Rick Nash and Kristian Huselius have combined for 10 points and a minus-10 rating so far this season. (Getty Images)
How the heck are the Columbus Blue Jackets 6-4-0?
It’s early and the numbers should eventually work themselves out, but the team’s stats simply don’t support a winning record and a top-eight spot in the deeply competitive Western Conference.
Their leading scorer is Chris Clark, who has six points and hasn’t scored a goal yet. Prized prospect Nikita Filatov has already been in the coach’s doghouse. Their supposed starter, Steve Mason, still isn’t showing any signs last year was simply a case of sophomore sickness as he continues to struggle with a 4-4 record, 3.30 goals-against average and .894 save percentage. Rick Nash, the franchise’s pride and joy, is on pace for a 41-point season and is a team-worst minus-8. So much for former coach Ken Hitchcock’s demand for defensive responsibility sinking in.
The Blue Jackets have allowed five more goals than they’ve scored, the worst ratio for any team in the NHL with a winning record right now. They rank 26th in offense at 2.3 goals per game and 17th in defense at 2.9 goals against per game.
Yet somehow this team has yet to lose twice in a row and already has a three-game winning streak – over Chicago, Philadelphia and Edmonton – under its belt.
And it’s not as though the team had an easy October. They played both of last year’s Western Conference finalists twice (Chicago and San Jose), earning four points in the process, plus the Eastern champion Flyers and the upstart Avalanche.
“Their coach has injected a new attitude into the team,” one rival NHL coach said. “They’re a puck pursuit team, they have guys who can put it in the net and Garon has given them a shot in the arm as well.”
Seemingly underrated wherever he goes, Mathieu Garon has seen action in three games and has been fantastic in each. In 35 games last season for Columbus, Garon had better numbers than Mason and continues to outshine him so far this season. At some point you have to wonder when rookie coach Scott Arniel will turn to Garon a little more often.
Columbus has never been known for its offense, so when the top line of Nash with Derick Brassard and Jakub Voracek sags, you’d assume the team as a whole would struggle to win. Not only that, but the defensive stalwart along the blueline for the past few seasons, Jan Hejda, is a minus player.
But we’ve seen promising play from Clark, R.J. Umberger, Marc Methot and even rookie Kyle Wilson. It’s all part of the new environment in the room and the team has a livelier feel when you watch them on the ice. Their spare parts have been carrying them through 10 games and with so many of their stars still waking up to the new season, you’d have to figure when they do, the Jackets will settle in nicely.
“They have the skill, although I don’t think their numbers show it, on the power play” the coach said of Columbus’ current 26th-ranked unit. “They have the skill to be able to put it in the back of the net.”
The Blue Jackets rank in the bottom half of the league in both goals-for per game and goals-against. Since the lockout, only one team that was outscored on the season and ranked in the bottom half of the league in both those categories made the playoffs: The 2005-06 Tampa Bay Lightning, who lost in five games in Round 1 as they started their descent into the draft lottery.
So while the early success is promising, if the Jackets are to make the post-season and improve on their last showing, they certainly have to get their pistons chugging.
“Time will tell,” the coach said. “Usually you get a good feel for teams by American Thanksgiving, like the 20-25 game mark. The one thing you can’t take away from them is their start. They’ve had a good start, there is an emphasis on puck pursuit and heavy forechecking and if they can stay healthy they should be a team that battles hard all the way to the end of the season and could contend for a playoff spot.”
Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com's web editor. His blog appears Tuesdays only on THN.com.
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