2011 Exit Interviews: The Blue Line

As we continue our Exit Interviews series, we'll jump from the forwards temporarily over to the defense, where we'll try to figure out how each player stacked up against their expectations.

Since a lot of rotation occurred between Springfield and Columbus thanks to injuries, I'm limiting this to players who got into at least 20 games in a CBJ uniform. That means, for example, that Mike Commodore and Rusty Klesla will be included, but Nick Holden and John Moore will be evaluated when we get to prospects, and Craig Rivet won't be talked about at all, which is probably for the best.

(I'm also going to cheat and talk about Sami Lepisto, because he had 19 games with the Jackets, and what's the point of rules if you can't break them? Just so you've been warned...)

Let's get one thing out straight away - The Jackets allowed 258 goals last year. That's 25th in the NHL. 

Some teams can make the playoffs despite those kind of numbers if their offense can bail them out (Detroit allowed 241, Tampa Bay 240, Anaheim allowed 235), but generally if you're giving up an average of 3.14 goals a game, you're in some trouble...especially if you only score 2.62 goals a game. That doesn't entirely rest on the shoulders of the defense, but it's certainly an area where they had a good bit of responsibility.

I'll also say that with the transition to Scott Arniel's new style of play, every defenseman had an expectation that he would be involved with the offense more, and expected to pinch in and/or move the puck up ice more than previously, so we don't have to keep stating that.

Fedor Tyutin - D

  • 27 years old
  • 7 Goals, 20 assists (27 points) in 80 games
  • -12
  • 32 PIM

What We Expected:

Acquired in the Zherdev trade from the Rangers, Tyutin was the first piece of evidence that Scott Howson was able to make some pretty sneaky trades when given the chance. Arguably Columbus' MVP in the previous season, Tyutin was one of the biggest minute munchers for both Claude Noel and Ken Hitchcock, asked to play over 22 minutes a night on a regular basis, Tyutin had a pair of 30+ point seasons for the Jackets going into 2010-2011, and it was expected that his skills would continue to develop under Scott Arniel - partcularly on the power play, where he had been a consistent threat.

What We Got:

Though Tyutin still lead the club in PPA with 11, that's...not really a reassuring stat. While 7 goals on the year was an improvement over last year, he took a step back in total points as his assists dropped sharply, particularly at even strength. Tyutin did a better job of staying out of the box, cutting his PIMs from 81 down to 32, but his -12 +/- was the worst of his pro career.

Thought Scott Arniel clearly tried to balance the TOI better for his defensemen, the worse the Jackets' D adjusted to his system, the more time Tyutin got - he averaged almost 23 minutes a night, and in some games down the stretch it wasn't unusual to see him out there for over 26 minutes. He's also making a very managable $2,750,000 - less than comparable d-men Ian White or Joni Pitkanen, though Pitkanen does bring more offensive pop to make up for some of that price tag.

What I found interesting, looking at his perfomance, is that the majority of Tyutin's penalties, and the entireity of his negative +/- rating, came on the road. He had 6 PIMs and an even rating at home. It leads me to believe that despite getting the minutes of a top pairing d-man, Tyutin struggled in matchups against opponents' top lines, particularly when they had the advantage of last change to get matchups against him. 

Given that Tyutin is one of two d-men under contract for next season (as opposed to an RFA or UFA), that's a concern - this is one of the guys you want providing stability in all situations, and it's clear that he's not as ready for it as perhaps we believed.

Though he earns some points for his offensive contributions, particularly on the road, where he had 5 of his goals and 8 of his assists, and clearly was one of the guys to really "get" the Arniel system faster than most of his peers, I still look at the fact that his -12 was the worst among defensemen on the club, and I can't give Fedor anything higher than a for this season.

What We Need to See:

You have to learn to play on the road. I'd like to see Tyutin get back to being a 30-40 point contributor again, absolutely, but before anything else he has to learn how to match up on the road. Barring a big surprise at the draft or the trade deadline, Tyutin is going to be asked to keep drawing the hard minutes for this team, and he has to be ready for them.

