How the Columbus Blue Jackets Went From Worst to First

After finishing in last place in the Metropolitan Division last season, the Blue Jackets now have the best record in the NHL. How did they do it?

There’s yet another Ohio team in a championship hunt.

After the Cavaliers won the NBA title and the Indians won the American League pennant, the Columbus Blue Jackets have emerged as one of the best teams in hockey.

The Blue Jackets have the most points and wins in the NHL, lead the league in goal differential (+45), and recently posted the second-longest winning streak in league history -- a 16-game streak that was snapped on January 5.

They are also second in our nERD power ratings and have a 11.36% chance of hoisting the Stanley Cup. Only the Minnesota Wild (16.68%) and Washington Capitals (13.0%) have better title odds.

Columbus’ success is particularly notable because it comes on the heels of a difficult 2015-16 season that saw the Blue Jackets finish in last place in the Metropolitan Division and post the league’s fifth-worst record.

The main catalyst for the turnaround has been goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and his return to form after a down year last season, though the Blue Jackets have also posted an unsustainably high shooting percentage and have been better in terms of puck possession.

Bobrovsky’s Back

Things have to start with Bobrovsky, though, as the 2012-13 Vezina Award winner has played himself onto the shortlist for the award again this year.

The 28-year-old Russian is fourth in the NHL with a 93.1% save percentage and is tied for sixth in even-strength save percentage (93.7%).

From 2012-13 to 2014-15, Bobrovsky's 93.2% even-strength save percentage was third in the NHL, behind only Tuukka Rask and Carey Price (among the 45 goalies who played at least 60 games during this span).

Things took a turn for the worse last season, when his save percentage dipped to 90.8%, which was tied for 34th among 44 qualified goalies. His even-strength save percentage also fell to 91.8%.

He did not have much help from his defense, which allowed 10.34 Scoring Chances per 60 minutes, which ranked second to last, according to Corsica.Hockey (in 5-on-5 situations, the Blue Jackets ranked 26th in Scoring Chances allowed per 60; from 2012-13 to 2014-15, they were 12th).

Bobrovsky was hardly faultless, as he had the 3rd-lowest save percentage on low-danger shots and ranked 26th in medium-danger shots and 28th in high-danger shots on 5-on-5 situations, per Corsica (among the 36 goalies who had at least 1,500 minutes of ice time).

Based on the quality of shots faced (as measured by Expected Goals), he “should have” kept out 94.26% of opponents' unblocked shots in even-strength situations ("Expected Fenwick Save Percentage"). In reality, he only saved 93.82% of them, and the 0.44% difference between these two numbers was second-worst in the league (from 2012-13 to 2014-15, his actual 5-on-5 Fenwick Save Percentage was 0.58% better than expected, which was tied for 11th best among the 41 goalies who played at least 3,000 minutes).

This season, his Fenwick Save Percentage is 1.84% better than expected, which is the third-highest positive difference in the league. The Blue Jackets have needed Bobrovsky at the top of his game, as they are still conceding high quality chances at a high rate. They are tied for 24th in 5-on-5 Expected Goals Allowed Per 60 (2.54) and 21st in Scoring Chances Allowed Per 60.

Save percentage can be prone to random variation, especially in small samples, so we might expect Bobrovsky’s save percentage to regress from 93%. That said, he has been one of the better goalies in the league for the majority of his time in Columbus, where he has faced more than 6,000 shots (double the size we’d expect save percentage to start to become reliable), so it does not appear that his success this year has been a mere fluke.

Great Results, Good Process

With Bobrovsky saving a high percentage of chances at one end of the ice, the Blue Jackets are scoring on a high percentage of chances at the other. Columbus is second in the league in shooting percentage (11.0%) and third in 5-on-5 shooting percentage (9.0%).

Last season, the Blue Jackets were below average in terms of turning shots into goals, ranking 17th with an 8.9% shooting percentage.

This turnaround is a big reason why the Blue Jackets have 60 points in the bank, but team shooting percentage can be extremely volatile, so we should expect regression going forward.

Fortunately for them, their success is due to more than just an unsustainably high shooting percentage, as Columbus has also been an above-average puck possession team and has excelled at generating good chances.

After adjusting for venue, zone, and score effects, the Blue Jackets rank 11th with a 51.0% even-strength Corsi Percentage (CF% or the team’s shot attempts divided by the team’s shot attempts plus the opponent’s shot attempts). In 2015-16, they ranked 22nd.

As mentioned, Columbus has allowed a high rate of Scoring Chances, but has generated them at an even higher rate, ranking fifth in the league in 5-on-5 Scoring Chances For Per 60 Minutes (9.74).

They also rank fifth in 5-on-5 Expected Goals Per 60 (2.62) and eighth in Expected Fenwick Shooting Percentage. These numbers suggest the Blue Jackets do in fact possess one of the league’s better offenses. Their 2.72 Goals Per 60 rate is inflated by a high shooting percentage, but this percentage is not merely the product of randomness but is partially due to solid chance creation.

It’s the inverse of the situation their defense faces, as it allows a ton of quality chances but is bailed out by strong shot stopping. These chances drag down their Expected Goals Percentage to 50.84%, which ranks 12th, though Columbus does move up one spot here after adjusting for score, zone and venue.

These figures probably tell us more about what to expect from the Blue Jackets going forward, as Corsi and Expected Goals are both more predictive of future performance than goal differential.

They will probably not be able to sustain their current pace, but the combination of Bobrovsky, fairly strong underlying metrics and the likelihood of a high playoff seed should keep the Blue Jackets in the Stanley Cup mix.