Star Search: The Status of the Columbus Blue Jackets' Quest for Elite Talent to Become a Legitimate Stanley Cup Contender

By Jeff Svoboda on July 19, 2017 at 7:32 am
Zach Werenski and Seth Jones are stars
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

I’m not a guy who is great at using advanced stats. Yet.

That’s not to say I don’t love them. I do. Better numbers make us all better students of the game, especially in a sport like hockey where tracking six players per side and a small rubber disc that can move at 100 mph does not make for the easiest evaluation setting. Especially if you’re having a local craft beer from Arch City Ales or two. 

I’ve watched over the years as, first in baseball but then in all sports, more and more numbers have entered the discussion. This has often been derided, but for those of us who want to know more about the game, the more perspective you can have, the better, as long as you know how to use the numbers.

And with hockey analytics having really exploded onto the scene over the past few years, there are now bunches of ways to measure how your favorite team and favorite players are actually doing on the ice.

That’s also why I say I’m not a huge advanced stats guy yet. I thoroughly enjoy them, but I’m still processing the best ways and in particular my favorite ways to cut through the noise into the numbers that really matter in each situation.

So I let a lot of other, smarter people do the heavy lifting on these things and then go “Hmmm…” afterward. I think it’s working for me so far.

One of those other, smarter people is Dom Luszczyszyn, whose last name puts mine to shame when it comes to the consecutive consonants threshold. The data whiz for The Athletic and The Hockey News is one of the best at not just working through the data but then asking entertaining questions to give you a new perspective on the game.

So I read with great interest his piece late last week on star power in the NHL. If you’ve been paying attention, those who run the Columbus Blue Jackets have made it very clear they’re looking for "stars"; those players who can add a more game-breaking element to a team that scored as much through consistent waves of pressure as individual brilliance last year. This seems in part to be a decision born from a 4-1 first-round loss to Pittsburgh, who Columbus out-possessed in general but who owned the kinds of players who could create and then finish their chances.

One of those stars has already been acquired in Artemi Panarin, the sharp-shooting Chicago winger who has topped 30 goals and 70 points in each of his previous two NHL seasons. There have been plenty of rumors surrounding Columbus looking for more offensive firepower, perhaps in the form of Colorado’s Matt Duchene or in another name that just hasn’t surfaced yet.

But my original question here in the headline is a simple one: Do the Blue Jackets need to add that star? That’s where Luszczyszyn’s piece comes in, breaking down how the last 10 Stanley Cup winners fared in the “star” department and then using that as a baseline to establish which teams have enough great players to be true contenders going forward.

Luszczyszyn used Game Score, a fun and easily understandable metric that tends to favor offensive contributions, to determine which players qualify as stars. There’s some good metrics out there, but Game Score is an intuitive and simple one, assigning a value to some pretty important stats to rate how a player did in a given game then compiling that throughout the season.

You could argue some of the decisions he made both in establishing the definitions of the star levels and in using projected Game Score for 2017-18 instead of actual previous performance data, but again, nothing like this will ever be perfect. But it can be useful.

The numbers showed the Jackets are on the right side of the demarcation line when it comes to star power, but it’s darn sure close. Eleven teams were on the good side of the “championship cutoff,” with Columbus placing 11th behind Nashville, Winnipeg (interesting), Pittsburgh, Washington, Calgary, Boston, Chicago, Tampa Bay, Ottawa and St. Louis.

Hey, you’d rather be on the right side of the line than the wrong side, so that’s a plus. It also means the Jackets lag a bit behind some elite teams (and again, Winnipeg, who *can* score but hasn't been able to defend very well for a while) in breadth and depth of stars.

The Jackets are listed as having three “Tier 2” stars (I could explain the tiers, but really, just click on the piece; it makes sense) in new acquisition Artemi Panarin, wunderkind youngster Zach Werenski, and stalwart goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. For those wondering, Panarin checks in higher than his trade partner Brandon Saad, who is listed as a Tier 3 star.

The Jackets also have a fourth star in Tier 4 player Seth Jones, leaving some notable names missing. The most obvious might be Cam Atkinson, who scored 35 goals last year. Luszczyszyn addressed that on Twitter, noting that the projection part of the metric hurt Atkinson because his stats the previous seasons hadn’t been as consistent. It’s worth arguing that Atkinson should be higher, but again, no metric is perfect.

There are some other Jackets who aren’t far off. Nick Foligno and Alexander Wennberg likely just missed the cutoff, and Wennberg at just 22 could be a legitimate star soon coming off a 59-point season. Some Jackets fans could say, “Where are David Savard and Jack Johnson?” but again Game Score really rewards goals and points, which you don’t see as much from that steady duo.

You can see how the team could add some more star depth as well. Maybe sniper-in-the-making Oliver Bjorkstrand or No. 3 overall pick Pierre-Luc Dubois will become stars in short order and really give the Jackets a young core to terrify opponents. A trade for Duchene would bring in a projected Tier 5 star, but one who has the skill to move even further up the chain in the right spot.

But as I always say, there are no guarantees in sports, either. Maybe Bob gets hurt again. Maybe Werenski and Jones don’t quite develop into that Tier 1 range. Maybe Panarin misses Chicago and isn’t quite as productive.

Right now, though, the Jackets are in the mix. After a decade and a half of struggles, that’s all you can really ask. 


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