Monday, September 27, 2010

Time to step up: Mid-training camp update

It's the preseason for the National Hockey League and the Columbus Blue Jackets, and I don't think that anyone can draw any significant conclusions from a single practice or game where your team is icing only one-third to one-half of your squad.  But we now have four games and even more practices under our belt, and the scene is taking shape to the point where we can have a discussion.

So let's take a look at the team through the lens of the "Time to step up" preview series.

THE FORWARDS

If memory serves correct, I spent time suggesting that the forwards needed to (re?)develop a nose for the goal - to shoot the puck and, with enough shots, put a few more in the back of the net.  Let's review thus far:
  • Game 1 - at Atlanta - 26 total shots, 5 goals (19.2%)
  • Game 2 - Washington - 39 total shots, 2 goals (5.1%)
  • Game 3 - Pittsburgh - 37 total shots, 4 goals (10.8%)
  • Game 4- at Pittsburgh - 33 total shots, 1 goal (3.0%)
All told, that makes 12 goals on 135 shots, or an 8.8% conversion rate.  Now, let's do a comparison between the 10-11 preseason CBJ and the CBJ teams of the last couple years, as well as selection of three playoff teams from last season - the prolific Capitals, the highly-regarded Penguins and the surprising Coyotes:

TEAM TOTAL SHOTS TOTAL GOALS CONVERSION % SHOTS/GAME GOALS/GAME
10-11 CBJ (Preseason - 4 games)
135
12
8.8%
33.8
3.0
09-10 CBJ 2,338 214 9.2% 28.5 2.6
08-09 CBJ 2,490 217 8.7% 30.4 2.6
09-10 Washington Capitals 2,693 313 11.6% 32.8 3.8
09-10 Pittsburgh Penguins 2,688 249 9.3% 32.8 3.0
09-10 Phoenix Coyotes 2,502 211 8.4% 30.5 2.6

This process of comparing an incomplete collection of preseason games - replete with tryout candidates, AHLers and the occasional starter - against normal, regular season rosters over 82 games cannot be perfect.  I hope to illustrate, however, some of the changes that the Blue Jackets are going through.

First, note that the Scott Arniel-coached, preseason Blue Jackets are starting to ramp up the shots as one would anticipate in the transition from the Ken Hitchcock dump-and-chase system.  While their conversion of shots into goals is not happening at a terrific rate (like, say, last season's Washington Capitals), their dedication to putting pucks on the net is resulting in nearly a half a goal more each game than the CBJ teams of the past couple seasons.  This is a cause for optimism...and in my opinion will only improve once the regular season rosters settle down and chemistry forms on the lines (keeping in mind that the preseason is chock-full of prospects and players on the bubble who are taking shots willy-nilly just to impress the coaches).

Where the Jackets need to improve is the conversion rate from shots into goals.  Sure, Varlamov and Fleury had terrific preseason games against us.  Are those performances attributable to their alleged brilliance or our guys' poor shot selection?  Let me suggest that good teams make even the best goalies look pedestrian and find the back of the net regardless of whomever is in net.

Until that conversion rate improves, the Jackets will have to take even more shots to overcome the apparent shortcomings of....

THE DEFENSEMEN

Whereas there is little question that the forwards have the raw talent to implement an Arniel/Boughner offensive system (whether they have the mindset to shoot like they should is a totally different issue), there are plenty of questions about whether the defensemen have the talent to implement the puck possession system that Arniel and Brad Berry are diligently trying to install.  In fact, I mentioned in my Brad Berry profile the core question, which is whether he's trying to fit square pegs into round holes.

The early verdict?  As the Dispatch points out, the puck possession system has worked in spots.  As my eyes have seen, the caveat "in spots" cannot be overstated.  In addition, the personnel is just as spotty. Mike Commodore and Rusty Klesla (Do we have two legit Masterson trophy candidates already?) appear to be picking up the new system, but Marc Methot is not impressing.  And as I already mentioned, the loss of Kris Russell until October 5 cannot help at all; his absence is hindering Arniel and Berry's ability to assemble pairings and develop chemistry between the blue liners and the forwards.  And now Grant Clitsome has bruised ribs, another setback.

