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.
It’s November 19th, the Columbus Bluejackets are 3-13-2, and head coach Scott Arniel has not been fired. It has already been two weeks since Davis Payne was fired as the coach of the St. Louis Blues and people were shocked then that Arniel had not yet been fired. In those two weeks, the Blue Jackets have gone 1-2-1 and been outscored 12-8 in those 4 games. I’m mercifully not including the game just before Payne got fired, a 9-2 thrashing at the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers.
Blue Jackets’ fans are certainly wondering why a change hasn’t been made. Over at The Cannon, the Blue Jackets blog on SB Nation, there are a couple posts decrying Arniel’s system, that seems to be designed around shot volume rather than shot quality. From Blue Jackets blogger Dan P:
Shots are an interesting measure, but scoring chances are also a big measure of how successful the offense is…the Jackets’ top gunners are routinely coming in with minuses in the scoring chance category. What this tells me is that, while they are generating a ton of shots, they generally aren’t highest-quality shots.
This is where the pure conjecture comes into play…I generally believe that part of it is systemic; the Jackets’ system seems to be predicated on throwing as many shots on goal as possible, regardless of quality. The feeling seems to be that, sure they get lots of shots, but teams have figured out their tendencies and simply force most of those shots to come from the outside with no chance for a rebound/putback. They’re getting a lot of low-percentage shots on one-and-done trips.
On the other hand, Corey Pronman of Hockey Prospectus suggests that Arniel and the system are not to blame:
The biggest indicator of future success for NHL teams, being shot differential specifically at even-strength show that Columbus so far has performed from the crease outwards as an average team but have been suspect to bad luck in terms of power play shooting and horrible goaltending at even-strength and killing penalties.
The Blue Jackets have stunk, but most of that is due to random chance as opposed to them being the worst club in the NHL…the short-term results this season are not to be blamed on the shoulders of the current coaching or management staff and there are certainly signs of better days to come and they could very well be this season.
I’m not entirely sure that either of these explanations are accurate. This much is true: the Blue Jackets are outshooting their opposition. Columbus has out-shot their opponents 565 to 514. They’re 10th in the league in shots per game. They also have a brutally low shooting percentage of 6.9%. The issue with these numbers is that they’re skewed.
The first issue is that these shots include time on the powerplay. One area where the Blue Jackets have been successful is in drawing penalties. They are currently 5th in the NHL with 80 powerplay opportunities, and this would presumably skew the shot totals upwards in favour of the Blue Jackets. The second issue also involves time with the man-advantage: empty-net situations. Because the Blue Jackets have frequently trailed at the end of the games, they have likely pulled their goaltender pretty frequently, leading to 6-on-5 situations and likely more shots.
So if we remove those variables, the Blue Jackets are still out-shooting their opponents 414 to 402. But there’s still one final issue: because the Blue Jackets have frequently trailed in hockey games, their opponents go into a more defensive posture while the Blue Jackets will be more aggressive while trying to come back. That a team down by a goal or two will be more aggressive and take more shots is basic common sense, but it has also been tracked statistically. The impact that the score of a hockey game has on shot totals and other statistics has been dubbed “score effects.”
Because the Blue Jackets are constantly battling from behind, their shot totals are inflated. If we just look at their shots at even-strength while the score is tied, we see that they have been out-shot 147 to 143. They haven’t been out-shot by a significant amount while the score is tied, but it is also no indication that the Blue Jackets are not working to create good scoring chances.
What appears to be happening is that the Blue Jackets are going down by a goal or more early (they have trailed after the first period in 8 of their 18 games) and spend the rest of the game attempting to score on teams that are protecting their lead. In such situations it’s difficult to create odd-man rushes or quality scoring chances, as the defence plays it safe rather than pinching offensively. Shots tend to be forced from the outside while the defence collapses back to the net to clear rebounds.
Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as saying that Arniel’s system encourages shot quantity rather than shot quality, because the Blue Jackets’ style of play has frequently been determined by their situation: when you’re down a goal, you throw more pucks on net. And it’s not as simple as saying that the Blue Jackets are suffering from bad luck and just not getting the bounces: they’re only out-shooting their opponents because they are so frequently down a goal or more. If any Blue Jackets fans are expecting the Blue Jackets to dramatically turn their season around because of their shot differential, they’re putting their hope in a mirage.
Honestly, if the Blue Jackets were getting league-average goaltending, they likely wouldn’t be in this mess. If they spent less time trying to battle back from a deficit, they’d likely be able to spend more time creating better scoring chances. Unfortunately, the Blue Jackets don’t have a league-average goaltender right now. They have Steve Mason and Curtis Sanford. Talented rookie Mark Dekanich is injured (again) and prominent free agent Marty Turco isn’t a league-average goaltender either. Then again, chalking the Blue Jackets’ struggles up to just goaltending is just as simplistic as saying it’s bad luck or a bad system.
I feel supremely wishy-washy in saying this, but it doesn’t appear that Arniel’s system is entirely to blame for the Blue Jackets’ offensive struggles, but he’s not entirely off the hook either. I’m somewhere in the middle. Scott Arniel is still likely to get fired at some point this season, but whoever inherits his position will face the same issues he did and will likely struggle to find long-term success. It’s an ugly situation that can’t be written off with a simple explanation.