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Trending Topics: Columbus facing tough questions with depth, power play

The Blue Jackets need to right the ship soon, but injuries and an ineffective power play is making their prognosis grim. (AP)

This is something I touched on briefly in the Countdown this week, but it’s hard not to wonder what the immediate future holds for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

By just about any measure, they’ve played pretty well so far this season. All their underlying numbers at 5-on-5 are top-10 in the league, Sergei Bobrovsky is having another great season now that he’s fully healthy, and the reason the offense isn’t more impressive than its current 22nd-in-the-league-in-goals-per-60 is a shooting percentage issue rather than the team struggling to get good looks (funny how that happens, huh?). There are a few concerning signs on special teams, but we’ll get to those in a minute.

The reason Columbus could potentially be in trouble in the immediate future is that Santa seems to have dropped off a ton of injuries for them throughout the holiday season, and often to important players. No. 2 defenseman Zach Werenski has been out for a handful of games and it’s not clear when he’ll be available again. Alex Wennberg is going to be out indefinitely with an undisclosed injury. Both Cam Atkinson and Brandon Dubinsky aren’t likely to be back until late January at the earliest. Even Ryan Murray is out indefinitely.

That’s a lot of important pieces to have on the shelf, and it seems like their collective absence is a big reason why Columbus has one regulation win in the past two weeks. They’re 6-5-2 in December after starting out 16-8-1 and looking like one of the best teams in the league.

And as they’ve struggled to get wins this month, their effectiveness at 5-on-5 has really dropped off. They’re below water in all 5-on-5 categories, and dealing with a sub-99 PDO, which isn’t helping matters either.

But you also have to be concerned about their power play. It’s running at less than 12 percent for the season, scoring one of the lowest per-60 rates in the league and shooting less than 10 percent. The man advantage was, of course, an oft-cited reason for the team’s outsized success last year; after all, they shot at about 30 percent for a good chunk of the season and returned basically everyone but Sam Gagner and Brandon Saad from that group.

Unfortunately for the Blue Jackets, the drop-off doesn’t come from bad luck alone. The process here is a lot less effective as well. Because for all the unsustainable aspects of the team’s power play success in 2016-17, you have to say they were supported in part by a lot of quality looks. That’s not happening this year:

Based on ice time, we can surmise that John Tortorella’s preferred top power play unit this season is Artemi Panarin, Cam Atkinson, Zach Werenski, Nick Foligno and Alex Wennberg. The second unit seems to be Seth Jones, Oliver Bjorkstrand, and a collection of other forwards that bounce around, from Boone Jenner, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Josh Anderson, and Sonny Milano.

Last year, it seems to have been Werenski with Foligno, Wennberg, Atkinson and Gagner as the PP1, with Jones, Saad, Dubinsky, Hartnell and Jenner as the second unit.

Obviously these things can be a bit jumbled as individual players get out for long shifts and others change, or injuries and personnel issues crop up, but generally speaking, these look like the two units from both years. (Take, for example, an aborted experiment undertaken by Tortorella in November to jumpstart the flagging PP1 this year with both Jones and Werenski on the same unit. You’ll be surprised to learn that a three-forward, two-defenseman power play didn’t really work well in 2017.)

The only major difference between these units, then, is that Tortorella was forced to swap out Gagner for Panarin. That seems to be a big upgrade, right? One would also have to call Jones, Bjorkstrand, and any three of those four other guys an on-paper push or perhaps a slight downgrade, just because Saad and a few of those other guys had so much developed chemistry, and the current second unit has a lot of raw, young talent.

What’s interesting, though, is that Columbus’s problems seem to stem almost exclusively from the first unit’s issues, because a lot of their underlyings when Jones is on the ice are more or less in line with where they were last year, though, as can be expected for the reasons outlined above, down a bit.

With Werenski on — that is, when the first unit is out there — things are much, much worse, and bad luck at both ends of the ice has really hurt them as well (we’re talking a 19-point PDO swing). The fact that Werenski’s on-ice expected-goals on the power play is down by more than three goals per 60 minutes, while Jones’s is actually up by one goal, tells you it might be time to get Werenski the hell of the first unit.

One must also consider that Columbus was throwing a new power play system at the league to start last season and, like when baseball teams are flummoxed new hotshot pitchers for the first time or two they face off, the league figured out how to stop what the Blue Jackets were doing to generate so many chances. But I don’t care what kind of adjustments you make, that shouldn’t result in the team compiling 60 percent fewer expected-goals per hour.

For those who have really been paying attention, you’ll notice that a good chunk of the guys I said earlier have been or will be out for a while are also on the top power play unit: Atkinson, Werenski, and Wennberg have all been sidelined and it’s not clear when they’ll be back. Collectively, it won’t be for at least a month, but individually Werenski theoretically could be back Friday against Ottawa.

This at least gives Tortorella the opportunity to experiment without worrying that he’s cutting Werenski — who by the way is still fantastic at 5-on-5 — out of the man advantage. In his absence over the last few games, Jones has understandably jumped to the first unit, with Markus Nutivaara assuming the sole-defender duties on PP2. Columbus is 3 for 12 on the power play over those four games, and went 3 for 17 over their previous six games.

Not to say correlation is causation here, but if a coach can use fortuitous circumstances to fix something that’s very visibly wrong with his team, then he should by all means do so.

It’s pretty amazing that starting out getting nearly two-thirds of all points available to you for two months — even when the power play has been horrific — isn’t enough to keep them chugging along atop their own division, but here we are. They’re in a good division with some deep, talented opponents; the Penguins aren’t even in a playoff spot right now. Columbus and Washington entered last night’s games tied for second in the division, two points back of New Jersey but with two extra games played apiece.

The problem for the Blue Jackets, who are about to be without a handful of important players for a few weeks, is that both New York teams are nipping at the heels, three points back with a game in hand. December’s lack of success in the standings could get worse in January. Again, some of this is a shooting luck thing, but certainly not all of it.

That’s the price of success, right? If you can’t keep winning at the same level, or a higher one, people aren’t going to take “look at our PDO” for an answer. It’s not really fair, but hockey, as we’ve heard so many times, isn’t about “fair.” It’s about wins and losses. If the Blue Jackets aren’t in a playoff spot when all those guys come back healthy, management might feel some harder questions need to be asked.

Maybe it’s not anyone’s fault, but if Tortorella can’t figure out a way to get this power play operating effectively again, all the improvements he’s made, and all the investment ownership has put into the team, one has to wonder if they’ll go find someone who can.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All statistics via HYPERLINK Corsica unless otherwise noted.