The Jets are entering the stage of a lost season where the drama of the locker room outweighs the drama on the ice. The lineup today actually makes some sense – at least as much sense as Stuart and Byfuglien together and Thorburn on the third line for a month. Yet the fanbase and media alike are beside themselves with debate over it.
The problem is that three months into the season, it’s still not the common sense lineup. We’re fast approaching the deadline to make decisions about this roster, and the coach hasn’t written a lineup card that didn’t have an experiment involved.
The lack of common sense in this coaching staff is actually a bit shocking. We’re at game 47 of inscrutable lineups, and year three of head-shaking systems. Media have something to lose in these discussions – access – and so tread lightly where the organization is concerned. Problems are downgraded to turnovers and effort in the narrative that surrounds the team. But the shocking part is that it seems the coaching staff agrees.
Dustin Byfgulien is at forward, the coach is still talking about "A" games and drive and momentum. Pavelec is in a ditch and the solution appears to be more pylons in polar night blue. Mark Stuart and Olli Jokinen are the Assistant Captains while also among the marketable UFAs, and the coach isn’t doing much to showcase their value.
When the Jets last met the Blue Jackets, we talked about how this meeting would be different. The Jackets were still missing Horton, Gaborik, Wisniewski, and Bobrovsky, plus support players. It was a narrow 3-2 win then, ending a three game losing streak. The chances that the Blue Jackets are the ticket out the Central cellar are low.
- Ladd – Little – Byfuglien
- O’Dell – Scheifele – Frolik
- Setoguchi – Jokinen – Wheeler
- Tangradi – Wright – Thorburn
The Thorburn experiment has ended, and there’s a fair argument that his size did create a little extra space for that line in several of their games. Perhaps Byfuglien – a more talented player with better scoring ability, even more imposing size, and yes, better defence – could have done that job and not been a liability. But Claude Noel is not a scientist, and when he does experiments, he does not control for other variables.
Instead, he’s set up three new experiments – largely without hypotheses – on what we can only imagine was a hunch. Buf is on the top line. I’m a Byfuglien fan, and the LLW line hasn’t been working particularly well of late. But on paper, we have to assume this line is no longer an effective tough minutes group. Buf doesn’t play wing often, and while he faces the toughest competition as a defender, he never did as a winger. Frolik to that line might have made them a Cup winning caliber checking line – not ideal as a first line, but functional and effective nonetheless.
But Frolik does Scheifele’s defensive work. You’ve probably noticed – Frolik is on the only RW to play the low slot for the Jets. He does that in addition to his own defensive work. Scheifele doesn’t switch positions with him. He just doesn’t manage his own corners. Sometimes you’ll see when Frolik is going to be late to the line, Scheifele charges out and you end up with two players standing at the blue line. Rookies, amIright?
All it took was for Evander Kane to be hurt and Claude Noel to have a fever dream of a lineup to get O’Dell out of the press box and onto a scoring line. I don’t have high hopes for his group against a very large, high-speed Columbus squad. But so far O’Dell has done a pretty solid impression of Kane. He doesn’t have his size or speed, exactly, but he’s tenacious and aggressive and moves the puck in the right direction. It’s possible his aggression allows Scheifele to continue his off-pace offensive work and this line creates a little offence.
Which brings us to line three – the offensive line, as far as I can tell. Once again, Frolik gives this lineup a lot of versitility as someone who can play both wings. Setoguchi never put that on his resume, but then again, he never said ‘bench me constantly’ either. It’s not up to the player, hence how we know this coach is poor at his job.
It should be a recipe for line blendering on the night, and I would guess that O’Dell and Setoguchi play 10 and 12 minutes respectively, as though it’s their fault the coach put them in a position to fail. We’ll see Wright play left wing up the roster and Wheeler player all over the lineup. It might be a clever ploy to beat line matching, except that Winnipeg is at home.
Singing the blues
- Enstrom – Bogosian
- Stuart – Trouba
- Pardy – Ellerby
This is a mess. Stuart and Trouba have been a poor pairing, much like Stuart and Byfuglien. Stuart gives up the line and Trouba (and Byfuglien) don’t have the defensive acumen to work 2 and 3 on 1’s with a pylon standing in the way. Buf gets beaten on the back door when he cheats high to cover the top passing lane, or gets pulled right out of the play trying to challenge the blue line on his off-side. Trouba retreats to the net and the chance invariably comes from the middle of the ice. Stuart and Bogosian, however, did okay. Bogo does a lot of the same things – backs down to avoid being beaten to the outside and tries to challenge at the top of the circles or encourage the forward to go to the corner.
