When Seth Jones joined the team almost two years ago, it was an upgrade to a struggling Columbus Blue Jackets defense corps. When Zach Werenski joined later in the year, people started taking the Blue Jackets defense seriously. With the addition of Markus Nutivaara and now Gabriel Carlsson, Columbus has one the top up-and-coming defensive corps in the league.
Columbus Blue Jackets Defense Corps on the Rise
While the Blue Jackets may not have the best defense in the league, this is a team that went from a struggling blueline to one of the best. It definitely did not happen overnight. Through a deliberate plan of shedding the older and slower players, and acquiring younger faster players, this is a defense corps on the rise. So how did we get here?
Columbus Blue Jackets Defensive Struggles
In 2014-15 the six Blue Jackets that played the most games with the team were the following: David Savard, 82 games; Jack Johnson, 79 games; Fedor Tyutin, 67 games; Dalton Prout, 63 games, James Wisniewski, 56 games; Kevin Connauton, 56 games. Out of those six players, only two are still with the team. In a previous article about the changes general manager Jarmo Kekalainen, we considered the defensemen he traded or bought out.
Savard, who played all 82 games, had a relative CF% of -.05 and a xGA of 49.97. Johnson, who played in 79 games, had a relative CF% of 0.41 and a xGA of 50.67.
In 2014-15, the team had a xGA of 149.06, GA/60 of 2.57, xGA/60 of 2.31. The team was also 25th in goals against with 166 over 82 games. Strong defensive teams like the Nashville Predators had a xGA of 122.54 and a xGA/60 of 1.87; The St. Louis Blues had a xGA of 128.08 and a xGA/60 of 1.95.
Blue Jackets Defensive Woes Follow into 2015-16
The following season the Blue Jackets defensive line-up had a little bit of a shakeup. Ryan Murray played in all 82 games, Cody Goloubef played in 43 games, and Seth Jones played in 41 games after being traded from Nashville.
By the time Columbus traded for Jones, it was too late for any hopes of the playoffs or even finishing outside the bottom ten. The team had a xGA of 154.52, GA/60 of 2.44, and a xGA/60 of 2.54. Over 82 games they had 159 goals against, 27th in the league.
Ryan Murray, who played with Jones once he was traded to Columbus, was one of the few bright spots on the defense that season. While his stats may not be that great, once he played with Jones the two flourished and gave fans some hope for the future. Murray’s relative CF% was a -0.59 and his xGA were 57.91.
Jones played in 81 games, 40 of those with the Nashville Predators, but his numbers as a whole were another bright spot. A relative CF% of 2.53 and a xGA of 52.92. With Nashville, Jones was playing behind guys like Shea Weber, Roman Josi, and Mattias Ekholm, never really given the opportunity to play on the first pairing. In Columbus, Jones has been able to play on the first pairing and has been given the opportunity to reach his full potential.
Looking again at Nashville, they had a xGA of 121.88 and xGA/60 of 1.86. St. Louis had a xGA of 133.25 and a xGA/60 of 2.05. The Blues would go on to make the Western Conference Finals that year as well.
Columbus Blue Jackets Defense Rising to Expectations
There’s been a lot of changes on the blueline since the 2015-16 season.
There is no Prout, Tyutin, Wisniewski in the top-six. Instead, there is Werenski, Nutivaara, and most recently Carlsson. Werenski and Jones have thrived together, Jones has looked like a player older than just 23 years old. His relative CF% is a 5.63 and his xGA is 8.91. The xGA seems high but compared to Alex Pietrangelo’s 8.28, P.K. Subban’s 9.02, and Brent Burns 7.90 it doesn’t seem as high. Especially when Jones is still in his early twenties.
Werenski was a Calder Trophy finalist last year and has only been given even a longer leash to reach his full offensive potential. So far, he has eight points in 13 games, which will likely rise once the powerplay starts to click.
— NHL (@NHL) October 18, 2017
Nutivaara spent some up in Cleveland in the AHL to get back up to speed after hip surgery. Now that he’s returned to Columbus he’s picking up right where he left off. Not only does Nutivaara look like his old self, he looks even better.
— ColumbusBlueJackets (@BlueJacketsNHL) October 31, 2017
Better With Age
The Blue Jackets were fourth in the league in goals against with 132, compared to 27th in the league the year before and 25th the year before that.
Currently, Columbus sits 7th in the league in GA/60 at 2.13. The St. Louis Blues are number one with 1.53. Columbus also has a xGA/60 of 2.29 which is good for 12th in the league. Also, according to Hockey-Reference.com, the Blue Jackets have faced the 2nd toughest schedule and still sit 5th in points.
If we look back at St. Louis and Nashville, their average age for their defense are 27.5 for the Blues and 27 for the Predators. The Blue Jackets defense has an average age of 23.9. Between Werenski and Jones Columbus has one of the youngest first pairings in the league.
There’s no doubt that the Blue Jackets defense is in the top of the league. However, maybe the best part is that they’re just going to get better. With Jack Johnson’s contract ending this year, and it’s unlikely Columbus re-signs him, the defense will be getting younger with Carlsson getting a permanent spot in the top-six.
There will be growing pains, but the Blue Jackets defense corps will just be getting better as they get older.