CBJ Season Preview: The Blue Line & The Blue Ice
With Traning Camp underway, and the first pre-season contest only 60 hours hence, it's time to start digging into the details. First up -- the goalies and defensemen.
The players have now survived the first day skating drills. Hope springs eternal for each of the 63 participants at Traning Camp, and visions of the Stanley Cup are dancing in the dreams of every player, coach and GM in the NHL. In Columbus, those hopes are combined with both the intense desire to vindicate a season derailed by injury, and demonstrate to the hockey world that the club's marvelous March & April were no fluke.
In assessing how successful the club is likely to be in achieving those aims, we look today at the defenseman and goaltenmders -- the former a popular source of questions, and the latter a presumed source of strength.
There are no surprises here. Sergei Bobrovsky owns the blue ice, and will take the bulk of the reps in net this season. The 26 year-old net minder comes off of a season that saw him post a 2.69 GAA and .918 save percentage in 51 regular season games. Those are the highest totals in his three years in Columbus, but a huge asterisk belongs on that stat line, as the team in front of him was decimated by injuries. The club ranked 25th in the league in Goals Allowed with 248 (a 3.02 clip), ahead of only Edmonton, Toronto, Dallas, Buffalo and Arizona. Bobrovsky has a Vezina Trophy on his mantle, is widely regarded as the hardest working goaltender (and one of the hardest working players) in the league. At age 26, he is still three years below the average for NHL goalies, and has a long, bright future ahead in Columbus. With a healthy defensive corps in front of him, expect the numbers to take care of themselves. A number the Blue Jackets would like to see improve is the games played. Injuries limited Bob to just 51 games last season, and he has never broken the 60 game plateau. I think the club would like to see 60-65 games from a healthy Bobrovsky this year, with the caveat that the number could go down if they are an early playoff lock and want to rest him for the post-season.
Curtis McElhinney returns as the presumptive backup. The 32-year old Canadian worked in 32 games last year, with a .914 save percentage and a 2.88 GAA. These contrasted with .909 and 2.70 in 28 games the year before. Given the defensive woes of last season, the numbers are serviceable, and he had a few stellar performances along the way. The primary knocks against McElhinney have involved difficulty reading the play, rendering him late to react, and a relative slow glove hand. Many were surprised that the front office did not make a more concerted effort in the off-season to explore an upgrade at this position. However, goaltending is a mercurial endeavor, and there is some benefit to having a relatively known and consistent asset in that role, at a very cap-friendly number. If he can contribute a solid 15-20 games this season, the club will be in good standing.
There is a significant gap between these two and the players in the system -- which is something of a cause for concern. Oscar Dansk is on loan to his club in Sweden, looking to restore both his confidence and his game. At age 21, Joonas Korpisalo showed some solid play in Traverse City . . but it's Traverse City, after all. Still, his showing should push Anton Forsberg, 22, who is not yet ready for prime time. He appeared in five games for the Blue Jackets last season, with an .866 save percentage and 4.69 GAA. Welcome to the big leagues, kid. The organization needs both Bob and Curtis to stay healthy this season, so that the youngsters can play in the AHL, refine their games, and preserve their confidence. Still, it's all about the starter, and Bob is in the upper echelons of the NHL. With a revitalized and healthy group in front of him, the blue ice is well manned.
Easily the most maligned unit on the club, John Davidson and Jarmo Kekäläinen have been besieged by inquiries, speculation and criticism over the off-season, as many were expecting a significant shuffling of the blue line assets. That did not happen, although the bulk of the draft was devoted to beefing up the defensive pipeline, led by first round selection Zach Werenski. Rumors of interest in Christian Ehrhoff and Cody Franson proved to be largely unfounded, and Kekäläinen steadfastly maintained that he was ready to enter the season with his existing group.
Twelve different defensemen saw ice time in Columbus last season. Of those, James Wisniewski, Tim Erixon, Jordan Leopold and Frederic St-Denis are no longer on the radar, and both Wisniewski and Erixon have since moved on to other teams -- involuntarily. Let's look at the survivors.
At age 32, Fedor Tyutin is the veteran leader on the blue line, and arguably the most consistent and effective defenseman. He plays a stealth game in his own zone, meaning that when playing his best you almost don't notice him on the ice. He has a bit of an offensive upside, with his offensive production typically in the high twenties or low thirties in points. He fell off those marks last year, due in part to injury, but due more to the fact that he was compelled to cover for others in a constantly shifting lineup. He is starting to show some signs of the inexorable affect of time, as he is not as fast as he was when first coming to Columbus from the Rangers, and has struggled more with injuries as time has progressed. Still, he has the veteran savvy and quiet determination to continue to lead this defensive corps. A healthy Tyutin will lend some needed stability to the group.
