CBJ Season In Review: The Defense & Goalies
The blue line and the blue ice suffered less from the injury bug than the forwards, but had more than their share of turmoil.
Entering the 2014-2015 season, most observers characterized the defensive end of the ice as the area of the Blue Jackets' greatest strength, with the question marks coming on the scoring front. That proved not to be the case, as a bizarre combination of injuries, off-ice intrigue and simple substandard performance made the blue line more enigma than savior. Meanwhile, the play in goal was generally solid, but had its moments as well. However, some surprises along the way provide plenty of hope going forward.
Let's take a look at how things stacked up in the back half of ice, starting with the defensemen. 12 different players manned the blue line for Columbus during the season. Here is how they stacked up.
Savard was the Iron Horse of the defensive unit this season, playing in all 82 contests. He increasingly joined Jack Johnson as one of the "go to" guys for Todd Richards, averaging 22:56 in TOI, second only to Jack Johnson. His 11 goals tied a franchise record for defenseman, and the addition of 25 assists for a total of 36 points was a quantum leap over the 15 points from the prior season. Savard had a strong start to the season, struggled a bit during the middle, and came on strong again at the end. His confidence in the offensive zone grew exponentially this season, and his defensive play also showed improvement. He still has a tendency to commit the bad turnover, and too easily falls into "watch the puck" mode, which provide learning opportunities in the off-season. He also can improve upon his physical play in front of the net, but that is a curious mix of physical play and craftiness that comes with time. Only 24, Savard remains a baby in term of NHL defensemen, so a consistent path of improvement lies ahead. The fact that he cemented his status on the Columbus blue line is a testament to his work ethic and ability.
In hindsight, the fact that Jack Johnson appeared in 79 games and led the defense in TOI (24:09) is a minor miracle. Johnson had a horrific start on the ice this year, and it wasn't until later that the horrors of his financial situation and betrayal by his own parents came to light. Late in the season, stories emerged linking his financial plight tangentially to another loan scam, simply adding fuel to the fire. Those burdens, combined with the depleted corps of players on the ice, conspired to create a Perfect Storm of trouble for JJ. When the smoke cleared, however, he had 8 goals, 32 assists and 40 points -- tops among the defensive unit, and just two shy of his career high. His minus-13 +/- rating stands out like a sore thumb. Although I'm not a fan of the plus/minus stat, it has some relevance on a comparative basis within the team. Still, much of that was attributed to his early troubles. In the last third of the season, he showed much of the offensive instinct that characterized his play in last season's playoff series with the Penguins. Still vulnerable to the brain-lock play from time to time, his off-season regimen will include consistency and focus. At age 28, there is still upside to his game.
The elder statesman of the blue line at age 31, Tyutin provides veteran stability and steadiness that the mercurial unit so desperately needed this season. Unfortunately, he was bitten by the injury bug in November, missing 13 games with a knee injury, and returning in the middle of the Blue Jackets'"December to Remember". When at his best, you almost don't notice Tyutin, due to his smooth style and relative absence of gaudy mistakes. He doesn't have the speed he used to, which makes him a bit vulnerable to the outside rush. However, his veteran savvy usually enables him to stave off those attacks with technique. Tyutin was often slotted as the stabilizing member of a variety of pairings this season, forcing him to play a bit more conservatively. This resulted in lower than normal offensive numbers of 3-12-15. However, as the club got healthy, and he spent less of his time fixing his partner's mistakes, he showed more offensive flair. Tyutin has an important stabilizing influence within the defensive unit, a mentor to the young players, and should have a minimum of four or five productive years left. Look for the club to look for his clone in the off-season.
Perhaps no other event of the past season stirred fans' volatile emotions as did Wisniewski's March 3 trade to Anaheim for William Karlsson and Rene Borque. A fan favorite, Wiz was a mercurial and polarizing influence. Some lauded him a the Blue Jackets' best defenseman, while others wanted to run him out of town on a rail, based primarily on his tendency to make the spectacularly bad pinch or turnover at precisely the wrong time. The truth, of course, lies somewhere in the middle. While Wisniewski is not Bobby Orr, neither was he the source of all of the Blue Jackets' problems. He registered 8 goals (7 on the power play) and 21 assists in his 56 games with Columbus this year, and added five more assists in 13 games with Anaheim. He was a combined minus-15 for the two squads, making him a candidate for the Green Jacket. While the debate about the return received for Wisniewski will rage, Kekalainen made a strong case that the youngsters provide many of the same qualities that Wiz brings to the table. What was unstated was that they do that with fewer dramatic mistakes, at a younger age, and a lower price tag. It's too early to tell how the return will fare over the long term, but being a minus-5 in 13 games for a team of Anaheim's caliber is not a positive, and Wiz has been a healthy scratch in recent weeks.
