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In my Western Conference preview, I predicted that the Blue Jackets would finish last again. I don’t think this is a necessarily controversial view, but one of my statements rubbed at least one reader the wrong way. I claimed that the Jackets were “essentially the same one [team] that clunked into last place last year.”

This led to a (somewhat rightfully) flabbergasted Gallos over at The Dark Blue Jacket wondering if I’d lost track of how the team had changed over the course of the 2011-2012 season. And he’s right in one sense: this is a team that has undergone some visual change (trading a captain, acquiring a new front office leader, effectively making Steve Mason the number two goalie).

But my suggestion of a team that remains unchanged is one of overall talent and core contributions. Last year’s top ten Jackets in points per game were Nash, Prospal, Johnson, Carter, Nikitin, Wisniewski, Brassard, Umberger, Atkinson, and Letestu. The majority of that lineup follows the Jackets into the new season, so the core isn’t terribly shaken (yet). You may (correctly) argue that Johnson and Atkinson only made short-term contributions to a team down the stretch; theirs is a story we’ll get to eventually. And what about the now-gone Nash and Carter? To what end does the team change in talent from their absence? And what about the move away from Steve Mason? Let’s take a look at some of these changes and see how far the team has really moved.

The Nash trade, relative to last year, brought a slight net improvement to the team’s scoring outlook. Nash’s 0.72 points per game are replaced by 0.46 pts/game from Dubinsky and 0.46 from Anisimov (just looking at last year’s totals). If we hope for a return to career averages from all three (not necessarily a valid assumption, but we’ll play along), Anisimov slips slightly to 0.44, Dubinsky climbs to 0.54, and Nash goes to 0.81. A slight bump in either case from the just-Nash scenario, but not a radical talent overhaul.

Jeff Carter’s is a more difficult replacement to consider. Straight point movement from him to Johnson (his trade return) sees the center’s 0.64 pts/game with the Jackets (or 0.73 career average) replaced by Johnson’s 0.67 with the Jackets (or 0.38 career average). It’s that parenthetical bit that’s troubling here: Johnson has never played at such a high scoring clip in the past. His best single season saw only 0.51 points per game in 2010-2011, a dip from even Carter’s worst year (unsurprising when comparing a scoring line sniper to a defenseman). We can donate some of the overflow from Dubsinky, Anisimov, and (free agent add) Foligno’s points per game to help make up for Carter’s absence and we find ourselves nearly even.

But even with Johnson’s 2012 scoring helping to dull the loss of Carter, his defensive woes undercut the team’s shot-stopping talent. I know you’ve heard this rant before, so feel free to skip if you’re uninterested. As detailed by the folks at Fear the Fin, Copper and Blue, and by David Johnson at Hockey Analysis, the Blue Jackets’ d-man is a defensive wreck. Even in his Columbus stint, Johnson was abysmal. If his point totals don’t continue at the rate he saw in Union Blues (and there’s nothing in his past to suggest they will), his addition and long ice time will result in a higher quantity of shots and scoring chances against the team, something that will inevitably lead to more goals against. The net defensive talent shift here is not a good one.

The goalie change is a point where appearance isn’t very revealing. Sergei Bobrovsky is not Steve Mason… but there’s little to suggest he’ll be that different. A save percentage jump from .894 to .899 (comparing the two last year) is not an impressive one. Let’s assume the Jackets continue to allow 31 shots against per game (not a terrible assumption: Dubinsky and Anisimov have a decent net positive shot differential, Johnson is horribly negative). Over 48 games, the goals against shift from 158 to 150, a +8 change. Extrapolating over 82 games, that would’ve been a +13 change. It’s an improvement, but for a team that had a goal differential 11 goals worse than the next closest Western Conference foe (the Minnesota Wild), it’s probably not enough to pull out of the basement.

And as a curious side note, the Jackets’ team save percentage last year was .899 thanks in no small part to the work of Curtis Sanford, so Bobrovsky would need to improve relative to his low (.899) with an equal number of shots to actually cause goal differential change.

But what if Bobrovsky does turn it around? What if he finds the magic touch to reach his career average .909 again (or maybe higher)? And let’s say shots against go down thanks to Dubinsky? And how about Foligno? We haven’t even mentioned him? Well what if Jack Johnson’s scoring slips to average and the shots against skyrocket thanks to his (and Wisniewski’s) long ice time?

I realize it’s a pessimistic conclusion to my repartee, but it’s not a difficult logical balance for me to make. The overall talent (and really, most of the players on the team) doesn’t seem much changed from last year. But it’s on the way to being better, and that’s where my prediction might be wrong.

The things that could save the season and improve the team are the injection of Cam Atkinson over the whole year, and improved team deployment from Todd Richards. The latter is a more difficult one to analyze, and Richards’ mediocre Minnesota teams (-27 goal differential both years) don’t quite inspire, but they’re far better than the abomination of the last CBJ season. This could point to future improvement out of the Columbus team (something as close as this year, even).

Atkinson’s appearance could also help over a full (albeit shortened) season. He is, after all, doing quite well in the AHL and had underlying numbers that suggested his 2011-2012 performance was not a fluke. His (and to no small end, Johansen’s) performance could be the push to take a slight goaltending upgrade beyond just a minor improvement in goal differential.

My prediction of Columbus as last in the West is not a trolling effort, nor a slight to my favorite team. I want desperately to be horrifically, laughably wrong. It is merely an expectation for a squad that had sub-par goaltending, offensive, and defensive skill last year and carries much of that over into the new season. A swap of Nash and Carter’s points for Dubinsky/Anisimov/Foligno, a drop in shot-stopping power, and a slight uptick in save percentage don’t seem like a huge change to me. It’s not hard to predict 15th again baring systemic improvements or unforeseen youth contributions.