Is the Blue Jackets Defense Their Great Weakness?

Forward depth in Columbus is at an all-time high, even considering a few key injuries. There’s wiggle room in the discussion of how good overall Blue Jackets depth can be (I touched on this last week – I think it’s quite solid). With Ryan Johansen back in the fold and solidifying the centers, it’s hard to imagine the top 9 forwards being bad. As we turn our attention to the defense, the story gets murkier.

Perhaps the two strangest events in the Blue Jackets offseason were the lack of movement both on defense and in goal. The latter is sensible for the starter (Bob is among the NHL’s best), so the hope remains that a not-so-great backup won’t get much playtime. The former, the blueline consistency, is perplexing.

Five out of the five d-men with the biggest ice time in 2013-14 return to the Jackets, the sixth gone away to Edmonton on a rather large contract. Those five blue liners seem all-but-certain in their roster spots (even if the exact roles are in flux). The final spot (and a fill-in 7th slot when the banged-up Ryan Murray returns) is unclear, with all of Dalton Prout, Cody Goloubef, and Tim Erixon making claims to their cases in camp.

The Blue Jackets Blueline Today
How was a decision is this season-to-season stability at defense? To answer that, we need to consider just what happened last year. In fact, we might also look backa few more years to see exactly what the Jackets are dealing with. Let’s take a look at each defensive player’s Relative CF% over the past several seasons using data from War On Ice. We’re going to limit this to season with 20+ games played since the 2006-07 season.

Remember: blueliners in the NHL don’t have much control over their save percentage, rendering CF% and relative CF% our most effective tools for defensive skill evaluation (that is to say, goal-based metrics aren’t the best here).

CBJ 201314 Dmen Rel CF

What do we learn from this exercise? There’s a great deal of uncertainty in expectations for the d-corps, but there is a somewhat negative tale in 3 or 4 cases. That much is troubling. The key here: you’d prefer a quality NHL d-man be above the zero line (that is, good relative to team), especially if their raw CF% is below 50%.

Everyone’s favorite analytics whipping boy is an obvious point of concern, and I won’t belabor that point further. David Savard was impressive in his first year, much less inspiring this last year. Dalton Prout finally escaped the downward pull of his rookie year partner, only to slip below the surface again in 2013-14. Fedor Tyutin is the blurriest case. He has a history of success, but he’s 31 now and coming off his worst season in Columbus.

The clear highlights last year were James Wisniewski and Ryan Murray. For those counting, that’s only two of the 6 (or 7, considering Nikitin) regular d-men that could keep their heads above water. In that context, the lack of CBJ movement is worrying.

Consider: just this past weekend the New York Islanders picked up Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuck, two players with a history of strong relative play (albeit with favorable zone starts in Leddy’s case). This comes months after the Penguins upgraded their defense by subtraction (Orpik) and addition (Ehrhoff). The Metro Division isn’t getting easier. Is the current Columbus combination going to be enough?

The Case for Stability in Columbus
The way out for the Blue Jackets? Internal growth among the youngest d-men. David Savard is 24, and Dalton Prout is 24. These two haven’t quite hit the tipping point of a defenseman’s aging curve and only have (respectively) 105 and 82 games of NHL experience. As the grow even more accustomed to the top pro league, there’s a chance these two might improve. (Cody Goloubef might also fit this category, as he turns 25 in November). It is a bit hard to put a ton of faith in this idea, though. It’s especially tricky, as we’re considering players that didn’t make obvious NHL breakthroughs until last year.

Excluding trade scenarios, a better chance for near-term blue line reinforcement is from both Ryan Murray and Tim Erixon. Murray’s 2013-14 season was a great one. Any increase in quality from the 21-year-old would start pushing him into the company of the NHL’s best d-men. Murray has the makings of a special player and his evolution would be a great development regardless of the play around him.

Tim Erixon’s play is a tantalizing potential addition. He was just shy of a point per game player from the blueline with Springfield last season. Scouting reports on Erixon have almost always been positive, and his chance in the NHL may prove the injection of talent the CBJ needs. If he sticks in Columbus and begins to push play, then the d-corps problem is suddenly diminished.

Erixon’s evolution will be one of the top storylines to follow in Columbus this year, particularly after his long look in camp paired with James Wisniewski. Consider: Wisniewski-Murray-Erixon. That could read like a list leading a solid defensive unit if everything shakes out the right way. It’s something CBJ fans and executives had better hope happens.

Relying on the Last Line of Defense
Of course, a great cover-up for any potential d-corps weakness is the man behind them. Sergei Bobrovsky is supreme. It’s very easy to argue that Bob is a top 3 goalie in the NHL right now and going forward. Skater errors aren’t quite so crippling and much easier to look past when they don’t end up in the net.

And yet that doesn’t excuse the situation if the shot balance tips the wrong way. By sitting still on defense this summer, the Columbus Blue Jackets put their eggs in the current basket and must hope that one or more of Erixon, Savard, Prout, or Tyutin makes strides toward growth or turnaround. If not, the onus will be on the forward depth and the elite goalie to keep the team afloat in spite of their defensemen teammates.

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