The puzzling and frustrating saga of Ryan Murray continued this season, where he was limited to just 12 games, due to a protracted recovery from his knee injury, and an assortment of other more minor injuries later on. There was unspoken, but growing concern -- at least among the fans -- that Murray might turn out to be a younger version of Nathan Horton -- terrific talent, wonderful guy, but just can't stay healthy. Entering the season, he was counted on to provide star quality to the defensive corps, and his absence was undoubtedly the single biggest gap on the blue line this season. When he returned to the ice for a few late-season games, I'm sure I was not the only one thinking that it was crazy to risk him in a series of meaningless games. However, watching his smooth play provided a psychological boost to the fans -- and to Murray, no doubt -- and was a key ingredient in the team's late surge. Hope springs eternal that he hits the ice running next season.
Entering this season, I think most saw Dalton Prout as a guy on the bubble. He showed unexpectedly good performance last season, and if he made a bit of a jump in performance this season, he stood to claim the "stay at home" slot on the blue line. Did he do that? Reasonable minds can differ, but the verdict here is "No." On the positive side, he played in 63 games, provided a physical presence, both with his body and his fists, and tried to fill the gaps as the injuries mounted. However, while he had his moments of solid play, these were interspersed with some rather significantly flawed performances. Not an offensive defenseman (0-8-8 for the year), Prout also struggles in his puck management, which led to numerous own-zone turnovers and resulting trouble. He did not take his game to the next level this year, and may have regressed a bit. His size and style make him a favorite of Todd Richards, but he saw the Press Box a lot as the season wore on. He might be trade fodder in the off-season, but will certainly enter next year on the bubble again.
The defensive surprise of the season, Connauton was plucked from the Dallas Stars via the waiver wire on November 18, and almost immediately had an impact. He quickly displayed good mobility and a powerful point shot that had an uncanny ability of finding its way on net through traffic. The 25 year-old managed nine goals and ten assists for 19 points in his 54 games, and earned a plus-1 ranking. Although his production faded a bit after a late season injury, he shows that he has all of the tools to be a contributing offensive defenseman. His defensive skills need work, particularly in defending the outside rush, but those are the sorts of things that can be coached. He has the speed and skill necessary to contribute going forward.
Another largely positive surprise this season, Goloubef was pressed into service as injuries, the Wisniewski trade and some under-performance elsewhere on the blue line created opportunity. He has largely taken advantage of that opportunity, showing smooth skating, solid puck handling and good hockey sense. He had nine assists in just 36 games, and showed increasing confidence in his offensive game as the season progressed. He has an impressive point shot when he uses it, but seemed understandably reticent as he first gained significant ice time. Goloubef amassed an amazing plus-12 +/- ranking in his relatively brief sting, aided significantly, no doubt, by the fact that much of his ice time came as the squad regained health. Still, he was part of the solution, not the problem, and could well move ahead of Prout in the defensive pecking order.
The veteran blue-liner was acquired for a 5th round pick from the St. Louis Blues when Fedor Tyutin went down with his injury. He immediately provided Tyutin-like stability, and was even used at forward when the Blue Jackets were put in a waiver box with their defensive talent pool. He was famously traded to his home-town Minnesota Wild at the deadline, due in part to his young daughter's moving letter requesting such a trade. A feel-good story all around. If anything, Leopold was underutilized during his time in Columbus.
The young defenseman acquired as part of the Rick Nash trade, could never quite catch the eye of head coach Todd Richards. The 24 year old seemed to have all of the tools necessary to succeed, but could not quite turn the corner. He played in only 19 games, earning one goal and five assists in that time -- not bad production. It wasn't enough, however, as the waiver-constricted Blue Jackets dealt Erixon to the Chicago Blackhawks for forward Jeremy Morin on December 14, just as Fedor Tyutin was ready to come off the IR. He fared no better in Chicago, and he was claimed on waivers by the Maple Leafs on March 1.
