The Blue Jackets forwards corps have undergone a massive overhaul this offeason. Gone is Rick Nash, and with him the semblance of having a traditional top line. Much discussion has happened over the summer of how the forwards will look this coming season. The Cannon has been breaking down the battles we should see in training camp, and a lot of the comments have been focused on a “Top Six” versus “Top Nine” approach. There are a number of schools of thought on how to build a forward group. Some people, like Toronto GM Brian Burke, prefer a Top Six-Bottom Six approach (ie. six offensive forwards, six defensive/checking forwards). Vancouver has built a specialized line up consisting of a pure offense 1st line, solid two-way 2nd line, defensive specialist 3rd line, and rugged 4th line. Boston rolls three lines who are capable in both ends of the rink. Last season the Jackets planned to have three lines capable of scoring, with one shutdown group. While that failed for a number of reasons (impatience, coaching, and personnel), I think we are going to see something in between that approach and the Boston approach in 2012-13.
But what exactly does this mean? The potential for an offensive struggle is something I have been batting around in my mind since the Nash trade. The Blue Jackets don’t appear to have any 1st line talents, but a large contingent of 2nd to 3rd liners. It’s difficult to see how this compares to other teams, as so many factors come into play. To quantify these players, I took a very simple approach: points per game. I broke down every forwards who played at least 27 games last season, then split them into approximately the top 90 forwards (ie. three forwards per team), the second 90 forwards, and the third 90 forwards, with any players below being “4th liners”. With this breakdown complete, I was able to look at forwards and teams in a number of ways, from what that means practically, to the availability of each group of players, to how those players fit into their teams for next season.
First things first, what are the cut offs for each line? They ended up being quite a bit lower than I had thought. Baseline for a 1st line player was 0.69 points per game, which equates to about 57 points on the season. So judging from last year, Rick Nash was barely a 1st line player, while Vinny Prospal barely missed the cut. The 2nd line cut off was 0.46 points per game, or 38 points on a full season. This group includes Prospal, Cam Atkinson, Derick Brassard, and RJ Umberger from the 2011-12 Jackets. 3rd liners were 0.27 points per game, or 22 points on the season. The only Jackets from last season to fit here were Ryan Johansen and Mark Letestu. I list the Blue Jackets players to get a feel for if these results mesh at least somewhat with what I would say based on talent. Offensively, I would say that each of these players played at that rate last season.
Now how do the new additions fit into this structure? Nash leaves the team without a single top line player from last year, but we knew that already. Anisimov and Foligno fit into the 2nd line category, while Brandon Dubinsky was in the top end of the 3rd line group (missing the cut by two points). The additions of Anisimov and Foligno are quite significant, and if Dubinsky can jump into the 2nd line group, the Jackets have made substantial additions to the roster. These may seem like obvious statements, but they become more jarring when looked at in comparison to the number of players that were available this offseason. Only nine players (so far) in the 2nd line group changed teams this offseason, with two of them landing in Columbus.
The list below shows all 1st, 2nd and 3rd line players who were traded, signed with a new team (including the KHL or other European teams), or are currently unrestricted free agents. Players in bold were/are CBJ players, players in italics are still unrestricted free agents, and players
striked out signed outside of the NHL.
- 1st Liners: (9 availableplayers/92 total 1st line players = 10%) Jagr, OJokinen, Nash, Parenteau, Parise, Ribeiro, Semin, JStaal, Whitney
- 2nd Liners: (12 available players/96 total 2nd line players = 13%) Anisimov, Arnott, Doan, Foligno, Hudler, AKostitsyn, Mueller, Ott, Roy, Samuelsson, Sullivan, van Riemsdyk
- 3rd Liners: (26 available players/96 total 3rd line players = 27%)
KAucoin, Blake, Boyes, Brule, Brunette, Burish, Butler, Crabb, Dubinsky, Eakin, Fedotenko, Hagman, NJohnson, Langkow, Moore, Morrison, Moss, Ponikarovsky, Pouliot, Rolston, Shannon, Stapleton, BSutter, Tootoo, Winnik, Wolski
Looking over that list, the make up of the 1st and 2nd line groups look pretty similar. Each comprises of a few players at or near their primes that either signed big free agent deals or cost a lot in trade (Nash, Parise, Staal, Anisimov, Foligno, Hudler, Ott, Roy, van Riemsdyk), old guys (Jagr, Jokinen, Whitney, Arnott, Doan, Samuelsson, Sullivan), and players with injury/inconsistency/sustainability question marks (Parenteau, Ribeiro, Semin, Kostitsyn, Mueller). It looks like 3rd line players are basically interchangeable, or at least replaceable. Based on this, Columbus did a very good job this offseason bringing in two of the nine desirable top six players that changed teams this offseason. Add that to Prospal, Atkinson, Brassard, Umberger and hopefully Johansen and Dubinsky, and Columbus could have one of the largest contingents of top six scoring players in the league.
A group of eight forwards scoring at a top six level would rank the Jackets among the best in the league. What the Jackets will still probably be lacking is a 1st line player. But does this really matter? Looking at last year, there was a pretty even breakdown between players with more than three 1st line players, exactly three 1st line players, or less than three 1st line players. Seven of eleven teams with over three top line players made the playoffs last year (Boston, San Jose, Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New Jersey made it; Dallas, Tampa, Anaheim, Calgary), five of ten teams with under three top line players (Los Angeles, Vancouver, St. Louis, Nashville, Phoenix made it; Columbus, Colorado, Minnesota, Winnipeg, Carolina missed it), and four of nine teams with exactly three top line players last year (Rangers, Washington, Ottawa, Florida made it, Edmonton, Montreal, Buffalo, Toronto, Islanders missed it). It doesn’t seem to matter how many 1st line forwards a team has, they can still make or miss the playoffs.
However, looking at top six players was much more instructive. Only Colorado missed the playoffs of teams with more than six top six forwards, while Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Nashville, New Jersey, Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Vancouver, and Washington all made the playoffs with more than six players scoring at a top six rate. This bodes well for the construction of the Blue Jackets. Provided those eight players at or near a top six rate hit that range, they should have enough offense to be a playoff team. It really appears that having three lines that can score at a reasonable rate is more conducive to winning than loading up one line.
So what does this mean moving forward? Well look at the chart below. Twelve teams enter next season with more than six players who scored at a top six rate last year. Boston should continue to be good, Colorado and Carolina should also contend for the playoffs. Phoenix, St. Louis, and Florida could disappoint, as they have less than six top six guys. Dallas, Toronto, and Winnipeg could all be nice sleeper picks. If Dubinsky and Johansen can step up their games, and Anisimov, Atkinson, Brassard, Foligno, Prospal, and Umberger can all maintain theirs, the Jackets could be counted among those sleepers.
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-Chart is for current rosters based on last years statistics