Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The (re-) transformation is complete

Word out of Columbus Blue Jackets camp is that in the course of just over one month, the team has almost completed a transformation from the up-tempo, high-powered scoring machine that was promoted since Scott Arniel was hired as head coach in June 2010.  That crowd-pleasing yet ultimately fruitless approach to on-ice play quickly morphed into amorphous discussions of "grit" (accompanied by a purge of the team's promising youth)...and finally evolved into a, well, let's allow coach Scott Arniel to explain...with deciphering offered by the Dispatch:
"...we have gone back and put a lot of emphasis on the guys without the puck, on clogging the center of the ice."

The key, for now, is to slow the tempo of the opponent and stop the barrage of rushes faced by a young and banged-up defense and struggling goaltender Steve Mason.

“Prior to (now) we probably were playing a high-risk game,” Arniel said. “Ultimately it’s the way I’ve coached and played. It’s the most exciting hockey. Players love to play that style. Coaches love to coach that style. But it’s also one that can give you fits when you don’t have good goaltending or you don’t have the defense that can sustain that.”
You can say many things about Scott Arniel, but you can't say he isn't calling it like it is.  The team's goaltending has not been great (or even good on some nights), and the defense can't sustain the style of offense that Arniel wants to run.  So he's finally acquiesced to reality and actually will be trying to stop other teams from scoring.

I'm going to put aside the very obvious question of whether the team has the personnel on hand to actually play team defense, not to mention the coaching skill necessary to employ this scheme.  Those are very, very valid concerns and deserve detailed treatment that I'm not ready to offer.

My interest today lies in the bigger picture.  So let's look at a quick chart that I tossed together, one that considers the average numbers of goals scored, by season, for all NHL teams and NHL teams finishing in the top 16 in standings points (loosely defined as "playoff teams," though there certainly will be a little wiggle room at the bottom of some of the lists), from 2003-04 (the last pre-lockout season) through this season to date.  I think you'll find it interesting.

Among many league priorities of the lockout (like breaking the back of the NHL Players Association) was the desire to make the on-ice product more entertaining.  Entertainment in professional sports generally is intertwined with scoring.  Loosely put: Players score, fans celebrate, people feel good and buy more tickets and swag while watching more games on TV.  So more goals was the order of the day.

Let's use 2003-04 as our benchmark.  The average goals per game were 5.24, but Top 16 teams had an average of 5.07.  After the lockout and the many rule changes coming out of it, scoring skyrocketed (relatively speaking) to 6.05 for the whole league and 5.99 for Top 16 teams.

But we all know the saying, "Defense Wins Championships," right?  It applies in hockey as well, and the NHL's defensive-oriented coaching minds got to work and figured out approaches to lock down the scoring right quick...taking the league-wide average goals/game down to 5.44 and Top 16 down to 5.37.

So a lockout-empowered NHL got back to work, and they pushed through yet another round of rule changes designed to open up the offenses in time for the 2008-09 season.  And once again, the scoring increased...although only up to 5.70 for the entire league and 5.74 for the Top 16 (Interestingly, this was the only full season where the Top 16 teams had a higher average goals level than the league as a whole. But Defense Wins Championships, so this was quickly corrected.).  And we're again dropping in scoring as defenses catch up to offenses.

(Side note on the Top 16 scoring in 11-12 thus far: I have nothing to substantiate this guess as to why it's higher than the league-wide scoring but am presuming that it comes from the fact that teams generally play a little more wide-open at the beginning of the season and tend to lock down in their mid-winter playoff pushes.)

So now let's go to the Columbus Blue Jackets.  I'll take the same chart as above and drop the CBJ figures into it.

As you can see, the Blue Jackets have been at or below the league and Top 16 averages in terms of total goals per game until the wheels came off the franchise in 2009-10, at which point they have been consistently above the averages.  

Aggregate goal scoring per game includes ALL scoring, both for and against, however, and stopping there could lead someone (someone who doesn't look at wins and losses, mind you) to believe that the team's offense-first approach is getting them somewhere.  So let's look under the hood and check out how the CBJ have done when we split the goals for and goals against apart.  On this one, I'm going to suggest that the third column - the Goals For as a percentage to the total - is paramount.  Of course, you want to be over 50% on the season...that means you scored more goals than the teams you played against.

I love the 2008-09 season, the CBJ's only playoff year, as a model.  The team - under "Defense first!" Hitchcock, scored more goals on average that season than in any other since 2003-04 (I didn't bother to look at 01-02 and 02-03), and - more importantly - their offensive production was closest to 50% as a percentage of the total.  And Hitchcock's defense in that playoff year wasn't even as good as the year prior!

But then we get to the player revolt of 09-10 which resulted in Hitchcock's firing and Claude Noel's interim gig.  Goal scoring goes down, and goals against go up.  And it's only become worse since Scott Arniel and his defensive coach/buddy, Brad Berry, came to town.  Goal scoring right now is back to pre-lockout levels - with the imbalance of goals for and goals against at its highest level - and Columbus is giving up goals at a pace not seen since the first post-lockout season...when league-wide scoring was at an all-time high!

Look at those charts and numbers, look at the 2-11-1 record, and tell me that Arniel made a bad choice in deciding to go back to whatever version of the neutral zone trap that he's going to employ.  It might not be the most entertaining brand of hockey, but it wins games (ask the perennially under-funded Nashville Predators about that).  And Arniel has to win a lot of games to keep a job that some (many?) don't think he should be in right now.

The cruel joke in all of this, of course, is that just as the Blue Jackets decide to return to the style of play that former coach and consultant Ken Hitchcock made famous, the team allows an in-division rival to come in and grab him right out from under their noses.

When it rains, it pours.

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