2016 Season Preview: The Defense
Can a full season of a real top pairing pay dividends?
The Columbus Blue Jackets gave up 252 goals last season, good for 29th in the league.
Chalk it up to injuries, poor goaltending, what have you. That’s a bad number any way you slice it.
This season, however, hope springs eternal on the blue line. Seth Jones is here, and will be for a full season. He will be 22 when the curtain opens on the season, and is under contract for the next six years. He only has room to improve. Ryan Murray, inked recently to a bridge deal, will likely start the season next to Jones on the blue line, forming the first true #1 pairing in franchise history. Zach Werenski will be here- fresh out of the University of Michigan and his stellar run through the AHL playoffs last season, he looks to immediately upgrade the offensive capabilities of the blue line.
Other familiar faces return to anchor the back end as well. Jack Johnson will return, as will his frequent partner David Savard. Dalton Prout, fresh off of his extension, is back. Fedor Tyutin will not return, having been bought out over the summer. Cody Goloubef is slated to return, though he is currently injured.
With the roster mostly set, let’s have a look at each of the players who figure to see significant ice time this coming season for the Union Blue.
THE UNQUESTIONED LEADERS
Seth Jones: Any discussion of the blue liners starts with Seth Jones. Jones, acquired last season in a trade you may have heard a little about, played 41 games for Columbus. He registered 2-18-20 in his time here, and his 1.04 points per 60 minutes led all Jackets defensemen. He posted an even-strength CF% of 52.7%, also good enough to lead all blue liners.
Jones is expected to lead the team in ice time, play shut down defense, and chip in on the offensive end. To the last point, his shooting percentage should go up this season. A career 4.5% shooter, Jones only hit 2.4% last year in Columbus. Expect that to go up and, as a result, a few more goals from Jones. He will anchor the top pair and feature on both the power play and the penalty kill this year. Expect a monster season from Seth Jones this year.
Ryan Murray: Oh yeah, there’s another top 5 pick on the top pairing. Ryan Murray played his first full season in Columbus, registering 4-21-25 on the season. Murray looked much more comfortable last season once Seth Jones arrived, and that chemistry can only grow this year. Another injury free season from #27 would be huge in his development, and would finally allow the Blue Jackets to roll out a top pairing that can play 23+ minutes per night, sheltering the weaker parts of the defense.
Murray, like Jones, will see time in all three phases of the game, and is expected to help carry the blue line while remaining more of a “stay at home” defenseman. Expect to see his CF% of 47.6% go up this year as he has a full season next to Jones.
THE SQUISHY MIDDLE OF THE BLUE LINE
Why is it squishy? I think any of these guys can be paired together, or with one of the above two, given the Torts Line Blender, on any given night.
Zach Werenski: I love this kid already. He’s going to be great in Columbus. At age 19, after leaving Michigan and joining the Cleveland Monsters (then Lake Erie) for their playoff run, he registered 5-9-14 in 17 games to help the team raise the Calder Cup last spring. Watching the Monsters last spring, or the Blue Jackets this preseason, it has been almost impossible not to notice Werenski making his presence known out there.
There were questions if he was ready for full time NHL duty, however. Werenski has emphatically answered them with his mature play, his nose for goal, and his steadiness on the back end. He will make the club out of camp, and he will play for the Jackets this season. What do we expect from him? Well, he’s a rookie. Expect some ebbs and flows as he adjusted to the NHL’s speed and physicality. But also, you should expect flashes of the talent that made him the 8th overall pick. I am, personally, most excited to watch Werenski’s development over the course of the 2016-17 season.
Jack Johnson: Suddenly the veteran on the blue line, Jack Johnson comes into the season on the heels of an injury-shortened 2015-16 campaign that still saw him lead the blue line with 6 goals (to go along with 8 assists). Once Seth Jones arrived, Johnson saw himself shuffled to the second pairing, though he still logged over 24 minutes of ice time last season.
Where does that leave him this year? I fully expect Johnson’s minutes to be reduced as Jones and Murray take over the defense. Johnson, not expected to face top competition on a night to night basis, could see his possession numbers and fancy stats rise.
David Savard: What on earth do you predict for David Savard this season? Two years ago, he was a machine on the blue line, racking up career numbers (11-25-36) and a $4.5 million extension. Last year, he struggled (4-21-25), played injured for part of the season, and underwent ankle surgery in the offseason.
So, which guy is he? The goal scoring threat from the point, or the guy who played way under those numbers and often looked overmatched on the ice? I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle, and anticipate a middle pairing for Savard (with Johnson or Werenski), and a line somewhere about 6-24-30 this season.
BOTTOM PAIRING GUYS AND YOUR NIGHTLY SCRATCHES
Dalton Prout: We won’t get into a discussion of Prout’s contract or his style of play here. Everyone’s points and stances are well known. He’s going to be here, and he’s going to see ice time.
The question is: how much is he going to play? Prout saw career numbers last season, posting 3-6-9 last year, though his TOI dropped to a career low 16:10 in 64 games. Depending on who he is paired with, that number could go up this season. To pair him with Zach Werenski and only play them 16 minutes a night would be borderline criminal to Werenski (who, granted, could see time on the power play).
Prout brings a toughness to the blue line that the front office still values. We shall see how much time he sees on the ice this year.
Cody Goloubef: Expected be a lineup regular after winning a job out of camp last season, Goloubef broke his jaw early last season and never saw regular action again. He posted 1-7-8 in 43 games and often struggled on the ice while playing.
I expect one of Prout or Goloubef to be the nightly scratches this season (barring injuries to the other defensemen), and so a similar statline this season may be in the cards for both. Goloubef begins the season with an undisclosed injury, opening the door for a roster spot for one of the next three players.
THE YOUNG GUNS
Markus Nutivaara: Nutivaara, a 22 year old blue liner from Finland, was largely an afterthought when he was taken in the 7th round of the 2015 entry draft. He hadn’t played North American hockey, and questions abounded about how he would adjust to the game here when he came over from Finland.
Nutivaara has answered those questions this preseason. He has been one the team’s most consistent defensemen this preseason, even seeing some time with Seth Jones. He has posted a CF% of 60.7% this preseason, which is almost absurd. He will see significant time for the team this season.
Dean Kukan: Kukan, sent down to the Cleveland Monsters last week, was a revelation last season. He looked incredibly comfortable during his eight game call up last season, and seemed to always be in the correct position to make the smart defensive play. While he didn’t make the roster out of camp, he will likely be the first call up to the team in the event of a defensive injury.
Meanwhile, expect Kukan to carry the load on the blue line for the Monsters. He will see huge minutes there, play in all phases of the game, and showcase his talents for management.
Scott Harrington: Harrington came over from Toronto during the draft weekend trade for Kerby Rychel. Harrington, despite playing parts of 25 games over two seasons, has never cemented himself as an NHL player, and as such will see his season begin in Cleveland.
Harrington could develop his game in Cleveland, and will be one of the call ups should injuries strike on the blue line this season. He will see large minutes with the Monsters as a top four defenseman and will have a chance to improve ahead of a chance at winning an NHL spot next season.
THE OVERALL OUTLOOK
On paper, the defense is better this year than it was last season. The addition of Zach Werenski is huge for the blue line this year- he may only be 19 years old heading into the season, but he will allow the rest of the lineup to play in their more natural lineup positions (no more will Jack Johnson be forced into first pairing duties), and will help a struggling power play by giving another offensive option from the point.
The Blue Jackets gave up 252 goals last season. Expect that number to go down this season as the defense finally begins to take shape into one that can anchor the team for years to come.