 

Marc Methot - D

  • 25 Years Old
  • 0 goals and 15 assists in 74 games
  • +2
  • 58 PIMs

What We Expected:

Coming into the penultimate year of his current contract, Marc Methot is a divisive figure among the Jackets' fanbase - partially from his "I make the team, or I'm demanding a trade" remarks to the Dispatch a few years ago, which set a certain level of antipathy up among the fans. Methot was not expected to be a big piece on the offensive side, but he was expected to settle into the second or third pairing as a reliable option, and perhaps prove that he was worth keeping around for the NEXT contract.

What We Got:

Marc Methot turned out to be a surprising gem under Scott Arniel, logging 20 minutes a night (and averaging more time on the PK than any d-man except Klesla) and frequently laid his body on the line at both ends of the ice. Methot lead the Jackets' D-corps with 176 hits, and came in fourth in blocked shots with 98. Though he was the only d-man not to score a goal, he was also the only d-man who saw virtually no time on the power play - a bit surprising when you think of how many combinations Scott Arniel went through trying to find a winning formula.

Though he had his share of bad plays and gaffes, he was still one of only four Jackets' d-men to finish with a positive +/- rating (and the only one who played in Columbus the entire season). Interestingly, over half of his PIMs this year came against Chicago and St. Louis, including both of his fighting majors this season. Think he's bought into the rivalry?

The biggest problem I see with Methot, outside of his lack of goal scoring, is that he clearly suffered a drop after the all star break - in the previous 44 games, he had all 15 of his points and a +7 rating, 97 hits, and 56 blocked shots. All of his stats dropped afterwards. Could he be one of the players who needs to work on his conditioning? At the least, it doesn't seem like he was as able to cope with the demands of a full season as well as he might have. (Interestingly, that's also around the same point that Methot's defense partner would have started changing up more often, as he stopped playing as much with Rusty Klesla, and spent m

At a current pricetag of just over $1 million, Methot compares pretty favorably to Jonathan Ericsson, also an RFA this year, and a much better deal than Steve Eminger of the Rangers.

We'll call this year a B+ - Methot clearly met most expectations, and exceeded others. A little more offense would have tilted it to an A, but still a strong showing.

What We Need to See:

Well, first off, we need to see if Scott Howson can come to an agreement with Methot on a new deal, though at this point I don't see why not. Beyond that, Methot needs to work on his late season ability - whether the issues after the all star break were trying to compensate for a different d-partner, problems with his conditioning, or a little of both, he has to make himself better. It's clear that the coaching staff will be putting him in key situations down the stretch.

 

Kris Russell - D

  • 24 years old
  • 5 Goals, 18 assists (23 points) in 73 games
  • -9
  • 37 PIM

What We Expected:

After Scott Arniel was hired, if there was one defenseman who was expected to flourish under a coach who encouraged his forwards to drive offense and join the rush, it was Kris Russell.  With his skating ability, speed, and ability to break around other team's defenses, many expected him to take a step up as the team's top offensive defenseman.

What We Got:

Unfortunately, a knee injury suffered on the second day of training camp meant that the 2005 third round pick was forced to rehab and recover while his teammates sweated their way through learning what their new coach wanted, and once he was healthy, it took him quite awhile to get up to speed. Paired for much of the season with Anton Stralman or Mike Commodore, while he was in Columbus, some of Russell's -9 rating (third worst, behind Tyutin and Stralman) may be explained by the difficulties of his partners - how many times did we see Russell attempting in vain to defend against two on 1 breaks and rushes because his partner couldn't catch up with the play?

Though he didn't take a huge leap forward, Russell did have a career high with 23 points, and seems to be on something of a gradual up-curve, jumping from 10 points in his rookie year to 21 in his Sophomore season, 22 last year, and now 23. 

