Sunday, April 22, 2012

Andy's CBJ Season in Review, Part One

[I'm pleased to share yet another unique perspective on the recently-concluded Columbus Blue Jackets season with everyone...Andy Krygier is legendary for his use of statistical analysis tempered with finely-tuned wit.  Enjoy -- And look forward to more from Gallos, as well as my eventual season in review piece as well!  Perhaps another perspective as well?  Perhaps...]

Season Review – Part One:

The 2011-2012 NHL season arrived with great promise for the denizens of Boomer-ville.  The combination of off-season acquisitions and the organizations progressing prospects portended an incontrovertibly inevitable improvement (thank you, Mike Arace).  Rick Nash finally had his center; Former GM Scott Howson (he was fired, right? No? Okay, move along then) landed the best back end help the 2011 (pre) UFA market had to offer as well as Vinny Prospal to provide scoring and leadership.  The real Steve Mason was going to finally stand up, leading the demons of his past to their final resting place.  The playoffs and beyond were right in front of us.  All they had to do was drop the puck.

And drop it did.  The season was over faster than a “Pronounce this CBJ players name correctly” contest with special guest Mike Emrick.  It was over faster than the last 1.8 seconds of a Kings game.  It was over faster than Snooki can….leave you to your own imaginations.  And once again Jackets faithful (and faithful they are) were asked to do what they do best: look to the promise of a new season.

For my contribution to DBJ’s season review, I’ll cover what I felt were the most important stories in quasi-chronological order.  This is the first part.

Injuries and Suspension
Arguably, the most prescient moment of the season occurred at the Xcel Energy Center on Sept. 23, 2011, a full two weeks before the regular season started.  A (im)perfect storm of: (1) a player with a suspension history trying to make a name for himself in a new uniform (2) an agitator who flops more than every player in the history of Bobby Knight combined and (3) a new disciplinary sheriff in the NHL’s front office with the charge of cleaning up the game collectively led to an eight (or twelve, including preseason) game suspension for James Wisniewski. I never saw a great video of the so-called offense, but the consensus is well known; you can ask Henrik Zetterberg’s head about Herr Shanahan’s consistency.

More significant than the Wisniewski suspension were the copious injuries suffered by Blue Jackets players.  The Jackets lost 373 man games to injury this year, which puts them in the top 5 {note: different sites have different numbers – in all cases the Jackets are in a closely spaced “top 5”}. Furthermore, the Jackets paid (in cap hit) $12.9M to injured players or third overall behind Montreal ($14.7M) and Pittsburgh ($13.5M).  None of these accountings include Mark Dekanich being out for the year despite being expected to compete for the number one spot - and let’s be honest, the goalie on my rec team could take Steve Mason’s job.
But it doesn’t really matter how many injuries a team has – what everyone is after, ultimately, is points.  So the question is how do injuries affect a team’s ability to earn points? Is it hopeless to play a season if too many injuries occur? Was the Blue Jackets season doomed at the hands of the injury gods? To shed some light on this, I have plotted points vs. man-seasons lost to injury and cap dollars lost to injury for all 30 teams (the Blue Jackets, at 65 points, are disappointingly easy to find):

According to the best fit lines, the Jackets lost 3.3 and 1.6 points in the standings due to dollars lost and missing players due to injuries, respectively. However, the R-squared vales (a measure of the quality of the fit – a perfect fit gives an R-squared of 1 and anything less than ~0.75 should give you pause) mean the fits are more or less useless, though you’re still allowed to eyeball a trend. Simply looking at the plots, we can see that there is an effect in both cases, but it is quite small.  This result suggests that losing players to injury has very little effect on winning hockey games. It’s not that injuries aren't a problem.  After all, injuries must be important – you’re generally replacing an injured player with an inferior player. Rather the point is that injuries don’t manifest themselves in the standings, apparently.  It does hint that the quality of the player lost (in a world where higher salary perfectly correlates with better player) matters more since the so-called effect appears to be greater for salary cap lost than for man seasons lost.  My guess is that this shows the importance of having organizational depth, rather than the importance of having a healthy roster.  If you’re going to lose players to injuries, and you will, then you need to have competent replacements. The Jackets were demonstrably decimated by injuries, but that apparently shouldn't have been a death sentence, as clearly, good teams persevere.

Finally, the Jackets dressed a total of 38 skaters this season (2nd most) 30 of which scored at least one goal (tied for most with Buffalo).  Furthermore, there were 47 games (82, if you count Mason #zing!) in which a goalie originally slated for minor league duties appeared in an NHL game.

Putting the calculator down for a second, my belief is that the injuries played a bigger role for this team than they might have for others.  Winning teams don’t just pop out of the ground in one off-season.  It mattered that there was significant roster turnover in significant roles just like it mattered that significant players were injured. It also mattered that the coach had no idea how to guide a team through a challenging stretch, which brings us to….

Scott the “A” is for AHL Arniel
(Note: I planned this to be a combination of more damning, more insulting, and funnier, but after half a season of blasting him on twitter, I am apparently well past “peak Arniel”.)

