Assessing a problem: The Columbus Blue Jackets defense

Buffalo Sabres' Jack Eichel scored a highlight-reel goal after muscling Columbus Blue Jackets forward Boone Jenner off of the puck. Team defense has been a big problem in Columbus.
Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images

Prior to the start of the 2015-16 season, Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen had stated that his top priority in the offseason was to acquire a defenseman.

He didn’t do that, and after just three games, Columbus has given up 13 goals and has lost all three matches to start off their season.

It’s easy to place blame on Sergei Bobrovsky’s .850 save percentage as the problem through three games. But hockey’s a team sport, relying on all six guys on the ice at a given time to click together in a fluid motion. Is it all Bobrovsky’s fault, or is his defense leaving him out to dry? Let’s take a look and see if we can find out.

When taking into account a goalie’s save percentage, you can’t really just take the number at face value. There are so many other factors that go into a save percentage. Where are the shots coming from? How many shots is the goalie seeing every game? The point is that each goaltenders experience is vastly different from team to team. A goaltender that plays for, say, the Chicago Blackhawks probably has a much easier job than a goaltender that plays for, say, the Buffalo Sabres, right?

So, one thing we are going to take a look at is adjusted save percentage. Adjusted save percentage takes into account where the puck is being shot from on the ice. If it’s up close, it’s considered a "high-danger" shot. If it’s from the blue line, it’s a "low-danger" shot. Here’s how War on Ice determines low, medium and high-danger shots (the graphic is at the bottom of the webpage). So if a goaltender is seeing a lot of high-danger shots, the adjusted save percentage can compare that goaltender to another goaltender who may not see many high-danger shots.

In this graph, we are going to look at every goalie across the league and see their adjusted save percentage. The adjusted save percentage is shown by the color of the circle. The darker the red, the lower the adjusted save percentage, and the darker the blue, the higher the adjusted save percentage. The x-axis of this graph is going to take into account the amount of medium-danger saves the player has had to make, and the y-axis is going to take into account how many high-danger saves the player has had to make so far this seson. All of this data comes from every game situation, whether it’s even-strength five on five, the penalty kill or even a power play. It’s taking into account every second each goaltender has played so far this season. Let’s take a look.

We can see that in comparison to the rest of the league, Bobrovsky has a pretty poor adjusted save percentage, but he’s also made a lot of medium and high-danger saves in comparison to the rest of the league.

Bobrovsky’s adjusted save percentage is .854, ranking him 39th in the league among goalies who have played in the NHL this year.

But Bobrovsky is just three seasons removed from a Vezina Trophy. Goaltenders don’t just completely fall apart that drastically, especially a goaltender like Bobrovsky, who should just now be entering his prime at the age of 27. There has to be more to this poor start to the season.

The first thing we should look at is whether or not there are certain players that are on the ice when the goals are being surrendered. If we can find one or two players that are always on the ice when the opponent scores, it’s easy to determine a potential cause of the problem.

But if you look at the individual players’ total goals against while they are on the ice, virtually every forward has contributed to the problem. So far this season, the only players that have participated in all three games for the Blue Jackets and haven’t been on the ice when the opponent scored a goal at even strength five on five play are Brandon Dubinsky, Matt Calvert and Jared Boll. Every other player has been on the ice for a goal against. The worst culprits? Cam Atkinson and William Karlsson have each been on the ice for five goals against (and Karlsson has only played in two games!). Scott Hartnell and Jack Johnson have each been on the ice for four. A whole slew of players have already been on the ice for three goals against.

But did you notice how some of the worst offenders are actually forwards? Could it be possible that the overall defensive play of the forwards is the root cause of Columbus’ goals against issue?

I looked at all 13 of the goals the Blue Jackets have given up so far this season to see if I could find any sort of trend. After looking at each one, I broke down each goal against into five separate categories to determine what was the direct cause of a goal: 1) A great play by the offense, and there was nothing the defense could do about it, 2) A Blue Jacket was muscled off of the puck, 3) A player lost a board battle, 4) Poor defensive positioning and 5) Defensive turnovers.

What I found was that of the 13 goals, four were directly caused off of a defensive turnover (though, one of them, Bobrovsky clearly should have stopped). Three of them were caused because of a player’s poor positioning on the ice. Two were caused by a lost puck battle, two more were caused because a player was muscled off of the puck and two more were just solid offensive plays.

