It goes without saying that this has been an historic season for the Columbus Blue Jackets, and the defensive corps deserves a great deal of credit for making it so. In the 2015-16 season, the defense was the talking point of fans, pundits, and the coaching staff alike for all the wrong reasons. In the space of one off-season, however, the defensive corps has managed to assuage these concerns and prove their value.
Defensive Depth the Key to Columbus Blue Jackets Success
It should be mentioned that the defense improving isn’t the only factor to the success this season, with Sergei Bobrovsky having another Vezina Trophy worthy season, and special teams playing a huge role as well. The coaching staff has done a fantastic job in their transactions leading up to this season and even up to this point. With the pieces coming together this season, the Blue Jackets could easily make a deep run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Before even diving into the analytics and baseline statistics, it needs to be said that the Columbus Blue Jackets truly have found an elite first pairing between Seth Jones and Zach Werenski. Jones has turned out to be a solid contributor on the offensive end of the ice, but has really made his name shutting down opposing offenses consistently. And next to him is the best rookie that Columbus has ever had, Zach Werenski. When you compare this to the Jack Johnson and either David Savard, Ryan Murray, or Fedor Tyutin first pairing of years past, you start to understand why the first unit has been so widely applauded this season.
Now to the baseline statistics, and they speak volumes in favor of the top pairing of Jones and Werenski. Jones is seventh on the team in scoring with 11 goals and 30 assists on the season, impressive numbers for a defenseman known primarily for his shutdown abilities. Above him is his first pair partner Zach Werenski, who sits fifth on the team in points with 47 in his inaugural NHL season, a Columbus Blue Jackets rookie record for points. When you take into account that the former record holder was Rick Nash, it becomes even more impressive of a feat.
Another impressive factor for the top pairing is that Jones and Werenski have a combined 27 points on the man advantage this season. It should be noted that 21 of those points come from Werenski, who is only a single point back of the team-leading 22 of Alexander Wennberg. Truly impressive season from a potential Calder Trophy defenseman.
To give a better idea of how impressive the season has been for the top pairing, one of the best analytics to look at would be score, venue, and zone adjust Relative Corsi For percentage. Werenski comes in at a fantastic 3.40, another impressive number to bolster his Calder Trophy hopes come the end of the season. Jones is no slouch in this respect either, coming in at 2.17, good for third among Blue Jackets blueliners in the 2016-17 season.
Much of the season has seen a second pairing comprised of Jack Johnson and David Savard. Oddly enough, this pairing has turned out to be very solid for the Blue Jackets, and they both deserve a good deal of credit for their contributions to a playoff season. Johnson has done what he is good at, not making mistakes and eating a ton of ice time. Savard, on the other hand, has arguably been one of the best players on the roster this year. His consistency and reliable play have been a major factor to the staunchness of the Blue Jackets blue line.
Both Savard and Johnson have respectable numbers for second pairing defenseman on the season, that’s for sure. Savard is just slightly ahead of Johnson in total points, with 22 in 67 games played, six of them being goals and 16 assists. Johnson isn’t far behind at 20 total points himself, with only three goals and adding 17 assists in the process. Unlike the first pairing, these two haven’t been a force on the man advantage, with only two points between the two, and both of those coming from Johnson.
As for the analytics, they both speak volumes for their play this year. Savard is second among Columbus’ defenseman with an extremely impressive 3.37 Relative Corsi For percentage, just barely behind rookie sensation Werenski. Johnson, while not bad, is doing decently at 0.82 for the season, proving that Savard has done well taking much of the load off him on the second pairing. In the end, this is one of the stronger second pairings Columbus has seen in some time, and that have played a pivotal role in securing the best regular season in Blue Jackets history.
Third Pairing and Depth Defenseman
This is where the depth chart starts to get a bit worrying. While many fans have come to enjoy the play of Markus Nutivaara, he is no exception to the fact that the third pairing and depth defensemen have been quite subpar this season. Add in the likes of Ryan Murray, Scott Harrington, Dalton Prout for a short period of time, and now Kyle Quincey, and you get a very shaky bottom third of the depth chart.
A note of emphasis needs to be put on the fact that Harrington and Prout have played far too small of a sample size this season to make a solid determination, but the same cannot be said for Nutivaara. In his first season in the NHL, Nutivaara has shown glimpses of promise, and his play has earned him 60 games for the Blue Jackets. During those 60 games he has contributed two goals and five assists. What Nutivaara doesn’t contribute offensively, he generally makes up for in relatively solid play in his own end of the ice.
As for Prout and Harrington, both were listed at seventh and eighth on the depth chart respectively coming into the season. Harrington got a few chances this season, getting 18 games under his belt, and has looked decent at times. It’s still unclear whether Harrington will develop into a third pairing NHL defenseman, or if the arrival of Quincey and healthy Ryan Murray will push him back down to top pairing minutes with the Cleveland Monsters. Prout, on the other hand, wasn’t able to prove that he had anything that Harrington couldn’t offer, and was eventually shipped off to the New Jersey Devils in a one-for-one trade for Kyle Quincey.
Another name in the bottom end of the defensive corps is none other than Ryan Murray. Murray has undoubtedly performed well below expectations for a large part of his short career to this point. There were glimpses of what he could be last year when playing alongside Jones or Savard, but that play didn’t seem to cross over into the 2016-17 season, seeing Murray eventually drop down to third pairing minutes alongside Nutivaara. His season has, unsurprisingly, experienced yet another injury. But when healthy Murray has contributed two goals and nine assists in 60 games, almost entirely on the bottom pairing.
For the sake of the fact that Quincey hasn’t played enough games for the Blue Jackets yet to make a determination on him, he gets a pass for the time being. Since arriving from New Jersey he has been filling in for the injured Murray and Nutivaara, performing well relative to expectations. It’s unlikely that Quincey will ever be anything other than an insurance pick up for the bottom end of the defensive corps. But if he can perform well, there’s no reason he can’t take one of the two spots from either Murray or Nutivaara.
The analytics don’t have much of anything positive to say for all of the mentioned defenseman this season, as the best among them, Dalton Prout, had a -1.01 Rel.CF% over the course of 25 games for Columbus. After Prout, it gets even worse as Nutivaara comes in at -5.33, Harrington (in 18 games) comes in at -5.82, and Murray at -6.62. This means that the bottom pairing is most definitely the weakest part of the entire roster right now, a point of emphasis to improve before the playoffs start.
The top two pairings have performed well above expectations this season, and because of that Columbus has only conceded 30.5 shots against per game (13th in the NHL), and only 2.27 goals against per game, second to the Washington Capitals at 2.16. The analytics prove that the play of the top four defenseman is not only solid, but sustainable. Because of this, don’t be surprised if Columbus can make a respectable run at Lord Stanley’s Cup.
As for the bottom pairing, whoever it is from now until the end of the season, the play needs to improve significantly. With more defenseman coming through the pipeline in Gabriel Carlsson, Dean Kukan, Andrew Peeke, Vladislov Gavrikov, and multiple other promising prospects, don’t be surprised to see some new faces to preseason camp, and maybe even a new bottom pairing come the 2017-18 season.