A coach’s ability to keep his job is based on a great many things - only one of which is their coaching acumen.  Examples beyond a coach’s own abilities include having quality players, good organizational depth, working for a good GM, being in a weak conference, and luck, etc. As an example, I give you Ken Hitchcock, who has this season apparently re-caught up with the game that had supposedly passed him by.  More likely, in my mind, is the Achem argument that Ken Hitchcock never stopped being a good coach but rather the circumstances in which he was coaching were different, but I digress.

But a coach can also just be a bad coach. 

Enter Scott Arniel.

I didn’t start out disliking him, I swear.  In fact I actually tried to like him. But the problem was, to me at least, he just didn’t seem to get it.  As this season unwound (somewhere around October 7, if memory serves), Arniel seemed to be working so hard to find the answers that he seemed to not realize or had forgotten that the only way to ever get out of any slump is to get back to the basics and let the players play the game. I don’t claim this to be original thinking, but rather the opposite. In fact, it only occurred to me when Todd Richards was named Arniel’s interim successor and the only major change he appeared to make was making practice fun again.  That and get Derick Brassard off of a line with the least skilled forward in the entire NHL, Jared Boll.

Arniel’s biggest flaw, in my view, was the inability to make good decisions when the pressure was greatest. When faced with a struggling defense, his response was to banish the clubs highest paid defenseman to the press box and make him the scapegoat. When faced with boredom after conquering Europe, he needlessly invaded Russia – wait that was Napoleon. When attempting to implement a high-tempo high-risk style failed to produce early results, his reaction was to send all signs of youthful scoring to the minor leagues, and bench the rest, in favor of players whose main assets are playing with determined looks and barking at teammates after losing fights.  These traits might excite fans, but they do little to help win hockey games.   When square peg of a style of play didn’t fit into the the self-inflicted round hole that was the roster, he chose to completely revamp his system mid-season. I could go on.  I’ll spare you.

With few exceptions, the players on the Blue Jackets roster are good enough to make the majority of rosters in the NHL (maybe not so much post trade deadline, but certainly before that).  Furthermore, the team had as much top of the lineup talent as it ever had – Nash, Carter and Prospal may not be Ryan, Getzlaf and Perry, but it seemed a pretty good place to start. Similarly, the defense appeared significantly improved over years past. However, despite the upgrades, the team struggled out of the gate and Arniel’s fate was more or less determined.  Given what most everyone thought was several chances too many, Arniel managed only to further cement his fate by benching talented players in favor of scrubs, blaming referees, and blowing a fuse at one of the only members of the traditional Columbus media to both know what she was talking about and ask a tough question.  I don’t have much more to say here, but there is little doubt in my mind that the sum of Scott Arniel’s contributions to the Blue Jackets organization leaves him well in the red. He may get another crack at an NHL job, and he may succeed at that job, but it will be for having changed his approach rather than duplicating it.


  1. I agree that Arniel was part of the problem, and that he acted more out of frustration then anything. But in injuries I see it was not so much the number (which was horrible) but that so many were concentrated on positions, namely defense and most especially goalie.

    Losing Boller didn't hurt much. He's useful, but possesses marginal skills. Losing Huse was bad, but compensated well with the signing of Vinny Prospal. Losing Martinek, Tyutin and Methot, combined with the Wiz's suspensions and injuries basically wiped out the top layers of our defense. There's three of the top four right there, maybe four of the top four on this team before Jack Johnson. John Moore played well for a rookie and Savard showed potential, but when you're regularly starting two rookie defensemen you have a problem. When Aaron Johnson is in the top four you have a problem.

    And then there's goalie Dekanich's and Sanford's early injuries really left the club with no options when Mason faltered. When an NHL team is forced to sign a goalie off the U of M squad , and the guy in goal is a rookie who was supposed to be in the ECHL you are hosed. The problem isn't so much the number of issues but that they were so concentrated on the blue line back, and particularly in goal which all know is the most important position in hockey. Losing Rick Nash for the season probably would have cost the Jackets less then the concentration of injuries in key positions. The weaknesses in the back end took the stuffing out of the front end. First in good exit passes, and turnovers won. But more importantly in morale. Hockey is a game which must be played with passion. It's passion that gets you to the puck first, that keeps you skating when you're tired. It's passion that allows mediocre teams to beat good ones. All the combined bad breaks eroded morale.

    Arniel's failings magnified the problem. Instead of seeing the issue as confidence problem, he instead tried to browbeat players into performing. Brassard is a case in point. Brass has always been one of those guys who practiced hard all the time, took extra shots. Guys who care sometimes are the first to squeeze their stick too tight when things get tough. Brass needs confidence to perform well. Putting him on the fourth line or in the press box was exactly the wrong way to handle him. There are people you need to browbeat now and then, but it's important to know who works best.

    Booker T. Jones once penned the immortal lyrics "If it wasn't for bad luck, I wouldn't have no luck at all." Born Under a Bad Sign could have been the Blue Jacket's anthem for 2011-12, as exemplified for our draft draw. Maybe we need to sacrifice a chicken or something, but we have to hope for at least a few good breaks next season


    1. Excellent comments. Excellent post Andy. Well done all.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.