Previously, we considered the notion of character and how it shouldn’t factor into your evaluation of a player, barring any exceptional circumstances. Now let’s look at a similar topic.
I hope you’ll forgive another excursion into to the curious failures of the Columbus Blue Jackets. We know that the Columbus goaltending was laughable (and that it’s finally changing after three years of awful Steve Mason). We know that the defense isn’t exactly defensive (and that Jack Johnson needs to be an absurd offensive performer to make up for the rest of his skill set). I’ve even argued that the Jackets (and their fans) need to stop worrying about character and start considering the importance of skill players. I suggested that even with a good defense and good goaltender, the Jackets still probably need some high-end players to carry the offensive load.
But that led to some questions from fellow Jackets fans, specifically from the always-thought-provoking @RedditCBJ (who you should follow on Twitter). He wondered how exactly the Jackets top 6 forwards stacked up against the best teams in the NHL. I always assumed they were inferior, but I never actually bothered to look any further. So let’s look at this together.
Let’s compare the Blue Jackets forwards to the top 10 teams in the NHL this season (by points in the standings). Conveniently, this year the overall top 10 also represents the top five of both conferences. We’re going to examine all the forwards remaining with their teams at the end of the regular season, who played 20 or more games with that team, and look at their 2-year average production. I selected 2-year average assuming that it gives a better flavor for their current production than a career average (for instance, Dan Sedin‘s career regular season points per game is 0.84, but over the past two seasons he’s averaging 1.110 points per game).
Now, let’s count the number of forwards on each team with 0.5 points per game or more, all the way up to 1.0 points per game or more, in increments of 0.1. It’s all regular season data from this season and last season. Here’s what we find:
|.5 ppg||.6 ppg||.7 ppg||.8 ppg||.9 ppg||1.0 ppg|
An interesting trait appears for all of the top 10 teams in the NHL: they’ve all got at least one player who averages 0.8 points per game over the past two seasons. In fact, most teams have two or more, and most teams also have at least one player with 0.9 points per game or more. The two teams that don’t have a 0.9 point per game player happened to have some of the best goaltending in the NHL (St. Louis with Halak and Elliott, Boston with Thomas and Rask). In fact, of the top 10 teams, only St. Louis was outside the top half of goal scoring in the NHL. Even though we hear so much about defense and goaltending in the playoffs right now, getting there generally requires a good offense.
Another noteworthy observation comes from Nashville with only one 0.7 producer, the same guy who is their 0.8 producer, Martin Erat. However, their depth of scoring with 6 players over the 0.5 points per game mark helps significantly (recall, they actually had the 8th best offense in the NHL). But the fact remains, they’re still meeting the requirements and have at least one player with 0.8 points per game or more.
Columbus does not make the 0.8 cut. The only players that come close for Columbus are Rick Nash (who is just barely under the bar with a .796 points per game) and the aging Vinny Prospal (only slightly into the 0.7 bracket with .703). The next closest Jackets are Umberger (0.610) and Brassard (0.595).
This suggests some ominous things to me about the current team makeup. One thing is straightforward: simply looking at the breakdown, the Jackets do not have the skill at forward to ice an elite (or even quasi-elite) first line. They have enough 0.6 point per game players to make a passable second line, but that won’t be shielded from tough matchups because they’re the best on the team. Columbus simply does not have skill enough to put out the forward lines necessary to be a top-15 NHL offense. Also noteworthy is the idea that Rick Nash does, in fact, play on an island. The Jackets don’t have skill, so without the late addition of one Vinny Prospal, he would have been significantly better (production-wise) than any other player on the team. I’ve witnessed this discussed as both a pity factor (it must stink to be stuck on a terrible team) and a statement of criticism (why can’t he carry things by himself), but that conclusion is a matter of opinion.
Obviously there’s much more to a story of team success than just talented top-line forwards. After all, players like Phil Kessel (.89 2-year ppg) and Steven Stamkos (1.15) didn’t make the playoffs this year. But their defensive circumstances are not overly dissimilar to what we see with the Jackets. And for a team like Columbus with laughable goaltending and non-defensive defensemen, the lack of offense is even more evident. When the whole team is bad, the losses mount quickly.
Yes, the Jackets need to improve in their own end. But the story feels a bit more bleak when you notice the complete lack of high-end forward talent. Quite suddenly, it seems like a team that claims to need only a “reshaping” needs much more than that. They don’t have any forwards to meet the 0.8 points per game criteria, they don’t have a solution in net, and they don’t have an overly defensive defense. I don’t like to be doom-and-gloom, but this year’s team was bad because they didn’t have enough skill at any position, including at forward. That needs to change drastically if the Blue Jackets hope to be a top team in the NHL.