Maybe you’ve seen and heard the TV commercial currently airing. In a reference to last season’s great stretch drive, Columbus Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards is extolling the play of his team, talking about trust.
It allowed each player, he says, to focus solely on the job he had to do, knowing his teammates would also be doing their jobs. The team, he explains, was playing together, as five-man units.
In other words, the team’s "structure" was sound. Structure is a word you hear a lot around NHL locker rooms. While the meaning can differ slightly from player to player and coach to coach, essentially it means staying within the team’s systems and sticking to a playing style that gives the team the best chance to succeed.
"Structure is our team game. We’re the type of team that has to be good on the forecheck, so that’s part of our structure," explained Columbus winger Nick Foligno. "When we’re playing well we’re getting in (to the offensive zone) really good on the first guy, and then the second guy’s there to help out right away.
"I think that’s made a huge difference in our game offensively and defensively because we’re playing in their end more," he continued. "We’re creating more opportunities for ourselves because we’re smothering teams in their zone. It’s something we need to continue to focus on and continue to do well. If we do that, we give ourselves the best chance to win. We’re coming into every game understanding that’s the way we’re going to have to play to win games."
Perhaps one of the most tangible signs the Blue Jackets team structure is improving is the team’s five-on-five play. It has tracked consistently upward for the past several weeks, and heading into the game at Phoenix, Columbus had scored more five-on-five goals than it had allowed, a season first.
The problem lately for the Blue Jackets has been special teams. The power play went dry in December, scoring only three goals, tied with Buffalo for the fewest in the entire NHL. And the penalty kill went absolutely haywire in the final two games of the month, giving up three goals in each game to the Penguins and Avalanche, both 5-3 losses.
Columbus defenseman Fedor Tyutin agrees the team is making some progress in playing a more structured game, but he’s quick to point out good structure doesn’t just apply to even-strength play.
"It’s how you play really in any situation," said Tyutin. "You should have structure while you’re on the PK or PP or five-on-five. If you look around the league, that’s what good teams do, they play a game with good structure."
Tyutin thinks the Blue Jackets structure — and consequently results on the ice — will continue to improve with hard work. He’s not surprised it’s taken this young team a while to start to play more consistently.
"Good structure has more to do with the work the coaches have been demanding from us every day," he noted. "For us as a young team I think as the season progresses, I want to believe we progress as a team and learn every day. And I hope we don’t just play in spurts, good games here and there, but we put good winning streaks together like we did at the end of last year.
"I want to believe we’re playing better than we were at the beginning of the season structure-wise and individually," Tytutin continued. "I think we started realizing the important things in a game and started managing the games a little better."
Now, if they can figure out those special teams issues…