Surprisingly, Russell was also one of the team's top shot blockers, with 128 blocks, behind only Jan Hejda. Something that you wouldn't expect from the "offensive" d-man, but with his speed and ability to get between the goal and the shooter, it makes a certain sense.

Also interesting is that unlike Fedor Tyutin, who excelled at home and suffered on the road, Russell was actually a much more effective player in away games, with 13 points, a +1 rating, and most of his power play scoring away from Nationwide Arena. Some of this may be attributed to how many times Russell was out there on the points when our power play went awry, but it almost makes me wonder if he was being put onto the ice too often with last change, a reflexive move to get the quick, speedy shooter out there, instead playing him more situationally?

Regardless, it was a year that Russell was expected to really come into his own, and instead he made minimal improvements, but still stayed around the pack. Under contract through 2013 at a reasonable $1.3 million, it'll be great value if he can step it up, but until then he's playing right about the level one might expect for his performance. C+

What We Need to See:

Much like some of the forwards, we need Kris to shoot more - despite having a good gift for the net, he only fired 88 shots on net this season, and only 46 more missed the net, for a total of 134. Put more rubber around the goalie, especially on the power play, and get more comfortable moving the puck from the point. We also need to figure out why he got burned more than a side of toast at home, but that's something that rests as much on Scott Arniel as it does Mr. Russell. Last but not least...Russell has said himself that Scott Arniel is coaching the exact kind of hockey he loves to play. Show it! Step up, Mr. Russell, and make a splash.

 

Grant Clitsome - D

  • 26 years old
  • 4 Goals and 15 assists (19 points) in 31 games
  • +2
  • 16 PIMs

What We Expected:

A soon to be free agent, Clitsome was drafted in the 9th round in 2004, but unlike fellow Draftee Marc Methot, he hadn't quite made the breakthrough into the NHL coming into this season. After graduating from Clarkson, he spent time with the Crunch and had a brief cup of coffee in 2009-2010, but nobody really knew quite what to expect from Grant this season.

What We Got:

The other pleasant surprise on the blue line, much like the aforementioned Methot, Clitsome was called up just before the all star break, and arrived with a splash, invigorating the Jackets' power play and delivering two goals and four assists in his first 7 games, then contributing another pair of goals and 11 more helpers (6 of them with the man advantage) before a knee on knee hit by Mikko Koivu took him out of the lineup until the very end of the season.

Eating over 21 minutes a night (and averaging 3 and a half minutes on the power play every game in addition to over a minute and a half of penalty killing) and performing equally well at home or the road, Clitsome was one of the few to finish with a positive rating on the ice and a true all around perfomer.

Clitsome showed a promising shot, a great improvement to the team's puck moving skills, and inspired a wide range of t-shirts and increasingly dirty chants in Nationwide. Not bad for someone who wasn't expected to be more than an injury call up. My only regret is that the Jackets didn't have him with the team from 8 o'clock on day 1 of the season.  A+

What We Need to See:

Like Methot, Clitsome is due for a pay raise.  Assuming he wants to stay in Columbus, and not test the waters on July 1st, I wouldn't be surprised to see him offered a 2-3 year deal in the $1.2-1.4 million range, putting him at the same payscale as Kris Russell or Matt Niskanen. Beyond that, it's just a matter of preparing for a full season at the NHL level, and finding a nice place to live around the Arena.

 

Sami Lepisto

  • 26 years old
  • 5 assists in 19 games with Columbus, 4 goals and 7 assists in 51 games with Phoenix.
  • +7 with Phoenix, +3 with Columbus
  • 37 PIM with Phoenix, 18 with Columbus

What We Expected:

Acquired in the Rusty Klesla deal, Lepisto was, aside from his rampant love of Twitter, expected mostly to be a puck moving defenseman who might add a bit of offense to the blue line. 