But what I also found was that these offenses were split right down the middle between forwards and defensemen. Of the defensive zone turnovers, three were caused by defensemen, and one by a forward. And the poor positioning goals the Blue Jackets gave up? All three had forwards out of place.

Let’s take a look at three different defensive breakdowns.

First, let’s take a look at an example of something that is really easy to correct, a defensive turnover.

This was the second goal of the year the Blue Jackets gave up. It was in the first game against the New York Rangers. Kevin Connauton turns over the puck in his own zone. Connauton passes the puck right up to the Rangers J.T. Miller as Connauton was trying to clear the puck out of his zone. Miller immediately finds Oscar Lindberg for the clear shot on net.

But look at all of the space Dalton Prout had when Connauton first gathered the puck.

If Cannauton slides the puck across the ice to Prout, Prout can gather the puck and look immediately up ice. He already has his back to the net, and his immediate look would be straight up to the streaking forward up ice for a quick break out play. Connauton instead tried to force a puck out of the zone, when he should have went with the safer play.

Later in that same game, with the Blue Jackets down 3-2, they again got sloppy in their defensive zone. Take a look at the Rangers’ fourth goal of the game.

Three Blue Jackets, Fedor Tyutin, Johnson and Ryan Johansen get into a board battle down low behind their goal. The puck skitters towards the corner, and Tyutin appears to get the puck free. But Derick Brassard was waiting for the puck to come loose, and he fed it right out to the front of the goal mouth for the waiting Mats Zuccarello. The fact that the Blue Jackets lost a board battle where they outnumbered the opposition isn’t the only issue. Take a look at Brandon Saad’s positioning.

Does that look like someone who is playing responsible defense within his own defensive zone? Saad is anticipating the Blue Jackets to win the puck, and he’s already facing forward so he can gather the puck to create a rush.

Now, Saad’s excuse in that situation is that his team was down by a goal with a little over a minute left, and that he needs to focus on generating offense. While that may be the case, he still needs to be responsible for his defensive position within his own zone, and he simply wasn’t.

This next and final goal comes on the penalty kill, which has gotten off on a horrid start. The Blue Jackets have killed off just 63.6 percent of their total penalties, good for third to last in the NHL. That’s four goals out of 11 total kills so far this season.

This penalty kill goal against came in the second game of the season for the Blue Jackets. Down 3-0 in the game, the Blue Jackets had to kill of a crucial power play. Dan Boyle gathers the puck off of a cross-ice pass. He carries the puck down along the half-boards, slowly creeping in towards the front of the net. He’s waiting for the right opportunity to find Brassard, who is planted right in the slot. He finds him, it’s a bang-bang play and the Rangers go up 4-0.

When Boyle carries that puck down low, he has three options: 1) He can shoot it, 2) He can drop the puck back to the blue line, and 3) He can find the man in the slot. Boyle probably wasn’t going to shoot it from that position with so many bodies in front of the net, and Bobrovsky had pretty solid positioning. He’d have to pick the corner and that’s just a difficult shot to take. Gregory Campbell was doing an excellent job of taking away the blue line passing lane, and Tyutin is taking away the man in front of the crease. But take a look at how wide open Brassard was right in the slot of the net.

That’s a high-danger shooting area, and it is an area the Blue Jackets must protect in this situation. Because Boyle is taking away space by driving towards the net, the Blue Jackets must compact towards the front of the goalmouth and take away that slot option. Either one of Matt Calvert or Johnson needs to step right in on Brassard and take away that passing option. They didn’t, and it resulted in a goal.

If we look at the issues with the Blue Jackets defense, it’s a combination of sub-par goaltending and poor decisions within the defensive zone by both the defensemen and the forwards. Bobrovsky isn’t going to have a .850 save percentage over the course of the entire season, and, if he does, he’s not going to have a job within the NHL much longer. That ship is going to right itself.

But the Blue Jackets need to start making better decisions in their defensive zone, and they need to know their exact position at all times. It is going to cost them dearly if they don’t.

Making smart, safe decisions leads to good defensive zone work. If the Blue Jackets fail to address that, it’s going to be a long, long season.

 

All statistical information obtained from War On Ice. Graph provided by War on Ice.