The bulwark that is the Blue Jackets defense
It is said that in order to have success, it begins in net. Blue Jackets goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky has regained his form and was named the NHL’s Third Star for the month of December, and deservedly so. He was a large part of the reason the team went 10-1-1 last month.
Beyond having very good goaltending, a teams’ success also depends on having a solid defensive corps. As injuries swept through the forward lines, the defense dealt with its own injury issues. Ryan Murray has played just four games this season. James Wisniewski missed three games with a broken finger. Fedor Tyutin was on the sidelines for 13 games with a sprained knee. And Cody Goloubef suffered a knee injury on November 1.
Jordan Leopold was picked up in a trade with St. Louis on November 15 to help fill the void of Tyutin’s absence. Kevin Connauton was claimed off waivers from the Dallas Stars on November 18 to bolster the blue line.
But by the end of November, which saw them go 2-9-2, the defensive pairings had stabilized and chemistry was forming. With this stability came a cohesiveness that coincided with Bobrovsky’s better play and the teams’ fortunes turning.
There are only two defensemen, Dalton Prout and Connauton, that average under twenty minutes per game. Prout is averaging almost 15 minutes a night, while Connauton is seeing over sixteen minutes on the ice. Jack Johnson (24:11 TOI), David Savard (22:42 TOI), Fedor Tyutin (20:17 TOI) and Wisniewski (21:44 TOI) are spreading the workload around.
"I think with all three ‘D’ pairings can play against anybody, really," said Wisniewski. "That’s a credit to our defensive unit. All six defensemen can play in any situation that the coach wants them to."
Johnson, Savard and Wisniewski all see time on both special teams units. Tyutin and Prout see time mainly on the penalty kill with Connauton contributing on the power play. Tyutin returned from IR on December 16.
"Obviously, Tyuts (Fedor Tyutin) is a big part of our ‘D’ core," Savard said. "He has a lot of experience. Prouter (Dalton Prout) and me don’t have that much experience, but we’re starting to know the league a little bit and we still have a lot to learn."
"Me playing with Jack (Johnson), he makes it real easy for me. They (the veteran players) talk to the young guys and make sure you’re comfortable. I think all of the experience (Johnson, Tyutin, Wisniewski) makes it easier on the young guys to jump in and do a good job."
That cohesive defense is part of the larger collective bond that the team has. They all help one another out and believe in each other. That feeling of family goes a long way towards the way that they play the game.
"It’s a credit to the guys in the locker room," said Wisniewski, "whether it’s the core guys we have here that are good enough to make guys feel comfortable and play good or they come in here and fill a hole and contribute."
"There are no cliques in this locker room. Everyone comes in here, gets along and has fun. It’s one of those teams where if you give one hundred percent, you’re going to get your time (on ice), be respected and be able to play."
Blue Jackets bench boss Todd Richards likes the way that his blue line has come together to contribute to the teams’ better play. His trust in these guys sows in the stability of the pairings and their corresponding ice-time.
"We need contributions from everyone," said Richards. "Jack (Johnson) has had some games and Wiz (James Wisniewski) has had some games where we’ve gotten some offensive production from them. And when you’re missing some key guys up front, and there are injuries in your lineup, you need some guys to step up. Our defensemen have done that, as far as the production offensively."
Savard has blossomed as a player paired with Johnson and Prout has found chemistry with Tyutin. Wisniewski, paired with Murray last season, finds himself paired with Connauton. Each of these pairs of players complement each other, their strengths meshing in positive ways.
"I think we’ve worked out really well and have good chemistry," Connauton said of being paired with Wisniewski. "We have a good feel for where each other is going to be. The big thing is that we’re talking and communicating out there. It’s been a great fit, so far. We have to keep working hard to make sure that we’re doing the little things that are making us successful."
That mindset of chipping-in and contributing for the collective good of the team is reminiscent of the way they played last year. There is not just one or two players on the blue line that stand out above the rest. All six defensemen are doing their part to help the team climb out of the hole that was dug earlier this season.
"We need everybody to chip in," Savard said. "I don’t think we have just one guy that we’re going to anchor all of our offense on. It’s great to see everyone contributing."
The Blue Jackets return to action Saturday in Arizona as they take on the Coyotes at 8 p.m., in the first game of a four-game road trip. Catch all the action with the FOX Sports Ohio pregame show "Blue Jackets LIVE" beginning at 7:30 p.m.