Pucks in Depth: Two Eastern Conference Teams Poised To Take A Step Back

Every year there’s plenty of turnover in the NHL playoff picture. On average, about two teams per conference make the playoffs after failing to do so the season prior.

For new teams to climb into the playoffs, others must fall out. Let’s take a closer look at a couple of Eastern Conference teams who appear poised to do just that in 2019-20.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Despite some ups and downs – there was no shortage of drama – the Blue Jackets enjoyed their most successful season in franchise history. They made the playoffs in an ultra-competitive division, pulled off a 1st round upset against one of the most dominant regular season teams you’ll ever see, and put up a good fight against a Boston team that ended up making it to the Stanley Cup Final. Unfortunately, the Blue Jackets are unlikely to build on what turned out to be a great year. It is quite the opposite.

Artemi Panarin, one of the league’s best point producers and play-drivers, predictably decided to take his talents elsewhere in free agency. Star center Matt Duchene did the same just months after the Blue Jackets parted with two quality prospects and a 2019 1st round pick to get him. Ryan Dzingel scored at a 1st line clip (2.13 points/60 at 5v5) over 21 regular season games with the Blue Jackets and did not re-sign either. Like Panarin, he ended up joining a division rival. That’s three big hits up front.

Some might argue Duchene and Dzingel weren’t around for very long and the Blue Jackets still made the playoffs. That’s true! But they barely squeeze in and it’s not like they were an offensive powerhouse that didn’t need a scoring boost. Losing Duchene and Dzingel will sting, and losing the best player on the team (Panarin) will do more than that.

I do like Gustav Nyquist. He’s a quality middle-6 winger and will no doubt provide some value to the Blue Jackets. Alex Texier is an interesting prospect and his presence could help, too. But make no mistake: the Blue Jackets’ forward core we see opening night is drastically worse than the one we saw in the playoffs. And that still wasn’t good enough to win more than a round.

Not much has changed on defense. Led by Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, and the underrated Ryan Murray – and David Savard – the Blue Jackets are still in really good shape there.

In goal? Not so much.

As if losing Panarin, Duchene, and Dzingel was not enough, Sergei Bobrovsky also left the team in free agency. The 2018-19 season was rocky – perhaps due to his contract status – but few, if any, have been as good as Bobrovsky over the last few years.

From 2016-19, 33 goaltenders logged at least 5,000 minutes of ice at 5v5. Bobrovsky ranked 2nd in save percentage, 2nd in high-danger save percentage, and 1st in goals saved above average during that window.

His numbers across all game-states are as good, if not better. Bobrovsky matched John Gibson atop the leaderboard in overall save percentage while, once again, leading the way in goals saved above average. He is flat out elite and will be dearly missed, especially given the team’s backup plan.

As it stands, the Blue Jackets are set to trot out an ugly Joonas Korpisalo – Elvis Merzlikins goaltending tandem.

Korpisalo ranks 60th among 61 qualified goaltenders in 5v5 save percentage over the last three seasons. He’s objectively bad. Merzlikins managed a .920 save percentage last season in Switzerland but one would have to think NHL shooters will be able to knock that down more than a few pegs.

So, in short, Columbus will have a much harder time scoring goals, and a much harder time keeping them out with perhaps the league’s worst goaltending tandem.

I don’t see them coming all that close to a playoff spot in a tough Metro Division.

New York Islanders

Even the most optimistic Islanders fans wouldn’t have dreamed the team could accomplish what they did a season ago. The Isles went from an 80 point team in 2017-18 to a 103 point team in 2018-19 despite losing their captain John Tavares.

They did a complete 180 defensively under Barry Trotz and jumped from last to 1st in goals against. Robin Lehner put together a spectacular campaign while fighting off mental illness, and was no doubt the league’s best story. Absolutely everything went as well as possible. I doubt that happens again.

Last year’s Islanders team struggled offensively even with many of their role players out-producing what could be expected of them.

They really needed to add a quality forward or two just to tread water offensively and they weren’t able to do so (sorry Derick Brassard).

Valtteri Filppula, a career 13.7% shooter, rode a ludicrous 21.7 SH% to an almost shocking output of 17 goals in 72 games. He has since left for Detroit, leaving a good chunk of goals to be replaced.

Casey Cizikas, a career 11.1% shooter who had never previously shot above 10%, parlayed his unsustainably high 18 SH% into 20 goals. That isn’t happening again.

Dropping those two to their career averages, even accounting for last year’s wildly abnormal totals, would have trimmed off 15 goals. That’s a lot for two bottom-6 forwards, especially on a team that needed scoring help *with* those guys playing way over their heads.

The Islanders were lucky to score as many goals as they did. While there’s no doubt they made drastic improvements in their defensive play, they were also lucky to keep pucks out the way they did.

New York was expected to allow 215 goals last season based on the shots they gave up and where they came from. The Isles only allowed 191, good for a league-best +24 differential.

The biggest reason: Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss combined to post a .928 SV% in a season where the league average was .905. That led the league.

With respect to those two, they could play the season over 100 times and that wouldn’t happen again. It’d be hard to *expect* those numbers from an Andrei Vasilevskiy – John Gibson tandem and I think we could all agree which one is more talented.

I’d bet on Greiss’ numbers coming down to earth next season – his career save percentage is .915, a far cry from .927 – and it’s fair to say Semyon Varlamov, he of a .911 SV% over the last three seasons, isn’t going to touch the .930 SV% Lehner posted last season.

Even if the Islanders allow the exact same shots and chances as a year ago, they’re going to give up noticeably more goals. Factor in an already pedestrian offense could very well be worse and it’s not hard to see the team missing the playoffs entirely.

Numbers via NaturalStatTrick.com and Hockey-Reference.com.

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