What We Got:

Though much of his offense in a Blue Jackets' uniform came in one massive outburst against the Wild, Lepisto was able to slide into the Jackets' blue line seamlessly, and did quite a bit to drive the play and deliver timely hits from his first appearance in Vancouver until the final game of the season vs. Buffalo. Delivering hits and blocking shots every game, he didn't hesitate one bit, giving his all to his new club. Defensively responsible, you really didn't  see him get beaten off the puck or make weak plays. We expected a bit of a throw in, and we got a guy who I think could be every bit as much of a building block as Grant Clitsome, if for different reasons, at a very low price. A

What We Need to See:

It seems like a no-brainer that Scott Howson will qualify the Finnish defenseman, who is currently training to join the Finnish National team at the IIHF World Championships. Assuming that's done, the biggest thing we need from him is to keep using his speed and poise around the puck, but perhaps get a bit more rubber on the net. Lepisto had 25 shots in 19 games with the Jackets, though that's actually quite an improvement compared to the 31 shots in 51 games he registered this season with Phoenix...perhaps another sign that the Scott Arniel system agrees with him.

 

Jan Hejda - D

  • 32 years old
  • 5 goals, 15 assists (20 points) in 77 games
  • -6
  • 28 PIM

What We Expected:

One of Scott Howson's first "ninja" free agent signings, when he brought Hejda in from the Oiler's system during his first year as Columbus' GM, Hejda had two years of exceptional defensive performance under Ken Hitchcock, setting the franchise single season record for +/- at 23, while forming a shutdown pair with Mike Commodore that seemed a no-brainer.

Then, something changed. Opponents who had figured out how to attack Steve Mason also figured out how to bust around the positionally sound but not exactly speedy Czech d-man, and his -14 in 2009-10 was his worst finish since the start of his NHL career. It was an open question how Hejda would fit into Scott Arniel's system, and if he'd be able to regain his position as one of the team's defensive cornerstones.

What We Got:

Though Hejda was still leaned on in shorthanded situations, it took much of the year for him to really get comfortable playing under Scott Arniel (in fact, he was -8 through the all star break, with only two goals and 7 assists. He'd do most of his goal scoring and improve his +/- rating in February, March, and April.) Interestingly, Hejda's improved stats came with a sharp decrease in hits and blocked shots - he went from averaging three blocks and three hits a game down to two per game, and his stats blossomed. Perhaps a case of re-learning his timing? 

Much like Russell, he actually had much better stats, both in offensive performance and defensive ratings, on the road.  Was he being overused on the PK, with Scott Arniel relying on his ability to manage the kill and get into position? If so, was the arrival of Grant Clitsome and Sami Lepisto part of the reason he began to improve, as some of his workload was put onto the younger men's shoulders?

That seems entirely possible, but it's not a ringing endorsement for someone in a contract year, especially when he's on the "wrong" side of 30. C-

What We Need to See:

If Jan Hejda is resigned, and I think that's currently a very open question, he needs to be paired with a partner who will allow Hejda to keep playing a positional game, while his partner reacts with speed and good puck management. If he was overused on the PK and against opponents top lines, then we need to manage him better - perhaps it would be better to give him 17-18 minutes a night instead of counting on him for 21-23.

 

Anton Stralman - D

  • 24 years old
  • 1 goal, 17 assists (18 points) in 51 games
  • -11
  • 22 PIM

What We Expected:

After negotiations that came right down to the wire, Stralman was expected to be a big part of the team's power play. Known to be a defensive liability, we were willing to look the other way if he delivered another 30+ point season, especially since it seemed that putting him in a style of play that catered to offensively gifted defensemen would help him, much as we expected for Kris Russell. I even went so far as to ask if he could be a better offensive playerthan the much discussed Sheldon Souray for the Jackets.

