In the previous installment, we focused on the offensive zone — examining how much scoring would likely be needed, and where those goals might come from. We now turn our sights to the other side of center ice — between the trapezoid and the blue line. Seven players spend the majority of their ice time here, with their primary purpose to prevent the other side from finding the back of the net. If they do that well, the pressure on the scoring end goes down. Of course, if the scorers don’t uphold their side of the bargain, the pressure on the blue line and in goal increases as well. One of the key attributes for defensemen and goalies alike is just how well they can handle that pressure over the course of an 82-game season.
Goal differential is a key metric for determining success. After all, you need to score more than your opponent to win a game, so it should not be shocking that most teams that make the playoffs have positive goal differentials. It’s not universal — the Islanders made the playoffs last year with an even goal differential, and Washington made the playoffs the prior season with an eight-goal deficit. However, if the post-season is your goal, you’d better plan on a positive number for this statistic. Note that not a single club with a positive differential missed the playoffs in the 11-12 campaign, and only one squad had that fate last year. That’s right . . . the Columbus Blue Jackets. The club ended up with a positive goal differential (+1) for the first time in franchise history last year . . . and was edged out by Minnesota (differential minus -5 ) for the playoffs. Columbus was minus-4 in its 2008-09 playoff run, while the Wild missed the dance, despite having a differential of +19. So, the Minnesotans likely viewed last season as sweet revenge.
Think of goal differentials as the on ice profitability number for the hockey business. A business can achieve profitability in a couple of different ways – increase revenue, or decrease expenses. In general, however, it’s difficult to rely long-term on the latter strategy — the miserly approach, as expenses can be pared only so far before the business shrinks and dies. It’s the same thing in hockey. You can rely on stingy defense and great goal-tending to a point, but only to a point. Ken Hitchcock’s system is the epitome of this concept, relying on smothering defense and great play in net to put winning numbers up. In 2011-12, the Blues allowed only 165 goals over 82 games, by far the best in the league. However, they only scored 210 goals, a number exceeded by virtually every playoff team that year, except for the Kings and Panthers. It’s a dangerous way to live, because scoring is not something you just turn on and off at will.
At the other end of the spectrum, of course, is the “spendthrift” company, the business willing to spend anything as long as the sales keep coming in. In 2011-12, teams like the Flyers (264 GF/232 GA), Blackhawks (248/238) and Senators (249/240) took this approach. It’s great when it works, but when the markets dry up – or the pucks start hitting posts — the losses can pile up quickly.
Last season, the Blue Jackets posted the stingiest defensive season in their history, allowing just 119 goals, which adjusts to a full-season total of 203. That’s significantly better than the previous mark of 218 in the 2007-08 season — when Mr. Hitchcock was running the show. A Vezina Trophy-winning goal-tender helps a lot when it comes to posting those numbers, but an aggressive team defense shares the spotlight. Only eight clubs had as few goals allowed last year, and five of those were in the West. However, 24 teams scored more goals, and only Ottawa, New Jersey and Florida fell behind the Blue Jackets from the Eastern Conference. So, as we turn the focus to this season, we are still dealing with more of an expense cutting operation than a spendthrift, prolific goal-scoring enterprise. While the prospects for goals is brighter, can the Blue Jackets duplicate their defensive prowess of last season?
Let’s start in goal, where Bobrovsky rules the blue paint. He received a big payday in the off-season, and enters this season with a target on his back. Can he prove that the hardware on his mantle is not just a fluke — driven by a lockout-shortened season? With big money in his pockets and the candles still warm on his 25th birthday cake, can he handle the spotlight of the elite, particularly in the more scrutinized East? Will he fall victim to the Steve Mason Phenomenon, and post massively disappointing numbers? All of these are legitimate concerns, and if I knew the answers, I’d be making my investment picks from a beachfront perch in Grand Cayman. However, I think there are sufficient clues out there to warrant some educated guesswork.
