Dissecting the Columbus Blue Jackets Blue Line
By Tim Lucarelli (@tlucarelli)
At the heart of each successful hockey team lies a strong defense. While the position is much less glamorous than forward – a position which carries most of the spotlight in terms of goal production – or goaltending – just ask Sergei Bobrovsky how much spotlight a goaltender can receive in Philadelphia – defensemen are often overlooked.
But what makes up a strong defense? Ask 30 NHL general managers and you would likely receive 30 different answers. One thing seems to be certain though in that a strong defense has a good mix of offensive punch and shutdown defensive abilities. What that formula should be will vary from team to team based on the structure.
With the busy offseason that Scott Howson has had, let’s take a look at how the new Columbus blue line is shaping into form.
The Razzle Dazzle
James Wisniewski – “Wiz” was a target of Howson’s last summer, as he successfully acquired one of the top defensemen on the market and signed him to a six-year deal before free agency opened at a surprisingly affordable contract. Two years ago, Wisniewski broke out, scoring 51 points which was a tie for fifth overall in the league. Although he was limited to only 48 games last season due to injuries, he still scored at a 46-point pace.
Nikita Nikitin – Acquired from Columbus for the underperforming Kris Russell, Nikitin made an immediate impact. Thanks to tools from Dobberhockey.com, we can see that Nikitin was tied for 17th in the NHL among defensemen in point production as of November 12th (the day after he was acquired), surrounded by company like Alexander Edler, Dion Phaneuf, Duncan Keith, and Kevin Shattenkirk. Outside of Kevin Bieksa, Nikitin also had the lowest percentage of his team’s power play ice time (43%) of the top 20 scorers, while some players like Mark Streit ate up 77.3% of their team’s power play ice time. Despite the strong offensive year, Nikitin also brings a mix of defensive awareness, registering only a -5 rating on the season, despite being paired with Fedor Tyutin and his -21 for most of the season.
The Heart and Soul
Jack Johnson – A Midwestern boy at heart, Johnson was thrilled to join the Blue Jackets. It showed in his statistics as well as he could manage only a 32-point pace and a -12 rating while playing for the eventual Stanley Cup champions in Los Angeles, but converted to a 55-point pace with a +5 rating when skating for the team that finished last in the standings. When on his game, Johnson is a strong two-way defender who is a candidate to replace Nash as the team’s next captain.
Fedor Tyutin – Pushed down the depth chart, Tyutin has been relied on more for his defensive abilities recently, which could use some serious improvement. The team lost Jan Hejda and Marc Methot in recent years and will be hoping for Tyutin to stabilize the back end. While he does have offensive abilities that he would love to showcase, this club needs Tyutin to keep pucks out of his own net as a top priority and let the offense come when it comes.
Adrian Aucoin – When Aucoin joined this team, he became the only defenseman over the age of 27. This is his seventh NHL organization and he has made the playoffs in 11 of his 17 seasons, while serving as either a captain or alternate in seven of those years. While last year was a bit of a down year, he averaged 30 points over the four seasons prior and will bring a much needed veteran presence to the locker room.
The Young Guns
Ryan Murray – Selected second overall, Murray is expected to step right into the NHL and hopefully make an impact. While Murray has a high offensive ceiling, his early contributions will likely be in his own end. He is a great skater with a high hockey IQ, which will allow him to not only make a good breakout pass, but also provide a calm atmosphere in his own zone, which will be huge for this team in the immediate future.
John Moore – A former first-round selection, Moore just wrapped up his first full season in the NHL and second as a professional. Although he should be penciled in for a spot in Columbus, Moore could probably use some more AHL development time based on his performance last year, which makes him a prime candidate to benefit from a potential lockout. Moore has been an All Star at the AHL, OHL, and USHL levels, making last season the first year since 2007-08 that he has not skated in an All Star game.
Tim Erixon – Although Erixon was considered a “throw-in” in the Rick Nash trade, he is a player with a very bright future. He has the size and skill to play in the NHL right away and comes with two years of experience in the Elitserien and a split year between the New York and Connecticut.
David Savard – A former QMJHL champion, CHL Defenseman of the Year, and QMJHL Defenseman of the Year, Savard has taken a more traditional development path performing well for a full year in the AHL, followed by a year split between NHL and AHL action. He saw 31 games last year, posting 10 points and keeping an even plus/minus rating. Along with some of the others on the list, he has the size and skill to play in the NHL now.
Looking at the current mix of defensemen, the acquisition of Aucoin was a huge positive for this club as it will provide much needed veteran leadership and guidance. As the team is still very young, it would probably be in their best interest to acquire one additional veteran presence in the locker room as well, preferably as a seventh defenseman.
Overall, the Blue Jackets have a number of players who have the ability to score 50 or more points from the blue line right away, followed by one veteran mentor, and a growing crop of emerging talent. For the upcoming season – when the CBA is ironed out – Columbus’ blue line is certainly improved from last year, but the short-term concern may be the imbalance of offensive and defensive defensemen. As Murray, Moore, Erixon, and Savard start to force their way into the lineup, this balance will be even more critical to the team’s success.