The strength of the Columbus Blue Jackets is, without a doubt, the blue line. The Blue Jackets boast arguably the best pairing in the National Hockey League in Seth Jones and Zach Werenski. They also have depth behind them, some of the most the team has had in franchise history. The Jackets boast three legit pairs, enough to healthy scratch former stalwart Jack Johnson. The Blue Jackets are loaded on the back end.
The Capitals, meanwhile, boast the NHL minutes leader on their first pairing in John Carlson. Carlson, in a contract year, had his best season to date and will command a hefty salary this offseason. The Capitals also sport former Cup winner Brooks Orpik and playoff veteran Matt Niskanen, though both are on the downslope of their careers.
Let’s have a look at both teams offerings and determine which team truly has an advantage.
1st Pairing Matchup
Blue Jackets First Pairing
Seth Jones: 78 games played, 16 goals, 41 assists, 57 points, +10, 30 PIM, 54.1% CF%, 24:36 TOI
Seth Jones took a monstrous step forward this year, in his age 23 season, and became a bona fide top ten defenseman in the NHL. He forced his way into the Norris Trophy conversation with his play this year, carrying the Blue Jackets through a rib injury into the playoffs. Jones is a steadying presence on the back end, an offensive threat, and a leader in the locker room. He took Jack Johnson’s A and has taken steps forward all over the ice. The future Norris Trophy winner is a bona fide star on the blue line.
Zach Werenski: 77 games played, 16 goals, 21 assists, 37 points, +8, 16 PIM, 54.4% CF%, 22:35 TOI
Last year’s third place finisher in the Calder Trophy race was overshadowed some this season, through no real fault of his own. Werenski has been battling through an undisclosed upper body injury for the majority of the season and still managed to tie for second in the NHL (with his partner) for second in goals by a defenseman in the league this season. Werenski is still learning how to play defense at the NHL level, but is 20 years old and has his entire career ahead of him. Look for a “bounce back” (which feels weird to say, but it’s true) next year when he is fully healthy.
There are few, if any, teams that can boast a pairing that young and that good in the NHL. Columbus is set on the blue line for the next decade.
Capitals First Pairing
John Carlson: 82 games played, 15 goals, 53 assists, 68 points, +0, 32 PIM, 49.2% CF%, 24:47 TOI
John Carlson stepped forward this year after the losses on the Capitals blue line and took charge, posting a career year and earning himself a (likely) huge payday this offseason. Carlson stepped into a role he has never played and stayed healthy to lead his team in minutes while posting career high stats offensively. Carlson has the respect of his teammates and will be a force to be reckoned with any time he has the puck in the offensive zone.
Michal Kempny: 53 games played, 3 goals, 7 assists, 10 points, +14, 14 PIM, 48.5% CF%, 16:45 TOI
Kempny, the latest trade deadline acquisition on the blue line for the Washington Capitals, played 21 games for his new club. He played 16:46 per game alongside Carlson, helping to cut down shots allowed by two since his arrival. His mobile play and ability to play to the left of Carlson drew Washington to him, and he has played well since his arrival, posting 2-1-3 and solidifying the Capitals’ pairings.
2nd Pairing Matchup
Blue Jackets Second Pairing
Ian Cole: 67 games played, 5 goals, 15 assists, 20 points, +14, 76 PIM, 52.9% CF%, 17:42 TOI
Ian Cole came to Columbus via the Ottawa Senators from the Pittsburgh Penguins at the trade deadline this season. Cole, winner of two Stanley Cups in Pittsburgh, had fallen out of favor with coach Mike Sullivan. Cole was dealt at the deadline as part of a package to bring Derick Brassard to the two time defending champions. Cole was then traded to Columbus, and his impact was immediate. He stabilized the second pairing, matching up with David Savard and bringing a steadying presence at even strength as well as on the penalty kill. Cole has quickly established himself as a veteran leader on the back end, and his presence will be invaluable come the playoffs.
David Savard: 81 games played, 4 goals, 12 assists, 16 points, +2, 32 PIM, 49.2% CF%, 19:23 TOI
David Savard, it’s no secret, struggled to start this season. After a great season last year with Jack Johnson to his side, Savard and Johnson struggled to recapture the magic that made them a solid if unspectacular shutdown pairing. Eventually, they were broken up as Torts searched for magic. With the arrival of Ian Cole, a hard nosed defender who is afraid of no one, Savard was able to reclaim his shutdown mojo and play to his potential. He remains a solid stay-at-home defenseman who is not afraid to block shots and start scrums to protect his fellow Jackets. Together with Cole, the Lumberjackets form a formidable pairing.
