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Thursday, November 4, 2010
Jackets' numbers give reason to pause

By Pierre LeBrun

Hands up all you hockey fans who had the Columbus Blue Jackets winning seven of their first 11 games this season and, on the morning of Nov. 5, sitting with as many wins as the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks.

Yeah, didn't think so. I know I certainly didn't see it coming, either.

But before we all coronate the Jackets as this season's version of the 2009-10 Phoenix Coyotes, a club that stunned the hockey world, understand that the Columbus GM himself isn't sold just yet.

"We're still a work in progress," Scott Howson told ESPN.com Wednesday. "We started strong last year, too, recordwise. So we're not thinking we're one of the better teams now. We've got a lot of work ahead of us and the players know that. We've got a lot to prove. That's our mindset."

A closer look at the numbers reveals the basis for Howson's hesitation. Yes he's happy with a lot of what he's seeing, particularly surprising contributions from the likes of Kyle Wilson and Derek MacKenzie for example.

But right there in black and white are some troubling numbers, particularly a 24th-ranked power play and a 29th-ranked offense.

"Some of our top people like Rick [Nash], [Jakub] Voracek and [Antoine] Vermette -- they haven't produced yet like we know they can," Howson said. "We hope that's going to change and I thought Rick had a real strong game Tuesday night."

Nash scored a beauty against the Habs on Tuesday night, but he has only six points (4-2) in 11 games entering Thursday night's game at Atlanta.

The Blue Jackets haven't had to score much when Mathieu Garon has been in net this season. The veteran backup is 3-0-0 on the young season with a 1.15 goals-against average and .957 save percentage. In comparison, starter Steve Mason is 4-4-0 with a 3.30 GAA and .894 save percentage. Goalie controversy?

"No goalie controversy," Howson said. "Mathieu is really competitive but he knows why he's here. Obviously he's ready to play any chance he gets. He's very supportive of Steve and there's very much a team focus down there between the two of them."

Perhaps the real unsung hero so far has been defenseman Marc Methot, who leads all Jackets players in ice time at 21:06 per game, providing the kind of top-four minutes the Jackets probably didn't know they could get from him.

But who's kidding whom. The big story for Columbus is behind the bench. Scott Arniel was an inspired choice as head coach, much like Guy Boucher in Tampa Bay. Both rookie NHL head coaches have brought fresh ideas to the plate, and the players on both teams are buying in.

Howson interviewed six coaching candidates last spring and Arniel made his case.

"Scott was really impressive," Howson said. "I didn't know him really. The thing that impresses you about Scott is that he's very confident about who he is and what he wants to do. And that really came across in both his interviews. I think the players have seen that side of him, that he's confident and ready for this challenge. He's very fair. And he's calm behind the bench. He's connected well with the players."