Bottoms Up is a weekly feature on Backhand Shelf that admits that sometimes the underdog doesn’t win; sometimes they just lose and lose and lose some more. But take heart losers: Switchfoot says that “only the losers win.” So you’ve got that going for you.
The Columbus Blue Jackets have started the 2011-12 season in the worst way possible. They are currently the only team left in the NHL without a win, starting the season 0-6-1. Their longest streak without a win last season was also 7 games, but in that stretch in March they managed to at least pick up 3 points by losing in overtime or the shootout.
Speaking of last season, the Blue Jackets are actually on a much longer winless streak. They finished out the 2010-11 season with an 0-4-2 record in their final 6 games, which stretches their current streak of futility to 13 games without a win.
While the general rule of thumb is to wait until 10 games to start making judgements and pronouncements, the Blue Jackets could win their next three games and still be three games below .500. The thing is, this team can’t possibly be as terrible as their record would indicate, right? Will the Blue Jackets go 82 games without a win? Are they bad beyond all infinite dimensions of possible badness?
Of course not. They couldn’t possibly be. That doesn’t mean they’re good; they’re just not this bad.
The Blue Jackets have been outscored 25 to 14 to start the year, but have actually outshot their opponents.* A few bounces going their way and their four games that they lost by one goal could have had a different result. Their powerplay was 0-for-20 through their first 4 games, but have scored powerplay goals in three straight. With James Wisniewski returning in 2 games from his preseason suspension, their powerplay should turn around.
But the main two points of concern have to be the penalty kill and the play of Steve Mason. The Blue Jackets currently boast the second-worst penalty kill in the league, just barely better than that of the Senators. One of the reasons for their shorthanded struggles is Mason’s terrible .795 shorthanded save percentage, a number that is unlikely to remain that low. Until the penalty kill gets sorted out, however, they’ll need to stay out of the box. In their latest game against the Red Wings, the Blue Jackets gave up 3 powerplay goals in a game they lost by 3 goals.
As for Steve Mason, it’s been made eminently clear that he is extremely unlikely to repeat his numbers from his Calder Trophy-winning rookie season. After putting up a .916 save percentage in 2008-09, he recorded two straight seasons with a .901 save percentage: unsurprisingly, the Blue Jackets missed the playoffs both those years. So it’s not too surprising to see him struggling, but his save percentage is currently sitting at .881. It’s not just that his statistics have to improve or he’ll lose his job; his statistics will improve once we have a large enough sample size to draw from.
It might help build up Mason’s confidence if the team in front of him could score a few more goals. It’s one thing to be consistent offensively; it’s quite another to score exactly 2 goals every game. When your goaltender has to let in one goal or less for your team to get a win, you’ve got a problem.
A goal from RJ Umberger or Antoine Vermette would be nice and it would help if their prized off-season acquisition Jeff Carter recovered quickly from his fractured foot. Meanwhile, 2010 first round draft pick Ryan Johansen has no points in limited ice time in 4 games and has been a healthy scratch. The Blue Jackets need to decide whether to keep the talented 19-year-old in Columbus or send him back to Junior: if this season continues to slide out of control, it simply isn’t worth burning a year on his contract.
If Mason defies the probabilities and truly crashes and burns, the Blue Jackets will be looking to another off-season acquisition to right the sinking ship: former Nashville Predators prospect Mark Dekanich, who has spent the last three seasons putting up fantastic numbers in the AHL. The NHL-ready netminder is currently recovering from a high ankle sprain, but will push Mason for playing time once he returns.
The Winnipeg Jets have been joined by an unlikely companion in the Eastern Conference cellar: the Montreal Canadiens currently have a matching 1-4-1 record with the Jets and have been outscored 19-13. The main reason for their struggles is their awful powerplay, currently converting at an 8% clip.
It also doesn’t help that the player leading the Canadiens in ice time, PK Subban, also has the team’s second-worst PDO. Subban currently has just one assist and is minus-6, but his awful PDO is making him look a lot worse than he actually is.
Here’s the issue: the Canadiens have enough offensive depth to make up, defensive acumen, and solid goaltending to recover from this foray into the basement and be a playoff team. The Jets don’t.
On the plus side for the Jets, Alexander Burmistrov is awesome. The 20-year-old has 5 points in 6 games and has a plus-3 rating. He carries the puck with a metric tonne of confidence and is developing some chemistry with Nik Antropov. If the Jets’ first line could get things together, they might be able to ice two reasonable scoring lines. Key word: “might.”
Meanwhile, the Senators are heading down the stairs to the basement looking to set up a cot and stay for a while. They’ve given up a league-worst 31 goals and look to be as bad as advertised
While the Blue Jackets are in sole possession of the Western Conference basement and are currently outfitting it with a dartboard and a mini-fridge, two perennial playoff teams are currently picking up pizzas and beer and looking to join them. The San Jose Sharks have a 2-3-0 record but there are plenty of indications that they’re on the right track. The team I’m concerned about is the Nashville Predators.
The Predators have long been known as a hard-working, blue-collar, lunch-bucket kind of team, built on solid goaltending, great defence, and finely-tuned systems. So far this season, things have gone wonky. The Predators have been outscored 20 to 13 to start the season and have not looked like the confident team that consistently shut down their opposition all last season.
The Predators’ special teams haven’t been the issue; instead, it’s their play at even-strength. This is extremely unusual for the Predators, who pride themselves on their play at 5-on-5. Shea Weber attributes their struggles to a lack of effort and work ethic. With Barry Trotz at the helm, however, this should just be a momentary dip for the Predators, who will look to get at least one win on their road trip today against the Flames.
* Of course, another reason bad teams outshoot their opponents is because teams attempting to come back from a deficit tend to push harder and throw more shots on net. But probability would still suggest that some of those shots might go in once in a while.