First and foremost, Bobrovsky is not Steve Mason. Nothing against Mason, who was a kid when he came up, and was emotionally ill-prepared for the roller coaster of NHL life. The problem was that Mason viewed the NHL — and the Calder — as the end of the rainbow, the reward for years of toil through the junior ranks. Bobrovsky — by all accounts — views his starting role in Columbus and the Vezina on his shelf as only the beginning — the precursor to better things to come down the road. Underlying the difference is a fundamental disparity in work ethic. Bobrovsky is universally hailed as one of the hardest working players in the NHL — not just goal-tenders. The expectations of others are no match for his own expectations — and the degree of work he will put in to get there. Mason? Not so much. Hard work was never the accusation thrown his way — and it showed.
My money is on Bob to prove the skeptics wrong. As great as the .932 save percentage and 2.00 GAA were last year, they were comparable to what he posted in St. Petersburg during the lockout. In fact, his GAA was lower — 1.94 — in the KHL. Even in 2010-2011, playing behind a Flyers’ club not known for defensive prowess, he had very respectable .915 and 2.59 numbers. He has the skill, the attitude and the work ethic to get the job done again. Does that mean another Vezina? Maybe, but that’s out of his control. There’s a lot of skill involved in being a goalie in the NHL — but there is a lot of luck involved as well. The puck off the post that saves you one day can turn into the puck that flops out of the air, onto your back, and into the net the next. Put it this way — providing Bobrovsky stays reasonably healthy, I do not see him as being the reason for the club missing the playoffs.
The backup role is more of a question mark. McElhinney surprised everyone with the season he had in Springfield last year (.923 save percentage, 2.32 GAA). Some say that earned him the backup role, others will say it was simply given to him. I’m leaning a bit more toward the latter, unfortunately. With a grand total of 69 NHL games under his belt at the age of 30, an NHL save percentage under .900 and a GAA north of 3.00, I would frankly liked to have seen some other faces brought in — at least to provide some competition. In his pre-season debut against Pittsburgh, he looked awful in the first, better in the second, and his final numbers were solid. 24-26, .923. However, he was saved by at least three posts, all glove side. The concern from here is that he has a fine AHL glove, but simply does not have the quickness for the NHL. Time will tell, but a lengthy injury to Bobrovsky will set off alarm bells.
Before turning to the merits of the defensive regiment, I need to point you to a great article by The Coach right here at The Union Blue, discussing the impact the waiver rules might — or might not — have on the final defensive configuration when all is said and done. Keep his thoughts (and the discussion in the comments) in your minds as you digest my take on the situation.
First and foremost, the defense of the Blue Jackets is led by one guy, and one guy only — Fedor Tyutin. I’m not denigrating JJ or Wiz, but the facts speak for themselves. While the others grab the spotlight, Tyutin quietly and effectively goes about the business of being a top pair defenseman in the NHL. He was in the top 30 in the NHL in TOI, Assists and Plus/Minus last season, and #33 in points. Only Prout (14th in Plus/Minus) and Johnson (5th in TOI) even registered. Though he takes grief, and makes mistakes, he remains a top-echelon NHL defenseman, and the most solid all-around blue liner for Columbus. His numbers would likely have been even better, had he not been called upon to cover Nikitin’s mistakes much of the time.
As those of you who have followed me over the years know, I’m not a big believer in the plus/minus statistic. It is largely a team statistic dressed up to look like a meaningful individual measure. However, when you look at the relative postures of guys on the same club, it is a bit more instructive. As noted above, both Tyutin & Prout cracked the top 30. Erixon was 78th, Nikitin 104th, Wisniewski 152nd and Johnson 229th. Ouch. These guys all are playing in front of the Vezina Trophy winner, and behind the same four lines of forwards, so there might just be a bit of fire behind that smoke. But let’s look more closely.