Jack Johnson may be the most frustrating member of the blue line corps. The 28 year-old appears to have only two gears -- 5th and Reverse. When he is good, he is awesome. When he is bad, he is awful. The subject of a horrific series of financial reversals and borderline scandals, Johnson was at his worst early in the season, yet rallied with the club to post a 40 point season for only the second time in his career. While I am not a fan of the plus/minus stat in general, it has significant merit when used to compare players within the same organization, who have ostensibly been exposed to largely similar conditions in terms of injuries, etc. So, contrast Johnson's minus-13 with Tyutin's +8 last season, and you'll get the idea why Johnson can provoke premature hair loss. His financial battles continue as camp opens, and it remains to be seen whether he can leave his personal issues in the locker room, and deliver 82 games of the "good"Johnson. He may be on a relatively short leash, and a poor start could foreshadow a trade.
Ryan Murray, age 21, appeared in only twelve games for Columbus last season, a fact that significantly contributed to the club's defensive woes. At Media Day, both Jarmo and JD included Murray among the fully healthy, which is something that has not been seen for a while. Murray has all the tools to be a superstar in the league -- great skating, wonderful reactions and tremendous vision. Before falling to injury in 2013-14, he was showing signs of finding his offensive game, and the Blue Jackets will be looking for him to pick up where we left off. It is no overstatement to suggest that a healthy Ryan Murray will be the single biggest element of a successful 2015-16 campaign for the Blue Jackets. This year marks the end of Murray's ELC, and a healthy, productive season will translate to larger dollars going forward.
David Savard is fresh off of signing a new five-year deal (beginning next season), that has an annual cap hit of $4.25 million, ranking him third among Columbus blue-liners , behind only Tyutin and Johnson. He earned that deal by appearing in all 82 games, posting eleven goals and 38 points. After a bit of an uneven start in his own zone, his game quickly matured, and his ice time increased as he demonstrated an increased level of defensive responsibility. Many have question Jarmo about the new deal, feeling he might have jumped the gun. Perhaps, but with the cap likely to jump significantly over the next two years, and a league-wide premium on multi-faceted blue liners. it is a risk likely worth taking. If Savard repeats his showing from last season, and shows continued progression, his contract will be viewed as highway robbery by Year 3. Savard has solidified himself in the top four on the blue line.
Kevin Connauton was a huge surprise last season. The 25-year old was picked up on waivers from Dallas, and immediately showed a cannon from the point that almost invariable was on-goal, and made its way into the net nine times. Add ten assists, and Connauton posted a credible 19 points in only 54 games. He remains somewhat raw in his own zone, and can be beaten wide. One of the key things to watch in the pre-season is how his own zone play has matured. Connauton is in the midst of a battle for the final two blue line slots, and his offensive prowess could be a determinative factor in that competition.
Cody Goloubef was perhaps the most improved defenseman in the course of last season. As injuries created opportunity, Goloubef seized the opportunity, showing a well-rounded game, and leading the defensive group with a +12 in 36 games. This stat is somewhat misleading, as the bulk of his playing time came after the club got healthy, but the 25 year old impressed and showed responsible play in all three zones. He notched only 9 assists in those 36 games, but confidence will likely breed further offensive production. He is in the thick of the race for the final two blue line positions.
Dalton Prout is also in the middle of the competition for the third pair. The big 25 year-old was relied upon heavily early in the season, but his ice time waned as Goloubef and others showed their stuff. Prout had difficulty with the puck in his own zone, and did not demonstrate either the consistent speed or quickness necessary to respond to the forecheck. His minus-14 was the worst on the blue line, providing some numerical confirmation of the optics. He is a physical presence, however, and reportedly has worked hard in the off-season. He'll need to show a lot of improvement to garner a spot on the big club, as the focus turns to speed and skill.
Justin Falk, 26, was acquired from Minnesota as part of the much-publicized deal that sent Jordan Leopold home, at his daughter's request. He appeared in only five games for Columbus, notching a goal and an assist, Not without tools, Falk has a steep hill to climb to earn a roster spot. He may well be showcased during the pre-season as a prelude to a deal.
Thanks to this year's draft and other moves, the Blue Jackets have a ton of defensemen in the pipeline. Perhaps the most likely challenger for ice time on the big club is 22 year-old Michael Paliotta, acquired from Chicago as part of the Brandon Saad deal. Paliotta completed his four years at the University of Vermont as team captain, and ranked 2nd in the country in assists, and 4th in points among collegiate defensemen. Paliotta has been on Jarmo's radar for some time, and he referred to the 6'3", 207 lb. blue liner with a right handed shot as a "key element" to the trade. He earned an assist in his only game for the Blackhawks last season.
Another highly regarded prospect who might see time with the Blue Jackets this year is Austin Madaisky. The 23 year old, also with a right handed shot, posted an impressive 12-23-35 in Springfield last year, and might be part of the camp battle. At 185 pounds, he his a bit light for his 6'2" frame, but compensates with sound positioning and anticipation. Other defensemen to watch in camp include Dillon Heatherington, Dean Kukan and Andrew Bodnarchuk.
Once again, the key element along the blue line is health. If they can stay healthy, the defensive corps has the tools to be very successful. With a re-stocked pipeline, and a GM who is not afraid to pull the trigger on deals to improve the club, its a safe bet that the defense will be much improved this season. Stay tuned.