Blue Jackets young blue line on the rise
It has been four days since the NHL trade deadline passed and the next step was set forth by the Blue Jackets organization. The day was coming when the emergence of the younger guys on the blue line would lead to changes on defense.
After four years in a Blue Jackets sweater for James Wisniewski, that day was Monday. But what were the circumstances that occurred to make Wisniewski expendable?
"I think the long-term plans for our defense," said Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen on Monday. "I think that we have some really good young defensemen emerging into the similar role that James Wisniewski filled with our team."
Kekalainen cited three players as part of the reason to trade the veteran defenseman to Anaheim. Those players are Ryan Murray, David Savard and Kevin Connauton. Although the 21 year old Murray has only played seven games for the team this season due to injuries, the latest of which is a high ankle sprain, Kekalainen is still very bullish on the second-year D-man.
"We have Ryan Murray who, in my mind, is one of the best young, emerging defensemen in the league," he said. "Unfortunately, he’s been injured. But I truly believe that he can be an elite defenseman in this league once he gets healthy and grows with age and experience."
In 66 games last season, Murray recorded 4-17-21 and was credited with 62 shots. The injuries to his knee and the high ankle sprain have severely limited his time on the ice this year.
"David Savard is close to the most improved player on our team," Kekalainen said of the St. Hyacinthe, Quebec-native. "He’s probably the most consistent defenseman on our team this year."
Savard, 24, began his emergence last season as he saw more and more time paired with Jack Johnson. This season, Savard has been a staple on the top pairing and having a career season as he gains more confidence.
"It’s not easy to come in and get a spot on our team and stay there," Savard said. "It’s great to see that Jarmo and the coaches have confidence in us. It carries with it more pressure. It means more ice-time and more responsibility. Everybody is going to have to push a little more."
He’s posted 10-15-25 in 63 games this season and is one of only two players (Ryan Johansen is the other) to have played in all 63 games. The onus was put squarely on his shoulders by the organization to get better and he took that to heart. His bigger, stronger and faster this season than he has ever been.
The third player in this trio of young blue-liners is Kevin Connauton. The Blue Jackets claimed the 25 year old defenseman off waivers from the Dallas Stars on November 18. Maybe Dallas thought he would squeak through untouched, but is now cognizant of the fact that Jarmo Kekalainen has scouts seemingly everywhere, feeding him actionable information.
"Kevin Connauton has really shown us his power play ability this year," Kekalainen said of the waiver pick-up. "I think with added time in that role, it will do wonders for him. He’s still a young defenseman who’s going to grow and get better and improve. He works hard and is driven to get to the next level."
In 39 games since being claimed, Connauton has recorded 8-7-15 in a year that he was unsure of whether he would even play in the NHL. He was coming to terms with the fact that he would wind up riding a bus from game-to-game in the AHL before the Blue Jackets made that call.
"To me, it’s pretty special that he mentioned my name in that context," said Connauton. "A couple of months ago I thought I was going down to the minors for the rest of my career. (Blue Jackets) gave me an opportunity."
Connauton is a playing that made a favorable impression almost from the very first day he was in Columbus. He gets with associate coach Craig Hartsburg after every game and goes over video of every shift he had in that game.
"I think I’ve done a good job with it so far, but that doesn’t mean that the work is over. When you hear something like that from your GM, it’s time to work even harder. You always want to make sure that you’re pushing to be better and you’ve got to make sure that management is happy with what you’re doing."
So at this point, the Blue Jackets have made the decision that the time is now for the youth to step up and grab the bull by the horns. There are no more tepid baby steps and wading into lukewarm water. These three players have shown promise in their development that allowed the team to make the call on Monday.
Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen is putting his stamp on the organization and making it his own. He’s showing that he will put faith in those that deserve it as he strives to reach the ultimate goal of making this a winning franchise. Along the way, a few eggs may be broken. But in the end, the omelette will be worth the wait.
"It’s definitely a confidence-builder," Connauton said of Kekalainen’s words, "but it’s also a challenge to be better."
The Blue Jackets take on the New Jersey Devils Friday at 7:00 p.m. with the FOX Sports Ohio pregame show "Blue Jackets LIVE" beginning at 6:30 p.m.