To be sure, Jack Johnson and James Wisniewski are good players, particularly in the offensive threats they pose. However, they do not make a good pair, simply because they share the same assets – and the same liabilities. Both Johnson and Wiz are looking to make the big plays and scorch some twine at the opposite end. They aren’t afraid to step up and pinch in — even when they should be — and therein lies the problem. You need guys with these skills, but you need them paired with players with complementary skills, who can responsibly step back and cover when his partner steps up and takes a risk. It’s not by accident that Tyutin and Johnson have seen a lot of time together in camp and pre-season games. Ditto for Wisniewski and Ryan Murray (more on Murray in a moment). Wisniewski is a different player with Murray, as Murray has those shut-down sensibilities that Wiz needs to play his game. No question — Johnson and Wiz are the #2 and #3 guys on the blue line. They simply need to be put in situations where they can excel at what they do best.
Of course, to excel you need to be in the game, and this is where Wisniewski has a problem. He has been on the ice for only 78 of the 130 games the Blue Jackets have played over the past two years. That’s the equivalent of just over an $11 million per year salary. With his “prior offender” status gone, and the promise of a dynamic young partner for the new season, the pressure is on for Wisniewski to produce this year. Up to now, he’s been the Microsoft of the blue line — lots of promise, little delivery. Time to step up in a big way, or Mr. Kekäläinen might arrange an alternate venue for his part-time services.
Rounding out the top four is Ryan Murray. Yes, I went there. If you have watched him on the ice this pre-season, you likely share this view. It has nothing to do with numbers — but everything to do with presence. Simply stated, Murray does it all — and does it very well. He looks composed, makes good decisions, and shows the speed and stick skills you expect from the top four. He’s taken some bangs on the boards, and has dished out some punishment, without apparent ill-effects to his shoulder. He handles the power play and the penalty kill with equal aplomb. His skills and presence free up Wisniewski, which is a must for back-end success. He’s here — deal with it.
Now we enter the sticky, murky world of defensemen #5, #6 and #7 (and possibly #8). Your candidates are Nikita Nikitin, David Savard, Tim Erixon, Cody Goloubef, Dalton Prout and Ilari Melart. (Although Will Weber remains in camp, I’m not viewing him as a serious contender to start the season in Columbus). Nikitin had an awful year last year — a significant retreat from his inaugural season — even with Tyutin bailing him out. Thus far in the pre-season, he has looked slow and out of shape. This is surprising, since this is a contract year for him, and you would expect him to be raring to go. Not so much. I think Mr. Nikitin is “Most Likely To Be Traded” this pre-season. Close on his heels is David Savard, who is a serviceable defenseman, but no more. He puts his body in the right place often enough, but simply does nothing once he is there. I watched him the other night simply bump the puck idly into the neutral zone three consecutive times, instead of looking for a pass or possibly skating the puck into opportunity. In my view, I look to trade Savard, and if I can’t, I take the chance on waivers. Ilari Melart is an intriguing option for the future, but he needs time in the AHL to learn the North American game. He looked lost against the Penguins, and I don’t look for him to learn his way against NHL competition.
That leaves Goloubef, Erixon and Prout. If Nikitin is traded, these are my #5, #6 & #7. Even if he isn’t, the Blue Jackets could carry eight defensemen early. If more than one forward goes down, Springfield is a lot closer to the cities in the East for call-up purposes. Prout was the surprise of the year last year, as he was on very few radars heading into the season. Can he repeat, and keep it up for a full season? Can he overcome the injury? We’ll see — and the mere fact that those questions exist might warrant keeping eight defensemen up at first. If he struggles, he has waiver exemption remaining, and can be moved at will.
Goloubef and Erixon present many of the same qualities. They have solid all around games, with enough speed and stick handling to move the puck, and enough physical presence to shut things down when necessary. Maybe it’s just me, but the club seems to play well with these guys on the ice, and there is a flow to their games that appeals. If the Blue Jackets stick with only seven on the blue line, waiver considerations might put Erixon in the AHL for the beginning of the season. However, as I indicated, I suspect that a trade or two will render that problem moot.
As with every other team in the NHL, the Blue Jackets will be looking to keep their defensive corps healthy. If they do that, they are returning a squad that has some definite upgrades, and more experience for its youngsters. I’m making the call that the Blue Jackets will toy with the 200 goal mark for goals allowed this season, and perhaps less. That should do wonders for the goal differential, whether you’re a spendthrift or a miser.