Acquired from the Minnesota Wild in the Jordan Leopold deal, the 26 year-old made his debut that evening. He notched one goal and one assist in just five games, and showed flashes of good play, combined with predictable periods of less-than-stellar work. He stands to benefit tremendously from some hard work in the off-season, as his 6'5" 215 lb. frame likely has Todd Richards drooling, and he could be a viable Dalton Prout replacement, if the organization is so inclined.
The 29 year-old has posted just 21 NHL appearances in his career -- 17 games for Montreal in the 2010-11 season, and four games for the Blue Jackets this year. His experience will likely make him one of the first call-ups for the big squad next year, but that could change if some of the younger guys pass him by. Not a candidate for NHL level work on a regular basis at this point.
So, there they are -- the Dirty Dozen. So much was expected from the defense this year, but circumstances dictated otherwise. To be fair, the blue liners probably take too much blame for the goals allowed numbers this season, as the turmoil among the forward ranks was likely the single biggest cause of defensive chaos. I'd anticipate the club looking for another experience defenseman in the 26-27 age range, to provide some added stability, some redundancy for Tyutin, and to avoid putting too much pressure on too many youngsters.
Moving on to goalie, just three names to discuss.
What is there to say about Bob? His work ethic, athletic ability and increasingly outgoing personality make him a fan favorite and one of the top goalies in the game. His incredible focus and ability to read the play differentiate him from the crowd. That . . . and the Vezina Trophy on his mantle, of course. The club rode him during the incredible December run, and his two injury stints put the club behind the eight ball. He managed only 49 starts, but notched 30 wins in that limited duty -- an impressive statistic. His 2.69 GAA and .918 save percentages are solid, but not up to par with prior years. Chalk that up to a couple of really bad outings, and a porous defense in front of him. Bobrovsky -- armed with a nice new deal -- is in Columbus for the foreseeable future, as he should be. More hugs are coming.
This may be the most intriguing position on the club. By the numbers (2.88 GAA and .914 save percentage), CMac does not seem to trail Bobrobvsky by much, and in certain individual games, he was positively stellar. When he's good he's very good, and when he's bad, he's very bad. The problem is figuring when and how those times are going to occur. Overall, he seemed to be on an improving trend as the season wore on, and turned in a masterful performance in the season finale on Long Island. His glove hand has improved, though still is not the stuff of NHL starting goaltenders. More troublesome is his difficulty with focus. He has trouble tracking the play -- almost the antithesis of Bobrovsky -- and is frequently surprised by incoming shots. Still, he put on some good shows this season, which undoubtedly attracted the attention of some other franchises in this, his free agent year. At age 31, with a very credible season behind him, will McElhinney be content to sit behind Bobrovsky, or will he be enticed to a situation where he could see more playing time? Would the Blue Jackets pay him enough to dissuade him from that effort? It seems unlikely, given the fact that it has not yet occurred. It's a complicated calculus, and Columbus has been caught short before in the backup goalie race. I don't think that will happen again, though I suspect CMac will be plying his trade elsewhere.
Fresh of a decent season in Sweden, 22 year-old Anton Forsberg came to Springfield and promptly posted a .957 save percentage, a 1.13 GAA and three wins in four games there. With Bobrovsky on the shelf, Forsberg became the new backup and appeared in five games as Curtis McElhinney went down with his own injury problems. Poor kid. He obviously has the physical tools, but was simply not mentally prepared for the NHL game. He was like a deer in the headlights as he struggled to an .866 save percentage and 4.89 GAA. The North American game presents different angles, more crowded sight lines, and different strategic challenges than the European game. He'll get all of that sorted out in time, but this was a classic example of a guy being forced into a situation he had no business being in. Assuming his confidence hasn't taken a fatal hit, he'll be back.
We know who the starter is going to be, with the only real question being whether Sergei can stay healthy enough to put 65 - 70 games on the books next season. The backup role will be an interesting situation, but there are likely to be plenty of capable bodies to choose from.
That's the defensive end of the ice. It did not materialize anything like the way things were laid out entering the season, but the Connauton acquisition was certainly a positive, as was the maturation of David Savard and the emergence of Cody Goloubef. This season, I think there will be some significant moves involving this unit, making the off-season worth watching. Stay tuned