I came into this article with the intention of explaining why the defense, not the Blue Jackets goaltenders, are the true culprit of what’s going wrong with the team so far this season. While I didn’t specifically delve into the numbers behind the net minders just yet, I take a look at some of the contributing factors as to why the defense might be struggling.
When things are going well in sports, everything might seem like a great big party, as players and coaches are heaped with praise. Perhaps the weaknesses of a team are even masked by the wins if they’re rolling in with consistency.
On the contrary, when things are going wrong, there’s plenty of blame to go around. Especially when it’s the latter, the true culprit of bad play may be masked for whatever reason, and the anger and blame often tends to be misplaced by the fanbase and pointed at the wrong figures.
Or in this case, the wrong position.
The Columbus Blue Jackets are coming off a nice win 3-0 over the Nashville Predators Thursday night — check out Rachel’s recap here — so I assume for one day at least, any flaming tempers among fans in CBJ land are cooled and calm. Especially considering the response of last night’s game following Monday’s 7-3 shellacking to the Carolina Hurricanes.
And why not? A win is a win and anyone will take winning ugly over losing pretty.
Beyond the box score
We all know not to read the Facebook comments, especially when things are bad.
Following Monday’s loss to the Hurricanes, I saw at least one comment placing the direct onus of bad play that night, and what ultimately amounted in large part to bad defense, squarely on the goaltender’s broad shoulders. And that seems to be a constant theme for some throughout the season.
It is pretty easy to look at games like Monday’s 7-3 loss to the ‘Canes and right away blame the goalie — the last line of defense — for not stopping the black piece of rubber coming at you from all angles more often than not. That game was just a microcosm of the season to date.
And just like Korpisalo might have been blamed for Monday’s loss by some people, you would rightfully assume Elvis Merzlikins would be universally praised for last night’s shutout victory over the Predators.
Merzlikins made all 32 saves and it was his first start since Jan. 31. He had a great game and was the beneficiary of some weird, flukey goals by his teammates. All I can say about that is Finally! because Lord knows how often the Blue Jackets have been on the wrong end of any goals bouncing their way.
Cam Atkinson has been hot, and as is often the case when you’re hot, the puck bounced his way past Juuse Saros. Then Max Domi’s goal — reviewed for potentially hitting the linesman on the way into the net — stood up against review, and Eric Robinson’s empty-netter sealed the victory.
But just as those might have been so quick to blame Korpisalo for ultimately letting in five goals before exiting early in Monday night’s game, and Merzlikins also letting in two in relief, there’s more that meets the eye. Just like Merzlikins was sensational last night, there were some ugly trends that still present themselves on a game-to-game basis. Albeit, last night was a much better representation of what this Blue Jackets team is trying to do as they look to get back to their defensive identity.
In last night’s win, when you look at the underlying numbers, the Predators actually won some of the numbers battles including Corsi and shots:
Nashville 32 Columbus 22
Nashville 61.05% Columbus 38.95%
But after a recent string of games that saw the Blue Jackets yield at least six goals in three games so far in February — and there’s also the 6-5 win over the Chicago Blackhawks — you’re encouraged by Thursday’s game resembling more of a shutdown defense than we’ve been accustomed in most of the games this season. Even if it’s against a Predators team that has struggled offensively this year.
When I saw comments after Monday’s game placing blame on the goaltender, they were likely ignoring other details, like goals allowed on the doorstep.
Carolina added two more on the power play from the slot.
In last night’s win, you can see where the Predators worked their way into the slot, but the defense did just enough and Merzlikins played his best game of the season.
This chart below illustrates just how much the Predators dictated possession for 60 minutes:
Obviously, I don’t pretend to be an analytical guru but we all know how rough the defense has looked. I don’t envy being Korpisalo or Merzlikins. Without them these games are probably ending in double-digits against.
*During my researching of fancy stats, I came across this older article by Greg Wyshynski, and Alison Lukan is among those in the analytical community included in the article talking about the most overrated advanced hockey stats. It’s pretty interesting.
While I also won’t pretend to be the expert that tells you why things have trended the way they have, I have some theories and observations. I also intend to monitor this throughout the season because I think it’s interesting, and frankly, I want to continue to learn and evolve in this realm.
The departures of defensemen Markus Nutivaara and Ryan Murray are felt, even if it’s more from a veteran depth perspective. Murray, when healthy, was among the top defenders on the team while also being touted for his offensive vision.
