The Columbus Blue Jackets are 9-1-1 in their past 11 games and 19-3-5 in their past 28. They're exceeding expectations in virtually every discernible metric, and are, as far as I'm concerned, playing with house money.
But still, it's fair to say this team has holes, as virtually any salary cap-era team does. Heading into the season, John Tortorella preached a scoring by committee approach, and it's safe to say the results have been underwhelming. While the Blue Jackets sit squarely in the playoff race, their lack of high-end forwards, and particularly, lack of a high-end goal-scorer, could be problematic down the stretch, where teams are notoriously stingier.
Again, this isn't really an indictment of management/coaching/players. We knew coming into the season that Pierre-Luc Dubois would need to take a step forward. He has. The same can be said for someone like Oliver Bjorkstrand, who, until recently, was scoring at a torrid pace.
But not everyone has taken that step forward. Cam Atkinson, while much better in recent weeks, hasn't had the offensive season he's accustomed to (reminder: he had 35 goals the year before Artemi Panarin came to Columbus). Josh Anderson has a season from hell, both in terms of production and health. Young players like Emil Bemstrom and Alexandre Texier have taken positive steps, but perhaps less than hoped. Nick Foligno has six goals, Riley Nash four, Alexander Wennberg five, the list goes on, but the long and short of it is that Dubois co-leads the team in goals with 17 with a defenseman (Zach Werenski).
The club is receiving incredible contributions from its defensive structure, allowing the second-best goals-against/60 (5v5) rate in the NHL, and from its goaltenders, who have all exceeded expectations in a fairly obvious manner.
But it is safe to say that the team, despite its successes, is being held back by its lack of scoring power. The last non-empty net 5v5 goal scored by a Blue Jackets' forward was when Dubois beat Carey Price to the post at 17:52 of the second period of the game against the Montreal Canadiens game. Since then, they've played three games (one of which went to OT), scoring a combined four goals in three games. The goals in those three games: Werenski's OT winner against the Panthers, Werenski's delayed-penalty 6-on-5 goal against the Red Wings, Boone Jenner's empty-net goal against the Red Wings, and Seth Jones' power-play goal in the team's 2-1 loss against Colorado.
The below graphic, courtesy of HockeyViz, helps visualize the club's offensive struggles. And while I'll note that this visualization does not split out forwards and defense, we're confident in saying that NHL defensemen aren't consistently and independently driving shooting volume in the lower slot area. Therefore, the big blue lake™ in front of the opposition's goal is largely a commentary on the club's forwards.
We know that shooting percentages increase dramatically related to proximity from the goal, with shots from the inner-slot (directly in front of the goal) being the most dangerous. As evidenced below, the Blue Jackets generate, at least compared to the rest of the NHL, lower volume in the highest-danger scoring areas. This makes intuitive sense. Opposition's will prioritize protecting the 'house', and will, therefore, concede less dangerous shot attempts. The Blue Jackets, lacking game-breaking forwards, struggle to get to these spots with consistency.
There's hope, yet. For starters, the team is performing quite well despite the lack of offensive production. The impending return of several players to the lineup - most notably Anderson - could/should help alleviate some of these pressures (if he can find his form from prior seasons). And the team has players who can score at a high-clip, like Bjorkstrand, Atkinson, and Dubois. A player like Sonny Milano, while flawed elsewhere, does possess the skill and creativity to get to these spots (or find a teammate), and Tortorella has alluded to the skillset he provides in recent games.
The margins for winning and losing in the NHL are razor-thin, and with playoff races materializing, every point is crucial. For the Blue Jackets to continue to stay in the thick of the playoff race, they'll need to find a way to generate more pronounced and consistent offensive output from their forwards.