That’s not good from a highly paid NHL defenceman, but the two were only costing the team possession and not 5 alarm chances against.
Pardy and Ellerby were an unexpectedly strong third pairing when Stuart was out with injury. But they have to be sheltered. With no Byfuglien, there’s no shelter.
Pavelec is employed as an NHL goalie.
Blue Jackets Forwards
- Foligno – Johansen – Umberger
- Jenner – Anisimov – Horton
- Calvert – Dubinsky – Atkinson
- Craig – Letestu – Tropp
The Blue Jackets are still without Gaborik, but have gone 6-4-0 since their last contest against the Jets. Horton has just 2 points in 4 games to start his truncated season, but played over 18 minutes his last two contests – both wins for the Jackets.
The top six is big and heavy. They specialize in creating space in transition and playing off the end-boards in half-ice offence. The Jets typically have a big, strong, mobile defence group, but most of the players dressing today can only claim one or two of those descriptors. The key will be puck support for the Jets’ group, and keeping the puck away from the Jackets’ bodies.
Johansen still leads this group in scoring with 16 goals and 32 points. It’s only his third pro season, and at 21 he’s well on his way to being a dominant young player in this league. He’s a positive corsi player with the worst zone start on the team and the toughest competition among forwards. He’s a classic example of a player who would get a lot more fanfare if he played in another market. He has a lot of tools already, and despite his -7 rating, is starting to take over the game. Like all young players, he has lapses, though. The Jets need to find him on an off night, when he’s pressing and trying to do too much. On those nights, he’s often behind the play and relying on his two-way wingers to bail him out.
It’s a talented group in a very modern way. Two-way players throughout, the size players have skill, and scoring can come from every line.
They’re still missing a few bodies – fighter and pest Jared Boll, depth player Jack Skille, and third-liner Blake Comeau in addition to Gaborik. Comeau is actually a key player for the club, taking defensive assignments and the pressure off other players. When we think about the Jets season, we have to admit that the team has been fortunate with injuries.
Blue Jackets Defence
- Johnson – Tyutin
- Wisniewski – Murray
- Nikitin – Savard
Both of these goalies were hurt the last time the Jets and Jackets played. But as the Jackets played just last night, the Jets have the fortune of playing the lesser of the two.
Olympic snub Jack Johnson is a polarizing figure in hockey, and your opinion of this player says a lot about how you view hockey. He’s a -10 on a team where Nikita Nikitin is a +10 and the team itself is only -6. He has 11 points in 44 games while playing over 23 minutes a night. He’s a horse of a man – galloping up and down the ice, imposing his frame on the mere humans around him. But boy is he bad at decision making. He and Tytuin play the toughs and don’t do well at it by corsi measure.
The advantage it gives the team is sheltering. Ryan Murray is a rookie coming off a major injury last season. And the Wiz is having a terrific offensive season with 23 points in 37 games and leading Jackets defenders in scoring on a team where offence is typically generated from behind the goal line. Together, the two are hugely in the positives corsi wise, and get the best zone starts on the team thanks to Johnson/Tyutin taking the worst.
Savard is another young player on a young club. He’s just 23 with 71 NHL games under his belt. He’s also another player with size at 6’2", 220lbs. He was the CHL Defenceman of the Year in 2009/10. Jackets fans were told for years of his giant shot, but he still doesn’t get powerplay time on this team. Wiz and Johnson get those shots ahead of him. Still, both he and Nikitin can shoot extremely well and have put up points at every level. They face easier competition, and Savard is a negative corsi player. But both players on that third pairing have a lot of tools to play at both ends of the rink. Nikitin is limited a little by his skating, and Savard by his inexperience and decision making. But where the Jets have a top heavy group, the Jackets have solid players on every pairing.
What Will Happen????
The Jackets just played last night, and though skewed by injury, are only a .500 club (in the East no less). On paper, they’re a team the Jets can beat. At the same time, they represent a model of team building the Jets could aspire to. They have size and skill throughout the lineup, and make up for a lack of Sidney Crosby by having a lot of players who can do every job.
The Jets meanwhile, are on a collison course with regret. A poorly run training camp has led to a half season of evaluation, and a lack of reasonable scenarios for effective evaluation makes the likelihood of mistakes high. If they win tonight and Byfuglien looks good on forward, it could be a month before this experiment finds its end (as it was with the Thorburn experiment). Setoguchi could exit town for his poor sideburn maintenance and Stuart could stay for his love of bruising.
The first game of a new experiment is always a stressful time for Jets fans. It could set the team back another half dozen points in the coming weeks and make more distant the ‘common sense lineup’ we’ve been waiting three years to see.