If someone predicted before the NHL season that by late January, the Columbus Blue Jackets would have the league’s most wins, while the Tampa Bay Lightning would sit last in the East, I would have laughed in your face or thought you were speaking about a Bizzaro world-like future.
It’s no joke, however. The Blue Jackets have been dominant while the Lightning lost their spark. So what happened?
In 2015-16, there wasn’t a bigger shit-show in the East than the Blue Jackets. After back-to-back 40+ win seasons, Columbus started by losing its first seven games, getting coach Todd Richards fired in the process. Replacing him was the hot-tempered, no-nonsense John Tortorella, fresh off overstaying his welcome with the Vancouver Canucks. It reeked of a panic move. Not much went right following the change. Former Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky battled injuries and personal struggles, and star forward Ryan Johansen was dealt to the Nashville Predators. Columbus would finish with just 34 wins and 76 points, the second-worst record in the East.
— ColumbusBlueJackets (@BlueJacketsNHL) October 21, 2015
On the flip side, the Tampa Bay Lightning excelled last season. Led by an outstanding core featuring Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Andrei Vasilevskiy and the triplets line, the Lightning coasted to 46 wins. If it wasn’t for a late-season injury to Stamkos, forcing him to miss almost the entire NHL Playoffs, Tampa Bay might have won the Stanley Cup. The Lightning lost to the eventual Cup champion Penguins in seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. But they appeared on the path for contention in 2016-17, managing to re-sign Stamkos and retaining almost the exact same roster from one season ago.
What’s propelled the surprise Blue Jackets (32-10-5, 68 points, second in the Eastern Conference) is a dynamic offense and a balanced attack. Columbus has posted an +.78 goals against at even strength, compared to the -0.19 rating from one season ago. John Tortorella is rolling four consistently effective lines, and the team is outshooting their opponents at even strength. Seven Blue Jackets have scored 25+ points, with Cam Atkinson leading the team with 23 goals and 45 points. Columbus is stacked with depth, with breakout performances from Atkinson, Alexander Wennberg, Sam Gagner, Zack Werenski and Seth Jones taking the team to the next level.
Sure, they’ve been helped with a relatively-high 9.96 5v5 shooting percentage, but the Jackets are playing leaps and bounds better than they did in 2015-16. Perhaps the biggest plus has been Bobrovsky’s return to form. The 28-year-old has won 28 of 37 games (he won just 15 of 37 last year) while upping his even strength save percentage from a paltry .915 to .937. Having a calm Torts and a best-case scenario performance from Bobrovsky has done wonders for the recently dismal franchise.
Everything is clicking for the Blue Jackets. It’s doubtful they’ll remain this good the entire season. But even with regression, Columbus has established itself as surprise Stanley Cup contenders.
The Lightning (22-22-5, 47 points, last in the Eastern Conference), meanwhile, have been on the opposite trajectory. In 2015-16, Tampa Bay outshot opponents while receiving above-average goaltending between the pipes. The same can’t be said in 2016-17.
Jon Cooper’s group ranks in the middle of the pack with a 49.8 shots for percentage at even strength. Tampa’s post a -.45 goals against at even strength, producing just 2.10 goals (19th) in that situation. Overall, the Lightning posted a -12 goal differential. The numbers declined largely due to Stamkos getting in just 17 games before going down with a knee injury.
Lightning goaltending has struggled alongside the rest of the team. Tampa ranks 24th in the NHL with a .913 even strength save percentage. Vasilevskiy and Ben Bishop, both capable starting goaltenders, rank among the league’s worst starters in the stat. Bishop, who’s missed time with a lower-body injury, is 33rd among 50 qualified goalies > 500 minutes played with a .918 marker. Vasilevskiy ranks 42nd with a .907 mark. Poor goaltending has sunk the team in unimaginable ways. What should be a 1A, 1B starter situation has turned into a negative for the franchise.
Fully healthy, the Lightning should be contending for a playoff spot. But with Stamkos out and the team getting outshot, the playoffs seems out of reach.
The Blue Jackets are unlikely to continue their almost 60-win pace, but their success is real. After experiencing a hellish season, Columbus has bounced back and joined the NHL’s elite. Tampa Bay, on the other hand, is experiencing the opposite result. There’s plenty of time left to turn their season around, but at this rate, they’ll need a miraculous second half to do so.