Just beyond the midway point of the 2021 season, it's fair to say that the Columbus Blue Jackets are an underachieving team.
And while it's too early to say that a rebuild is on the horizon, it appears that a youth movement is underway. This isn't the first time we've brought up the theme of development, but with so many young players on the roster, it's fair to say it won't be the last, either.
In his last Sunday gathering piece, The Athletic's Aaron Portzline brought up an interesting point that I think underscores the difficulty of assessing young players.
The perception seems to be that Alexandre Texier is off and running on his way to a bright NHL career, while Emil Bemstrom’s future in the world’s best league looks tenuous at best. Texier’s career so far: 11-12-23 in 67 games. Bemstrom’s: 10-12-22 in 70 games.
I've thought about this blurb a lot for the past few days. Why is it that Alexandre Texier is seen as a fixture in the Blue Jackets' lineup, but Bemstrom is perceived as a square peg in a round hole, a player that just can't quite fit in the lineup? (and then when he does, seems to underperform).
Perhaps more than anything, it's the burden of expectations.
When a player scores a lot at a certain level, for example, the expectation is that he will continue to score at the next level. Bemstrom is far from the only promising Blue Jackets prospect who has underdelivered in comparison with his prior scoring habits. Vitaly Abramov, for example, was widely viewed as a high-end prospect who would eventually become a top-six winger at the NHL level based on his junior hockey production. It's not too late for the 22-year old, now in the Ottawa Senators organization, but it's unlikely he fulfills those lofty expectations.
When Bemstrom led the SHL in goals as a teenager, leaning heavily on his blistering snapshot and one-timer (particularly on the power play), the expectation was that he would be able to bring those tools to the NHL. Through 15 games this year, he has zero goals and two assists (0-2-2 somehow looks even worse than it reads).
Turns out, it's difficult to find a spot in an NHL roster for a scoring winger who struggles to score goals. From a deployment standpoint, someone with Bemstrom's assets would benefit immensely from playing with playmaking forwards. But the Blue Jackets don't have many of those on the roster, and the ones who exist are playing with players with better credentials than the 21-year-old.
Put simply, Bemstrom is viewed as a scorer, and when he isn't scoring, he isn't producing value, right?
Not so fast. Per NaturalStatTrick, Bemstrom is putting up solid numbers on an expected and actual basis this season, including a 64.08% expected goals percent vs. 62.50% actual goals percent, 75% high-danger chances for percent, and an incredible (albeit perhaps a bit lucky?) 95.08% on-ice save percentage (all stats 5v5). All this despite not seeing an overly offensive zone-heavy start rate.
Then there's Texier, whose meteoric rise in the organization is the stuff of legend. As a teenager, he dominated the French league, then the top Finnish league, then the AHL (briefly), before being called up to the NHL–all within 12 months. My searing memory of Texier is him being a major contributor in the first-round sweep over the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2019.
Unlike Bemstrom, Texier wasn't typecast as a Scorer (capital S intended). Texier was a twitchy, energetic player who could bring various elements to a lineup. The current Blue Jackets maintain that view, despite posting identical counting stats (4-5-9 in 30 games) as Eric Robinson. Texier is viewed as a center by the organization, and are (correctly) willing to let the 20-year old take his lumps and learn the position by fire.
Unlike Bemstrom, Texier's defensive metrics have been poor. This is more than partially due to Texier playing center (instead of being protected by a center like Boone Jenner, Bemstrom's most recent center), to be sure, but it is interesting that Bemstrom is perceived as a defensive liability when, in fact, Texier's numbers more closely resemble that.
Texier has been given a shot on the team's penalty kill, playing the fifth-most minutes among forwards this season. Bemstrom, on the other hand, hasn't played one second of penalty kill.
The Blue Jackets, and many fans, seem to perceive Texier as a work-in-progress, a player with a high upside who can play center in a middle-six or even top-six capacity. On the other hand, Bemstrom is perceived as a bust, a player with little value that doesn't fit in the lineup. This doesn't exonerate Bemstrom's season or suggest that Texier is overrated. But it is fascinating that two players who have statistically similar offensive counting stats (and vastly different possession metrics) over the course of their young careers are perceived so differently.
If anything, perhaps we have it backward.