Among the many surprises of an unexpectedly successful 2016-17 season for the Columbus Blue Jackets was the emergence of rookie defenseman Markus Nutivaara. Chosen with the 189th pick of the 2015 NHL Draft (that’s early in the 7th and Final Round), Nuti was overlooked by most fans and media - as late round picks usually are. When he came to camp, certainly no one thought he had a shot to make the team. And yet, there he was suiting up on Opening Night, and ended up forming a solid third pairing with Ryan Murray. Oh, and he played through a large portion of that season with a hip injury that required offseason surgery.
Now that he was no longer under the radar, would Nuti live up to expectations, or face a sophomore slump? Well, it’s safe to say that nothing about this year qualifies as a slump. He played in 5 fewer games than last season due to some late season injuries. Yet he improved his goals, assists, points, plus/minus, and Corsi For %, all while playing almost 3 minutes more per night.
In his rookie season, Nuti didn’t show much sign of being anything other than a stay-at-home defenseman with above average vision on exit passes. This season, however, Nuti showed that he could be an offensive threat as well. He was third among Jackets defensemen in points, behind just the All-Star duo of Seth Jones and Zach Werenski. While the early season buzz was around Torts unleashing Werenski as a “rover” - that is, freeing him to play forward on offense as the situation presented itself - Nutivaara showed flashes of a similar style of play, often joining the offensive rush himself.
Most impressive is the fact that his play was steady despite a revolving door of partners. Look at this chart to see how much he elevated the play of the likes of Murray, Jack Johnson, David Savard, and most of all Scott Harrington.
I mean, look at the shot numbers here during the stretch he was paired with Jack Johnson:
After the season, Nutivaara competed for Finland in the World Championships, and had another standout performance. In 8 games, he scored 3 goals and 6 assists. His 9 points were tied with USA’s Charlie McAvoy for the lead among defensemen in the tournament. He was named by coaches as one of the top 3 players for Team Finland.
Late in the season, the Jackets did not wait for the offseason to sign Nuti to a contract extension. The pending restricted free agent signed a 4 year deal which will carry an annual cap hit of $2.7 million. If his game continues progressing, that contract will be a total steal. Remember: Nuti doesn’t turn 24 until next month.
Markus Nutivaara Stats
Games played: 61
Time on ice: 16:02
Penalty Minutes: 14
Corsi For (even strength): 53.2%
During the team’s 10 game win streak, Nutivaara had back-to-back games against Edmonton and Calgary where he had a +/- of 3, and scored a goal in each game. At the 1:07 mark, you can see his goal against the Flames, where he takes on that rover role and joins Thomas Vanek on a breakway:
The time he missed in February and March, then again at the end of the regular season. Prior to this, he was the clear third defenseman, but his absence allowed the Ian Cole/David Savard pairing to earn Torts’ favor as the second pair.
How would you grade Markus Nutivaara’s 2017-18 season?
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