The Red Wings and Blue Jackets aren't finding life as easy in the East as many projected. At least not yet.
Plenty has been made of the West’s domination of the East this season and how much stronger the conference is top to bottom. When its clubs have a .674 points percentage against the earlier time zone teams, compared to the East’s .446 against the West, there’s no counter-argument to be made.
What, then, to make of the two former West teams now in the East who were supposed to significantly prosper because of the move? To this point, that hasn’t happened for Detroit or Columbus.
The Red Wings are middle-of-the-pack in the Atlantic Division, have lost seven in a row and eight consecutive at home. They were booed off the ice last night after their 2-0 shutout defeat to Nashville.
The Jackets, meantime, have been even worse, residing dead-last in the anemic Metropolitan Division.
Let’s start with the Wings, a team in “flux,” according to coach Mike Babcock. Their skid is somewhat deceptive, given they had earned loser points in nine of 10 games prior to last night. They’ve also played half their contests against their old Western foes; of their remaining 60, 17 (28 per cent) are against the East, where they sport a 5-2-4 mark. That they’re just four points behind conference-leading Boston also provides reason for optimism that when (if?) things improve, they’ll be well-positioned for an elite ranking entering the playoffs. That’s the good news.
The bad news is their offense is firing blanks. They rank 20th overall in goals, with more than 40 per cent of their tallies coming from Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. Their third-leading point-getter, Daniel Alfredsson, sits 95th in NHL scoring. They’re desperate for secondary offense, and need much more from Johan Franzen and Stephen Weiss (once he returns from injury), one of their hyped free agents who’s stuck on two goals. Similarly, 35-year-old Dan Cleary had connected once in 21 games and recently was a healthy scratch.
It’s not as though the ‘D’ is bailing them out. Detroit has a minus-eight goals differential on the season, again placing it 20th overall, among the league’s bottom-feeders. Jimmy Howard, top 10 in the NHL last season in save percentage, has been struggling to find consistency. His .911 isn’t an emergency situation, but he isn’t stealing games for Detroit the way he did last year.
In Columbus, things are more urgent, though not necessarily dire. Yet.
After getting pummeled 7-0 last night in Edmonton, in what defenseman Jack Johnson called a “sh** show”, the Jackets are looking up at the rest of the Atlantic Division and sit 14th of 16 in the East. Of course, that’s just three points behind the eighth-ranked Rangers, so the hill they’re dying on isn’t that tough to climb in theory. If they can get their sh** together.
What will make it more challenging is a long-term injury to Marian Gaborik (where have we heard that one before?). The 31-year-old sniper is expected to mist four-to-six weeks with a sprained knee. For a team that also is goal-starved (23rd overall), that’s a blow, even if Gaborik wasn’t performing consistently. That their leading point-getter is a defenseman, and isn’t named Bobby Orr or Erik Karlsson, is also disconcerting. No disrespect, James Wisniewski.
Similar to Detroit, Columbus isn’t getting the same stellar goaltending it received in the lockout-shortened 2013 campaign. Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky has blown hot and cold (four goals on 18 shots last night before being pulled) and has observers wondering if last season was an aberration. At .907, he ranks 28th among SP leaders.
As for mirroring their late charge of 2013, the Jackets have some proving to do. They haven’t yet shown the maturity necessary to win consistently, which is a learned skill. And as Shawn Mitchell of the Columbus Post-Dispatch points out, they’ve also seen a heavy dose of opponents’ backups. In 10 of their 20 games, the Jackets have faced their foes’ No. 2, going 2-6-2. As we get closer to the stretch and games become more meaningful, that percentage will likely decrease.
It’s too early to say the situation is bleak for either club, and in the East the road has fewer potholes, but so far it hasn’t been the Easy Street many projected.