It was an offseason of change in Columbus, with that change aimed at landing a playoff spot.
With a myriad of holesthe Blue Jackets, after all, finished 13th in the Western Conference and allowed 43 more goals than they scoredgeneral manager Scott Howson opted to make major additions both up front and on the blue line.
Jeff Carter was acquired via trade from the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for promising forward Jakub Voracek, the eighth overall pick in 2011 (Sean Couturier, currently playing key minutes in Philly), and a third round draft selection. Carter scored 46 goals in 2008-09, had topped the 30-goal mark for three years running, and last year posted a 16.6 GVT for the Flyershe's a major talent and represented a big upgrade for the Blue Jackets.
Howson also dipped into free agency. In exchange for a seventh round draft pick, the Blue Jackets were able to acquire the rights to pending unrestricted free agent James Wisniewski, who they promptly inked to a six-season contract. After showing flashes of offensive brilliance, Wisniewski recorded a career-high 51 points in 2010-11 and also posted a 9.9 GVTsplit between the New York Islanders and Montreal Canadiens.
Despite those additionsalong with solid support players, like Vaclav Prospal (6 GP, 3G, 2A, 5P, plus-2) and Radek Martinek (averaging 22:31 TOI through six games)the Blue Jackets have been a disaster out of the gate, off to their worst start in franchise history, going 0-5-1 through six games. What has happened?
Part of the problem is that neither Carter nor Wisniewski have been able to impact the club so far in the way Howson envisioned. Carter has played only five games, and while he's averaged four shots per game, he has yet to score a goal. Eventually, that will change, but it won't be soonCarter is on injured reserve after breaking his foot. Wisniewski, meanwhile, has yet to play a game after being suspended in the preseason. The combination of Carter's goalless streak and Wisniewski's absence has been critical in the early going.
It is especially damaging because the Blue Jackets have lost so many close games. Four of their six contests have been decided by one goalall of them losses to conference rivals. Their other two losses were by matching 4-2 scores, and again to Western Conference teams. Given how tight those games have been, it isn't hard to imagine a goal from Carter, the presence of Wisniewskior for that matter, of Kristian Huselius, on the shelf after offseason surgerymaking a pivotal difference in the club's record.
The team's goaltending has also been an issue, and injuries have factored in at that position as well. Despite poor play from incumbent starter Steve Mason the last few seasons, Howson decided not to pursue a veteran option to play in tandem with him; instead, he signed Mark Dekanich, a long-time Nashville prospect with a brilliant track record in the AHL. It was a gamble, to be sure, but there has been no opportunity yet to see if it was a smart one. That's because Dekanich was injured in the preseason, leaving Mason as the starter with journeyman Curtis Sanford in the backup position. Sanford is now also injured, forcing the Blue Jackets to employ a QMJHL goaltender behind Mason.
Mason has struggled, posting a .883 save percentage over six starts. He's allowed three or more goals in every start aside from one, and posted a sub-average save percentage in every start other than onethe lone exception to those two trends was October 12 versus Colorado; Mason put up a.938 save percentage and allowed just two goals in regular time before allowing goals on every single shot he faced in the shootout. That was the only game the Blue Jackets recorded a point in. Had Mason recorded a .911 save percentagea pretty average number for a starterthe Blue Jackets would have had five fewer goals scored against.
Another issue has been the shooting percentage of the team as a whole. The Blue Jackets are actually outshooting their opponents by an average of 2.2 shots per game. Some of that is undoubtedly due to score effectsteams trailing in games tend to shoot the puck morebut it doesn't change the fact that an unusually small percentage of those shots are going in. On 178 shots, the Blue Jackets have scored just 12 goals, for a team-wide shooting percentage of 6.7%. The average team scored at a roughly 9.0% clip last season; only two clubs finished below 8.0% and none finished below the 7.0% mark.
In other words, not only is it extremely early in the year, but there have been a lot of factors in the Blue Jackets' slide. Suspensions and injuries have been problematic, shooting percentage slumps have plagued both the club's biggest offseason acquisition and the team as a whole, and the goaltenders have either been poor or injured. Given the close nature of these early losses, any of these alone would have a big impact, but the combination has been lethal early.
Columbus should eventually reverse these flagging fortunes, particularly as Wisniewski, Carter, and Dekanich return to the lineup. The only question is whether that reversal will happen early enough to save the Blue Jackets season, and whether Howson and head coach Scott Arniel will still be around to see it.
Jonathan Willis is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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