Coming off a 6-0 drubbing at the hands of the Calgary Flames Wednesday night, the Columbus Blue Jackets continued their slow descent into the Eastern Conference basement. At 20-22-1, the Jackets have fallen a long way from the 12-6-0 start to the season. The hot start gave Jackets fans hope that this rebuild was going to be much faster than anticipated. That notion has since passed. The question remains, what has happened in the past two months to cause such a sharp decline?
Since that quick start to the season, Columbus has gone 8-16-1. A closer look at the numbers shows that the Blue Jackets gave up an average of 2.94 goals per game during their hot start. Since then the Jackets are surrendering a paltry 4.24 goals per game. What has caused the CBJ to give up more than one additional goal per game than they did the first month of the season?
It will take a little more digging to get to the bottom of that question, but let’s start with the most important position on the ice: goaltending. Elvis Merzlikins had a fantastic start to the season, posting a goals against average of just 2.17 during the first six weeks. Since that time though, that number has ballooned to 3.47. That is 1.3 more goals per game than he was giving up in the beginning of the season. Is the conclusion, then, that Columbus’ skid falls entirely on Merzlikins?
Not so much. If you take the first three and a half weeks of January for example, Merzlikins has a .911 save percentage and 2.83 GAA while going 2-4-0. While those aren’t the numbers of a Vezina winner, they deserve more than a .333 win percentage.
That high of a save percentage combined with a mediocre goals against average is an indicator that most of the troubles are on the defensive side of the puck. Last week, our own Ed Francis took a deep dive into the stats and showed that Elvis Merzlikins wasn’t doing as badly as a surface look at the numbers would indicate. Ed highlighted the fact that the Jackets defense is still very young and slowly developing. He also looked at factors such as shots allowed per 60 minutes, high danger unblocked shot attempts, etc. Looking deeper into the defensive numbers starts to paint a pretty brutal picture. As Ed stated, this defense is extremely young, and the growing pains have been and are going to continue to be very evident. Monday's 8-4 loss to the Florida Panthers was a prime example of this.
Even if the defense were to come alive, there’s another piece to the equation: scoring goals. The Columbus offense has been declining since the end of November when they started cooling off. In their 12-6-0 start, they were scoring 3.56 goals per game. Since then, they have been scoring 2.88 goals per game. As the year has gone on, the offense has increasingly struggled to find the net.
Also, do not forget that the Blue Jackets had a couple weeks off in December as a result of issues with COVID-19. The rust from this unexpected pause could help explain some of their problems during January. The Jackets weren’t the only team that had to sit, but with them being the youngest team in the league, it may have affected this very inexperienced team even more negatively than some of the more veteran squads out there.
All in all, it’s not that the ship is sinking, but rather expectations that were skewed in the beginning of the year. The last couple months have served as a reminder that the Blue Jackets are indeed going through a rebuild, and rebuilds take time. From all indications, the present might be bleak, but the future has the potential to be very bright.