotten.

It’s not like the Blue Jackets are bereft of talent. The talent is just young. It’s possible all of them really are blossoming at the same time. Some of their top scorers have been trending in this direction for a few years now.

Cam Atkinson:

Alex Wennberg:

Pull out any offensive stat by most of Columbus’ top forwards, and this season’s output is just an extension of a longer trend.

Sergei Bobrovsky won the Vezina in a lockout-shortened 2012-13 season where the Blue Jackets didn’t even make the playoffs. Outside of this year, it was Bobrovksy’s best season. But he had no help — Columbus was 28th in power play percentage (14.2 percent) and had an abysmal -153 shot differential.

That’s why Bobrovsky won the Vezina. That the Blue Jackets were even close to the playoffs that year was a miracle concocted by “Bob” himself. Now he has help. He’s not the only good thing going on the team.

Combine all of those factors with a power play efficiency that’s improved steadily (with a dip last season) to its highest point in franchise history ...

... and you get a fully functioning, well-rounded team. Maybe they won’t go away. Maybe this is who they are.

But what if ...

Possibility #2: The Blue Jackets are good, but playing above their heads

Columbus Blue Jackets v Florida Panthers Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

I like this possibility. It’s the best of both worlds: we get to enjoy a good Columbus team and know that we weren’t completely wrong to doubt them. It’s a pundit’s dream!

And it’s actually quite possibly true.

Let’s assume the Jackets’ young forwards are starting to hit their potential. Let’s assume moves to get Seth Jones, Brandon Saad and draft Zach Werenski are turning out to be fruitful. Because they are!

But that leaves the door open to the idea that Columbus isn’t this good. They’re not 100+ points good. Not yet. And one big reason might be Bobvrovsky.

  • They’ve spent very little time trailing (26 teams have played more than Columbus’ 314 minutes without a lead).
  • They don’t ramp up the shots compared to their opponents when trailing: Columbus falls from 7th overall with a 51.7 Shots For % to 19th overall with 52.3% when trailing.
  • By comparison, Carolina has a similar even-strength SF% overall, but they shoot the puck and suppress it like maniacs when they’re trailing (63.2 SF%).

What this tells us is the Blue Jackets are somewhat vulnerable when they don’t have a lead, but their goalie play keeps them afloat (.959 save percentage) long enough to make up for the rare times they do trail. That explains why they have a top-two winning percentage when trailing this season.

So what if Bobrovsky gets hurt? Or, in a more distressing scenario, what if he regresses? Playing with a lead in John Tortorella’s system is ideal; it’s easier to grind away games when you don’t have to chase. But if your goalies regress to the point that you are chasing ... well, Columbus might go from being a great team to a pretty good team putting out more reasonable results.

Oh, and Sam Gagner is 16th in the NHL with 14 goals. His shooting percentage is at 17.4.

Sam Gagner’s career shooting percentages.

See, it’s things like this that make me question this team.

Possibility #3: The Blue Jackets are going to crash and burn spectacularly

Columbus Blue Jackets v Colorado Avalanche Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

In the spirit of transparency, I’ll admit I wrote this section first. I thrive on cynicism. Or, at least, I pretend to. We all have characters to play.

There are some compelling cases against the legitimacy of the Blue Jackets. The first is their strength of schedule, not something you think about with hockey but a factor nonetheless. According to Hockey Reference, the Blue Jackets have played the tenth-easiest schedule in the NHL.

In the spirit of analytics fun, it’s worth figuring out if the Blue Jackets are just lucky. To do that, we look at PDO. Yes, analytics people have come up with a stat to measure luck. I don’t know. I am bad at math and these people are good, so I trust them. I’ll let Fear The Fin explain what it is:

PDO is the sum of a team's 5v5 shooting percentage (the number of goals they score divided by the number of shots on goal they generate) and their 5v5 save percentage (the number of shots their goalies stop divided by the number of shots on goal they allow).

Thanks, pals! Back to me. Point the camera over here. Thank you.

The idea is that there’s a leveling-off point for every team. If you have a high PDO, you’re saving shots and scoring on your shots at a pretty damn high rate. Like shooting percentages in general, a high PDO is rarely sustainable and usually means you’re going to regress to the mean at some point.

In other words: luck doesn’t last.

Sometimes that happens over the course of a season. Sometimes that doesn’t happen until the following season. (See: the Great Leafs Collapse of 2014, a major victory in the ongoing war between advanced stats people and old-school thinkers.)

So if you buy that whole concept, that’s not great news for Columbus.

Sporting Charts

Other stats back up the idea that Columbus is riding some luck right now.

  • They score one goal per every 9.43 shots they take, the second-highest clip in the league. The league average this year is 11.4.
  • Despite that, their shot differential (difference between shots they’ve taken to the shots on goal they give up) is 41. That’s just the 13th-best in the league, as close to the median (the Rangers, at 4) as any team. They out-chance opponents, but not by a lot. They’re just scoring on a whole lot of those chances.

I mentioned above that they’ve played some really good goalies and beaten them eight times. And yet, their save percentage differential (their save percentage vs. their opponent’s) is through the roof!

Look how they’ve strapped this stat onto a rocket and sent it galloping across the desert without a helmet:

More on this: the league average opponent save percentage is .910. Blue Jackets opponents are saving shots at an incredible .894 rate!*

Is it possible the Blue Jackets keep catching really good goalies on terrible off-nights during a season where Bobrovksy is back to Vezina form?

Sure. And if Bobrovksy is the one thing keeping them afloat aside from luck, then when those shooting percentages cool off at the same time he does you’d think the Blue Jackets will, too.

*It’s worth noting that the New York Rangers are actually worse in many of these stats. So just find & replace “Blue Jackets” with “Rangers” in this post and you get two analyses for the price of one. You’re welcome!

Possibility #4: This is all a dream

Maybe we know why it was good. It’s still good. John Tortorella is still driving cross-country from the World Cup of Hockey in Toronto to Ohio. This Blue Jackets season is just a manifestation inside his head, a lovely daydream where everything that could go right in the season ahead does.