Let's jump into the numbers and see how the defense held up:
  • Game 1 - at Atlanta - 25 total shots, 2 goals (8.0%)
  • Game 2 - Washington - 29 total shots, 6 goals (20.6%)
  • Game 3 - Pittsburgh - 29 total shots, 5 goals (17.2%)
  • Game 4- at Pittsburgh - 28 total shots, 3 goals (10.7%)
Combined, that's 111 shots resulting in 16 goals, or a 14.4% conversion rate.  I appreciate that these stats reflect both on goalies and blue liners, but the Arniel defensive system as I understand it has a component where the defensemen place a priority on pushing opposing forwards off onto the wings, which results in awkward shots and, presumably, a lower conversion rate.  Let's take a look at how the CBJ preseason defensive performance compares against the same teams and years as the offensive comparison:

TEAM
SHOTS AGAINST
GOALS AGAINST
CONVERSION %
SHOTS AGAINST/GAME
GOALS AGAINST/GAME
10-11 CBJ (Preseason - 4 games)
111
16
14.4%
27.8
4.0
09-10 CBJ
2,511
246
9.8%
30.6
3.0
08-09 CBJ
2,272
214
9.4%
27.7
2.6
09-10 Washington Capitals
2,534
226
8.9%
30.9
2.8
09-10 Pittsburgh Penguins
2,340
225
9.6%
28.5
2.7
09-10 Phoenix Coyotes
2,420
189
7.8%
29.5
2.3

Yow.  That 14.4% is abysmal in comparison to the other teams on the table.  (And how about that 7.8% by Phoenix?  Talk about stifling defense and great goaltending!)  These numbers pretty much tell me that the defense is a huge work in progress, and that my observations about the defensive prospects might apply deeper into the NHL roster than I had thought.  Blue Jackets fans should be downright giddy that Arniel and Berry have five more exhibition games to firm up the blue line.

[UPDATE: Justin Boggs of Columbus Wired offers additional insight on the rocky transition from Hitchcock's defensive scheme to Arniel's.  A good read.]

THE GOALTENDERS

I've asserted that the Steve Mason comeback started last season, and I have not heard or seen anything to dispute that position.  (Sorry haters, one glove-side high goal does not a failure make.)  Mathieu Garon, candidly, has looked better.  Perhaps the biggest cause for concern is the lack of depth in the net, though.  Once you get past Garon, the Columbus goaltending is downright scary.  (It does not help that touted Swedish netminder Gustaf Wesslau has been hurt.)  Start pouring the rum for Jobu in the hopes that Mase and Garon stay healthy.

CONCLUSION

I said from the outset that this team is going to have to thread the needle in order to put a playoff-caliber season together.  Nothing I've seen thus far has led me to change that opinion.

The offense is coming along faster, the defense is progressing much more slowly, and the goalies are unspectacular in both the positive and negative senses of the word.  This is a team that needs every one of their five remaining preseason games to tune up and figure out this Scott Arniel system.  Hopefully, as we get closer to the regular season and the team is down to the regular roster, chemistry will build and confidence will follow suit.

I think few things would be more disheartening than to have to backslide into a dump-and-chase system midway through the season because the team was unable to embrace the new model, so these games are downright critical.  I still remain optimistic that the team has the physical tools to push the puck up the ice and cover the back end at the same time, but cultural adjustments and - in some instances - physical shortcomings will make it a very interesting transition.  The forthcoming cuts and assignments back to the AHL and juniors could possibly yield a surprise or two.

Then again, there's always the possibility of a late-preseason/early-regular season trade to fill a talent gap.  Scott Howson has done that before with the eleventh-hour acquisition of Anton Stralman...will he be forced to do it again?

Lots to see, lots to consider, lots of Tums to pop.  Life is good in Columbus...

3 comments:

  1. I'm not a Mason hater, and he did seem ok in the 2nd pens game. However, in the owners cup games, he did look pretty terrible. I think that is where a lot of the "haters" may be coming from and they'd be somewhat justified. I would simply say that 2 pre-season games is statistically insignificant and probably not cause for alarm or celebration when it comes to either Mason or Garon.

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  2. The owners cup games were on, what, the second day of camp? I wouldn't be worried based off of that. Training camp is the time where you look for rust to get shaken off early and then, hopefully, for improvement leading up to the regular season.

    Now, if he looked OK on camp day 2 and then tanked in the 2nd Pens game...that's another story. Luckily, that's not a conversation that we need to have.

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  3. I actually enjoyed reading through this posting.Many thanks.














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