What We Got:

If it wasn't for Mike Commodore, Stralman would probably be considered the biggest failure, defensively, on the team. The third highest paid d-man on the roster after his RFA negotiation, He didn't just fail to step up, he actively collapsed, and this time his offensive performance didn't hold up to his weaknesses. Directly responsible for lost power play opportunities (how many times did we see him on the point for the power play, lose the puck to an opponent, and take a hooking call?) and giving up some wretched goals, Stralman didn't pick up his first multi-point game until February, and didn't have points in back to back games until the last week of the season. He missed almost as much time with injuries as he did with benchings from an increasingly frustrated Scott Arniel, and considering how hard fought his contract negotiations were last year, it's likely he burned quite a bit of goodwill in the front office even before the year started. D-, and I'm being generous.

What We Need to See:

In the unlikely event he returns, Stralman either needs to get with the program defensively, or he needs to start putting pucks in the back of the net like nobody's business, or he might find his way back to Sweden in quite a hurry.

 

 

Mike Commodore - D

  • 31 years old
  • 2 goals and 4 assists (6 points) in 20 games. 83 hot dogs and 6 pulled pork sandwhiches eaten from the press box with the Springfield Falcons.
  • -8
  • 44 PIM

What We Expected:

Scott Arniel said that he expected Mike Commodore would be the guy coming to camp with the most to prove. After one playoff appearance, one utterly wretched year affected by the swine flu, groin injuries, a hip injury, and even being told to go home and get himself in shape rather than trying to play, Commodore was the club's highest paid defenseman, and third highest paid player...but nobody quite seemed to know what we were going to get from him. Would he be the leader and steady d-man who helped the team to the playoffs, or the guy who spent most of the season on the IR and talking about his racehorses on Twitter? Looking at his stats,we expected a bounce back year. 

What We Got:

Stats aren't everything. Once again coming into camp with questions about his conditioning and fitness, Commodore had a decent pre-season despite being in trade rumors almost from the first day of camp, but injured himself during the team's start in Sweden and constantly seemed to clash with head coach Scott Arniel, finally culminating in his demotion to Springfield, where he began to clash with AHL and NHL fans on Twitter on a regular basis. Managing to rack up a -8 in only 20 games (impressive, considering he was "only" a -9 in 57 games the previous year), he once again seemed much to slow, and unable to match up with quality opponents. Only appearing in 11 games for the Falcons, and clearing re-waivers multiple times, nobody wanted Mike Commodore at the NHL level, even at half price. Do they even give people an F- in school? If not, well, let's start here.

What We Need to See: Unless Scott Howson can pull some kind of Jedi mind trick at the draft and trade Commodore to a team desperate to make the cap floor (and, hey, Garth Snow has made stranger moves), I'd expect to see him bought out and cut loose.

 

Rostislav Klesla - D

  • 29 years old
  • 3 goals and 7 assists in 45 games with Columbus (10 points). 1 goal in 16 games with Phoenix
  • +10 in Columbus, -6 in Phoenix
  • 26 PIM im Columbus, 12 PIM in Phoenix

What We Expected:

On the first year of a new contract, the last "Original Blue Jacket"  was expected to make his way as a leader on the defense and in the locker room as they attempted to return from the postseason. Rehabbed and ready after major stomach and groin injuries (including several torn muscles), he was expected to be a reliable shutdown guy who could throw a goal or two in now and then.

What We Got:

Klesla started the year just as we hoped, even leading the NHL in +/- for much of the early season, but injuries once again took him out of the lineup in early January, and when he still wasn't ready to go as the trade deadline rolled around, Scott Howson made the decision to offer him up on the trade market to the Coyotes, trading two players he hoped would put Columbus over the hump in exchange for one who wasn't able to contribute on the ice. 

it was a hard decision, and many may quesiton it - particularly if Scottie Upshall doesn't re-sign in Columbus, but I think it was a strong deal, and a case where, despite the fact that he couldn't stay, Klesla was still able to help the team that shaped him into a pro player. B for actual season, A for his long term commitment and the results of the trade. 

What We Need to See:

Honestly, I'd just like to see him win a game against Detroit with the Coyotes...

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