Capitals Second Pairing
Dmitry Orlov: 82 games played, 10 goals, 21 assists, 31 points, +10, 22 PIM, 49.6% CF%, 23:08 TOI
Dmitry Orlov took a step forward this season, becoming one of the better defensemen for the Washington Capitals. He registered his first three point game this year in his age 26 season, as well as hit double digit goals for the first time in his career. Orlov, playing in the first year of a 6 year, $30.6 million extension, failed to improve on the career high 27 assists. His career had been marked by a wrist injury early that caused him to miss an entire season, but recovered and has played all 82 games for Washington the last two years.
Matt Niskanen: 68 games played, 7 goals, 22 assists, 29 points, +24, 36 PIM, 48.7% CF%, 22:36 TOI
Matt Niskanen, playoff veteran, has spent the last four years with the Washington Capitals and getting handed exit after exit by the Pittsburgh Penguins, his former team. Niskanen has never sniffed the Stanley Cup Finals, but has loads of playoff experience and provides a steadying presence on the back end, much in the way that Ian Cole does. The 700 game veteran has experienced everything the playoffs has to offer, and will come in motivated to take the next step with the Capitals core.
Third Pairing Matchup
Blue Jackets Third Pairing
Markus Nutivaara: 61 games played, 7 goals, 16 assists, 23 points, +13, 14 PIM, 53.2% CF%, 16:02 TOI
Markus Nutivaara has had, arguably, the most roller coaster two seasons of any player on the roster. A surprise on the roster out of camp, Nutivaara played 66 games of his rookie season before getting benched for two games of the playoffs, started this season in Cleveland, played well before injuries, earned his way back into the lineup, and has not relinquished his spot since his return. Nutivaara, the former seventh round pick, is a solid puck moving defenseman that can play well in every zone, chip in on the power play as needed, and plays solid, unspectacular hockey.
Ryan Murray: 44 games played, 1 goal, 11 assists, 12 points, +4, 8 PIM, 49.8% CF%, 18:26 TOI
Ryan Murray had an injury plagued year (stop me if you have heard that before) but was invaluable while he was on the ice. Murray played solid shutdown defense while he was in the lineup - his only problem is his inablilty to stay healthy. Murray’s play in the playoffs will go a long way to determining his next contract, be that with Columbus or elsewhere. He has proven to be effective in all three zones if he can stay on the ice, and the playoffs give him ample chance to make his name known. The only question is, can he take advantage of this opportunity?
Capitals Third Pairing
Brooks Orpik: 81 games played, 0 goals, 10 assists, 10 points, -9, 68 PIM, 43.7% CF%, 19:22 TOI
Brooks Orpik, the veteran Cup winner, has provided a steady presence for the Capitals on the blue line this year. He plays most of his minutes clearing space in front of the crease, and has spent the most time on the ice of any Capital while on the penalty kill. He provides leadership and a calming presence in the room, and his presence on the ice provides the intangibles the Capitals need.
Jakub Jerabek: 36 games played, 2 goals, 6 assists, 8 points, -2, 6 PIM, 46.6% CF%, 13:59 TOI
Jakub Jerabek came to the Capitals at the trade deadline from the Montreal Canadiens for a fifth round pick. Jerabek is a puck moving defenseman that anticipates the play well and makes good decisions with the puck. The scouting report on Jerabek is that he gets overpowered physically, but is a smart player.
Spare Parts - Defense
Columbus Blue Jackets
Jack Johnson: 77 games played, 3 goals, 8 assists, 11 points, -6, 22 PIM, 47.7% CF%, 19:33 TOI
It’s a bit strange, isn’t it, seeing Jack Johnson as a spare part? The reality is that the 31 year old defenseman no longer has a spot in the top six for the Blue Jackets. His play has slipped and he looks a step slow on the ice. For Johnson, an unrestricted free agent after this season, the slip in play has to be difficult for a player who is seeking a long term contract. He may find it elsewhere, but it is unlikely that he returns to Columbus as he has been passed on the depth chart. Johnson likely will not see much time in this series, barring an unforeseen injury to one of the top six.
Christian Djoos: 63 games played, 3 goals, 11 assists, 14 points, +13, 10 PIM, 52.2% CF%, 14:02 TOI
Djoos, a 23 year old rookie from Sweden, played heavy minutes for the Capitals early this season before trade deadline acquisitions made him expendable. Djoos has only played ten games since the trade deadline, healthy scratched on and off since the deadline with the acquisitions of Jerabek and Kempny. Expect him to play sparingly in this series, if he sees ice time at all.
The Blue Jackets appear to have the edge on defense in this series. They boast a strong top six, with a veteran presence and an ability to contribute offensively as necessary.