Tuesday, May 09, 2006

NHL playoffs and the Blue Jackets

Is there anything more exciting than the NHL playoffs? Well, there probably are things more exciting like sex on top of a speeding locomotive with a hot celebrity or getting a sky-diving massage. But for us simpler folks who like to curl up on the couch with a laptop computer and write a bunch of crap that nobody reads the NHL playoffs are a great reason to stay up late. When I look at the western conference, though, I can't help but make some observations and relate them to the future of our team here in Columbus – the Blue Jackets.

The Blue Jackets are in the central division with the Detroit Redwings, Nashville Predators, Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues. Detroit was the best team in the NHL with 124 points (Ottawa, second, had 113) and Nashville went to the playoffs. Both the Redwings and Predators had first round exits from the playoffs. What does this say about our division?

The Blue Jackets were ranked 25th out of 30 teams in the entire NHL and 13th out of 15 teams in our conference. The two teams above us were ranked first and third in the division. There are numerous other factors to include in this but when speaking strictly statistically the Redwings and Predators benefited from playing us and the shaken Blackhawks and Blues team in complete shambles below us. The Redwings and Predators were far above the median for our division they couldn't help but look good. Of course the playoff goaltending factors into place because Nashville lost their top guy Tomas Vokoun and Manny Legace is probably hanging from a tree just south of Detroit if he didn't escape back to Ontatio. I'll expand on this later. The other two divisions in the conference set three teams to the playoffs while the central conference sent only two. Every team in the other two divisions performed better statistically than the average (except Phoenix) and the median for our division.

Playoffs in our future?

To look at our chances at making the playoffs we have to determine our likelihood of making it into one of the trailing spots; the top eight teams (realistically) in the conference go to the playoffs. First, let's subtract the "gimme" teams; i.e. teams that are expected to always be in the playoffs. Dedicate 4 of the 8 slots to Detroit, Dallas, Calgary and Colorado assuming that none of these teams will do a "St. Louis" (even if Detroit goes through a massive restructuring). This means the Blue Jackets will need to do statistically better than three more teams to make the playoffs. The pool of teams will probably hinder our goal consists of Nashville, San Jose, Anaheim and probably Edmonton. So how do we do this?

First, we have to build a team that will get us into the pool fighting for the bottom four playoff slots (assuming the goal is to make the playoffs, not win them at the moment). That means our team will have to be good enough to beat the teams in that same pool and definitely beat the teams fighting like we are to get into that pool. The Blue Jackets should have enough returning players, new faces and perhaps one good signing to make them competitive enough for a run at the playoffs. Second, we have to win those games against those teams which includes learning to win on the road and not going into these stupid slumps where we go on losing streaks. Personally, I think the Blue Jackets should be in the playoffs next season and if they aren't there is reason to be disappointed. However, I do not believe the Blue Jackets will make it far in the playoffs if they do make it.

The main reason why I don't think the Blue Jackets will go far in the playoffs is "playoff" goaltending. Three of the four teams exiting the first round had goaltender issues (although Legace and Turco issues could be debated over and over again in blog after blog). Both Marc Denis and Pascal Leclaire perform well in goal and work well in our organization but both went through periods of softness in the 2005/2006 season and I firmly believe they will need playoff experience to carry the Blue Jackets into further rounds. Our first forward line is strong but not without weakness. Fedorov is the anchor in that line but both Rick Nash and Nikolai Zherdev are young talents that need another season or two of experience to be well rounded enough to go against the top lines of opposing playoff teams. Our second and third lines will probably change next season so they will need to be up to the task to pick up the slack and make the difference. The defensive core was probably the best feature of the 2005/2006 Blue Jackets team. Bryan Berard should be returning and Ron Hainsey, Aaron Johnson, Rostislav Klesla, Radoslav Suchy and Duvie Westcott picked up their games this season and should continue good play through next season.

Wings go home

I was happy to see Detroit go marching into the playoffs as the top team in the NHL only to come crawling home beaten by the "lowly" Oilers. I don't think it was because my girlfriend comes from Michigan or the fact that the Redwings are a hockey dynasty every team should aspire to be. I think it was because I don't like Redwings fans and I'm glad they got pissed on. Ha ha – neener neener. I was like when the Redwings beat Ron Tugnutt with a perfect shot on a questionable 4-on-3 power play in overtime to win one to nothing. As soon as the red light was on the Redwings fans were in our faces talking trash. Some of those fans got a beat-down after the game but I remember thinking: "you're happy about an overtime one to zero win over an expansion team?" This was before salary alignment and the strike and all that fun stuff, so the Redwings with their money and power should be beating a team like the Blue Jackets. In fact, they should be pounding the high holy crap out of us with their backup goalie in and numerous call-ups from the Toledo Storm (which might be another reason why I don't like Detroit; as a Columbus Chill fan I despised those inferior Detroit clones).

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