COLUMBUS, Ohio -- One month into the season, Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen has seen his team go through some good stretches and some bad stretches – and it hasn’t surprised him early on.
The Blue Jackets returned largely the same team that finished 19-5-5 and missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker last season, but it was well-known and discussed that they needed to be better at the start than they were in January. Had the Jackets not opened with a 5-12-3 mark, they might have authored a much different story.
But they went into the offseason seeking offense, signing Nathan Horton to a seven-year deal and giving Marian Gaborik time to recover from abdominal surgery in hopes that he returned in top form for his first full season in Columbus.
So far, so good for Gaborik: he leads the team in goals (5) and has anchored the Jackets’ top line, recently skating with Artem Anisimov (off to a nice start with four goals and three assists) at center and Nick Foligno on left wing. Kekalainen has been encouraged by the Jackets’ diligence and commitment to their game plan - which has resulted in ample chances – but he’d also like to see a few more go into the net.
“We can put teams on the ropes if we play our game,” Kekalainen told BlueJackets.com. “Maybe the results haven’t been exactly what we wanted, but I think that part of the learning process for a young team is that you not only have to put teams on the ropes, but you have to finish them off. We’re finding that the margin for error is very small, and if you don’t use the opportunities to your advantage, your opponents will.
“We’re right in the hunt, we’re competing hard but we’re just a little bit off right now and it’s affecting our record.”
Columbus’ splits are evidence that the club is on the right track: the Blue Jackets are scoring an average of 2.73 goals per game (16th in the NHL) and are allowing 2.64 per contest (13th in the NHL). Their even-strength differential is 0.94, good enough for middle of the pack status at 15th overall, indicative of strong play 5-on-5 in their first 11 games and an element of discipline that's afforded them the chance to stay in games.
Added in with their work ethic, those statistics give Kekalainen confidence that it’s only a matter of time before they start to cash in more regularly. Simply put, Kekalainen said, the offense doesn’t worry him at this point.
“I don’t think that we’ve fallen short offensively in our games,” Kekalainen said. “Even in the games that we’ve lost, we created a lot of offensive chances. I think offensively, we have to be able to use opportunities to our advantage and finish them off, rather than waste great opportunities that we worked hard for. When you get the grade-A chances, you have to finish them. I think it’s a matter of execution and a little bit of learning, but I don’t think offense has been our problem.
“There’s room for improvement there but we’ve created chances and finished them in most of our games. I think, with our play, we’ve showed as we did in the spring time with that great run that we can compete with anyone in this league.”