Ryan Murray…— Alison (@AlisonL) October 9, 2020
Pros: elite skater, elite passer with vision
Cons: injury prone
Nutivaara struggled last year with on-ice inconsistencies and injuries, but he was a prominent figure for the Blue Jackets blue line for four seasons. Forward Alexander Wennberg was criticized for his seemingly unwillingness to shoot the puck. A Wennberg goal was as much a unicorn as a power play goal is still today.
That apparently seems rectified?
Alexander Wennberg has four goals in 14 games with the Panthers.— Mark Scheig (@markscheig) February 18, 2021
He had seven goals total in his last 132 regular season games with #CBJ.
But among the traits Wennberg was praised for, and did very well, were the defensive tendencies to his game.
Nutivaara and Wennberg are now teammates for Bill Zito’s Florida Panthers. Murray has appeared in nine of the Devils’ 11 games this season but he’s currently out with an illness. Fortunately it does not appear to be related to Covid even though the Devils did have games suspended this month due to Covid protocols.
Would these players on the team now make up for porous defense so far?
Going into the season without those players, I think most would assume the defense and goaltending should still be fine, and still be the strength and identity of the club. It just hasn’t consistently come to fruition so far. But while losing veterans at the least tests your depth, we know who’s still on the team to make their mark.
Overcoming a tough start to the season is what Seth Jones is looking to do. While he was among those trusted players that started slowly, both offensively — he only one assist in January — and defensively, he looks to be rounding into form since the calendar flipped to February. In eight games this month, Jones has found his offensive game with one goal and seven assists. His career-high six-game point streak ended Monday, but after another assist last night, it looks like he’s rounding into form.
Zach Werenski is the other part of that dynamic duo who hasn’t had a great year. It seems lately, by my eye-test, he’s had a bad knack of serving up a costly turnover ending up in his teams’ net.
After missing three games with an injury, Werenski returned to the lineup on Feb. 13 only to miss the last two games as he’s still nursing a day-to-day lower-body ailment. Perhaps a lingering ailment is affecting his overall game which is why John Tortorella kept him out of the lineup so as not to risk further injury. With this said, I’m all for Werenski out there and driving the offense when he can. I realize being aggressive offensively opens you up for being burned but you can’t be so egregious with the turnovers.
David Savard has been among those struggling Blue Jackets this season, and who was saved due to an egregious turnover of his own.
His pairing with Vladislov Gavrikov this season didn’t yield favorable results as they were on the ice for 10 goals against versus just five goals for. Last night saw Savard on a second pairing with Scott Harrington. If you caught the most recent episode of The Cannon Cast, Pale Dragon mentioned scratching Savard to give him a break when Werenski can return.
Andrew Peeke has finally gotten into the lineup and I think we were all a bit baffled as to why he wasn’t playing games sooner. And being paired with Gavrikov seems to be good for the both of them. He has also played with Michael Del Zotto who has been a bright spot. Meanwhile the splits of Del Zotto with and without Savard shows a stark contrast.
Navigating challenging circumstances
I know it’s easy to gloss over, but there are obvious challenges to playing hockey in as close to as normal a situation as possible during a pandemic. During a pandemic! Yeah, they’re professionals and they do have to find a way, to quote Torts. And of course every team is dealing with the same situation, but that doesn't mean it’s not challenging.
Especially with a limited training camp, no pre-season games, and a lot of new players like Max Domi and Michael Del Zotto before the season, Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic during the season, and subtracting Gustav Nyquist due to injury, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Murray, Nutivaara, and yup, even Wennberg. That’s not even taking into account the fact the hockey season ended last October, and all the typical off-season summer activity was instead occurring during the fall and winter months. It’s just weird. Plus the PLD saga I’m sure, no matter what anyone on the team says, darkened the spirit of the club.
And playing in front of empty arenas every night lacks a certain zest.
We know some members of the Blue Jackets were affected by Covid before the season and perhaps there's players fighting off lingering effects. Who knows. I surely don’t, and this was my attempt to shed some extra light on some of the glaring issues that I think most of us have recognized this season. As well as pry some of the heavier criticism away from the goaltenders. That’s not to say the goalies, or anyone — coaching staff included — aren’t to blame, because if there’s one thing you can say, you are what your record says you are.
Right now, the Blue Jackets are 8-6-4, two points out of first place in the Central Division, and are still chasing four teams in front of them. They hold a six point cushion over a Dallas Stars team who has six games in hand following games postponed due to Covid. The Blue Jackets are trying to quickly shake the cobwebs as they attempt to make the playoffs for the fifth-consecutive year. All the while, they have the ceiling of a likely first, maybe second-round exit.
Right now, just making the playoffs seems like a lofty goal.
I’m going to do a follow up article next time highlighting the goaltenders a bit more, and it will be interesting to see how the defense has played up to that point!