The Blue Jackets are off to a 4-6-3 start to the 2023-2024 season. That’s good for 11 points and 15th in the Eastern conference, although they are only 3 points out of a wildcard position. While not horrible (especially compared to last season), it is not great. Last season, the poor performances and sluggish start was attributed to injuries, a poor defense, and poor goaltending. So, why are the Blue Jackets struggling?
So far, the goaltending for the Blue Jackets has been better. Elvis Merzlikins has a 0.897 save percentage and 3.20 goals against average, while Spencer Martin has a 0.918 save percentage and 2.90 goals against average. While those statistics combined aren’t great, they are certainly an improvement from last season. You can tell that both goalies are playing better and have gained some confidence as the season has progressed. Goaltending doesn’t appear to be the problem this season.
While the defense has not been especially great, it is still improved from last season. There is some structure and depth to the defense. The addition of Ivan Provorov and Damon Severson (and the addition of a healthy Zach Werenski) has helped. But the defense still leaves us wanting more. There have been struggles to clear the defensive zone on multiple occasions this season that has led to goals. That must be cleaned up. That cost the team points in a number of games (see the Florida game on 11/6). But is the defense to blame for the slow start? It definitely is part of the blame but isn’t the only issue with this team.
The injuries have been kept to a minimum compared to last season. The only significant injuries have been Patrik Laine and Daniil Tarasov. Laine’s loss is felt on the offensive side of the game, as he is a threat to score on most nights. Tarasov loss has barely been felt with the play of Spencer Martin. So injuries are not an excuse this season to the poor start.
If the goaltending has been better, the injuries have been kept to a minimum, and the defense has been okay, then why is the team off to a poor start? Let’s start with the forwards. The team just isn’t generating enough offense. The Blue Jackets sit at 25th in the league for goals for and 25th in the league for power play percentage. When you can’t score many goals, it doesn’t take many goals against you to lose on most nights. The leading scorer on the team is defensemen Ivan Provorov. When a team is led by a defenseman in scoring, then you know that the forwards are struggling (unless you had prime Erik Karlsson on your team).
One of the biggest issues I see is the compete level. On most nights, the Jackets are getting out-shot, out-hustled, and out-played. You can’t win games with those kinds of efforts. Some of the players, especially some forwards, have looked like they are just out there earning a paycheck and aren’t really interested in winning. Head coach Pascal Vincent has benched, scratched, or demoted players to Cleveland for the poor play. As he should; keeping guys accountable is important. The culture of this team needs to get back to that blue collar, hard-working attitude. The leaders on this team need to make sure that each and every player bring their very best to each game. Otherwise, much of the losing will continue this season.
Despite the poor start, the Blue Jackets are not far off from a playoff spot. However, if they don’t find another gear and start winning games consistently, they will fall out of the playoff race very quickly.