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(Unofficially this is the start of some random musings and reflections on the Blue Jackets’ offseason, both as a look forward and some thoughts on the past. I’m sure you already do this, but check out some of the recent articles at The Union Blue, BS Hockey, and The Cannon for different perspectives and to see how lively the CBJ blogging world can be. My second Five Days in April post will be up this weekend. Today, a post with a failed Douglas Adams reference in the title.)

2014 Offseason Title

On this side of the Stanley Cup playoffs and before the NHL draft, the hockey fan mind floats to free agents. Which players get resigned, and which are left to enter the open market? Aaron Portzline gave a nice primer to the Columbus UFA situation about a week ago, so I’ll point you at his article first. He discusses the likely returnees, and likely departures. Forward depth is a real consideration in this article, with two 3rd/4th line players listed as likely coming back to the Jackets, and one moving on.

I’ll start with MacKenzie (listed among Portzline’s likely returning figures), but it’s the other two I find more interesting. I like Derek MacKenzie the person, and I’m not entirely opposed to DMac the player returning. I shared some positive thoughts on him mid-season, but I hope any new contract isn’t too large. MacKenzie is a positive force in the community and by all accounts a great presence within the team. His on-ice performance isn’t always inspiring, but in a 4th line role it’s not upsetting to see his return.

Comparing the Depth

Now let’s look at the other two depth forwards in the Dispatch UFA list: Jack Skille and Blake Comeau. Each would feature in a 4th line role (assuming a return next season). While Skille is listed as the likely return, which of he and Comeau is the player that should merit another year in Columbus?

Let’s start by comparing the two players in terms of 5-on-5 CF% and zone start percentage (ZS% = offensive zone starts / sum of offensive and defensive zone starts), using data from Extra Skater. This should give us a rough idea of non-scoring impact and responsibility given. We’ll do this without names first.

Comeau Skille Fig 1Player A had a less impressive performance over the past 3 seasons while afforded similar zone assignments. I think Player B is the better choice here, seemingly more able to drive the puck forward. But let’s expand on that, and add more information to help clarify the issue. How does each player perform relative to their team in all three years?

Comeau Skille Fig 2

It’s here that we see Player B pull away. His performance relative to team was impressive, all while being a net positive player for the 3 year span. Meanwhile, Player A slips again. Not only was he a net negative CF% player, his team was also improved with him off ice. Finally, let’s also look at each player’s year-by-year scoring per game and shooting percentage (these data from Hockey Reference).

Skille Fig 3

Comeau Fig 4There’s not much difference to be found here. Each one has suffered the ups and downs of shooting percentage (a very luck-driven thing that is extremely variable from year-to-year). From pure scoring, it’s hard to say one performs better than the other. Player A is the slightly better choice, but only slightly (over the total 3 years, Player A has 0.255 Pts/G, Player B has 0.243).

It’s the CF% and Relative CF% that sells me on Player B as the better selection. Neither one sees easier usage, and Player B comes out ahead in the comparison. Further, Player A isn’t making up for shot differential play by producing offensively.

Player A is Jack Skille, the guy that Aaron Portzline said “did enough in limited time with the Blue Jackets last season to impress the powers that be.” Player B is Blake Comeau, a man seemingly on the way out.

Where Different Ideas Collide

Of course, the great philosophical conundrum to ask here is this: “Why care about the 4th line when you’ve already admitted to its low impact with Derek MacKenzie?” I am seemingly at a contradictory point by stressing the idea Skille should be gone. It’s true, the biggest concern of any team should be to acquire top tier scoring and puck-driving forward or defensive talent. But why populate an entire 4th line with inadequate players? Tyler Dellow touched on this in a critical assessment of the Pittsburgh Penguins this March. The Penguins were woeful without Crosby or Malkin on the ice in the regular season, an obvious weakness to their team. The takeaway: a team can’t play top players every single minute, so it’s better to fill that time with competent skaters (else the other team fill the back of your club’s net).

Derek MacKenzie sounds to be an obvious return, and a guy who offers a spirit to the team. There’s nothing wrong with that, so long as the whole team isn’t comprised by players of his ilk (lots of soul, not a ton of production). If we’re to follow Mike MacLean’s rough forward lines in his latest Cannon article (a solid piece, as is typical from those guys), we see that rotating final forward spot between Boll and Skille.

Using Mike’s lines: let’s say we assume one free agent pickup, and then slide Calvert up a line (at least until one of the rookie Jackets makes an appearance). We now have one more spot on the 4th line to fill. Of the two remaining guys, Boll is an abject disaster (check out some Boll comments from The Coach at The Union Blue), and Skille we’ve shown as a lesser choice than Comeau here. With Skille and MacKenzie, we’re left populating two spots with subpar performers. Why leave that option open?

Skille – MacKenzie – Letestu. Imagine an icing situation for that 4th line vs one of the Great Centers in the division (Crosby, Malkin, Tavares, Backstrom, Giroux). That sounds horrifying. Why risk such a situation without a good player on the 4th line?

(Bonus shoutout: for some Pittsburgh-centric coverage of the offseason, check out Jason’s new blog!)