We’re finally into double-digit games for the Columbus Blue Jackets and the results have trended toward positive. While the team’s record shows a bit of a mixed bag, the content of the losses is more encouraging than the style of play seen last year. There are a number of reasons for this shift, but a significant addition has been the stability of young defensemen on the Columbus blueline.
Yes, you’ve probably seen countless articles about the veteran leadership of Jack Johnson and James Wisniewski. Heck, I’ve even reflected on the importance of Fedor Tyutin to the team’s success. But the cliched “shining hope” for the Blue Jackets both this year and in the future comes in the form of three defensemen, each aged 23 and under. Today, let’s take a step back to marvel at early work of Ryan Murray and David Savard, currently with the NHL club, and Tim Erixon, the next Columbus blueliner waiting in the wings.
Ryan Murray, Age 20
Starting with Ryan Murray, former 2nd overall draft pick, seems like a logical choice, but it’s worth giving a bit of context to his success. A quick look at some noteworthy NHL d-men puts Murray in good company for his starting age in the league. Kris Letang played his first full season at age 20, Shea Weber, PK Subban, and Ryan Suter were all in their first seasons at 21, Duncan Keith at 22. That Murray is in a similar age range and working through his debut year is encouraging.
Things weren’t completely smooth for the Columbus blueline while the former WHL star adjusted to the speed and style of the pro game. You’re likely to find plenty of Jacket fans who have unpleasant memories of opening night versus Calgary. Murray’s ill-timed cross ice pass in the first game resulted in a breakaway goal for the Flames and is likely something the d-man would like back.
But after that mistake? Murray has calmed significantly and then has been rewarded for his solid play. Suddenly, Ryan Murray is seeing time on the powerplay and looks to be an adept quarterback (solid puck control, crisp passing, smooth skating, it’s all there). Now, the points are starting to follow. Murray’s first goal was a great bit of puck movement and good decision making to crash in toward a rebound.
Thanks to his on-ice performance, Murray has gained the respect of the organization, the coaching staff, and his teammates. Murray’s 9-game tryout has come and gone, and now he’s a permanent member of the team, first year contract officially underway. Head coach Todd Richards affirmed the GM’s decision, noting to the Columbus Dispatch that, “[Murray's] one guy who has really helped solidify our back end, which is really an impressive thing to say about a rookie.” Fellow d-man James Wisniewski echoed the compliment, telling Michael Arace, “It is a pleasure to play with him.”
And should Murray continue to improve with experience and development? Columbus could be witnessing the start of a great career.
David Savard, Age 23
For many, David Savard was something of a forgotten part of the Columbus blueline (maybe even bordering on bust, according to some). One strong training camp later, and Savard has turned into an impact player for the Jackets. As I’ve previously mentioned in this space, Savard’s possession performance was a key component of his early-season value. While that has slipped in the following games, this is likely a result of shuffles in defensive pairings for Savard with partner Nikita Nikitin out.
Thankfully for Savard, he’s continuing to earn the support of the coaching staff. When the team began making game-to-game adjustments prior to their match versus the Washington Capitals, Todd Richards noted that David Savard was not going to face a healthy scratch, a significant vote of confidence for the young player.
And for now, it seems like Savard will continue to play. Like Murray, Savard has had occasional shots at a powerplay role, and his secondary assist on Boone Jenner’s first NHL goal was part of a passing effort that loaded a strong shot for Ryan Johansen.
Continued development and solid play from Savard adds another piece to the defensive foundation for the Columbus blueline.
Tim Erixon, Age 22
The final impressive youth d-man isn’t currently with the Jackets, but seems poised to break through if (or when) injuries play a role in the Columbus roster. Tim Erixon is most noteworthy to outside fans either as the first round pick who wouldn’t sign with the Flames, or as a piece of the Rick Nash trade. For Columbus fans, Erixon is considered among the top young players in the organization. In particular, Corey Pronman hailed Erixon’s puck-moving talent.
Unfortunately for Erixon, the squeeze of roster limits left him on the outside looking in post-camp. A lack of playtime was a significant factor in the demotion, but Erixon’s response has been strong. Since joining the Springfield Falcons, Erixon has erupted for 9 points in 6 games. As of this writing, Erixon’s point total sets the pace for his team and puts the d-man in the top 20 for AHL scoring. Erixon’s work has attracted renewed praise, as an NHL scout remarked to MassLive reporter Mike Scandura, “He’s a great puck-moving defenseman.” The Springfield Falcons had an in-house interview with Erixon following his sudden offensive explosion.
Tim Erixon is only 22, so a lack of complete NHL breakthrough shouldn’t be a disturbing result at this point in his career. The young d-man is continuing to produce and will have to break through the suddenly-meaningful Columbus depth chart to return to the NHL blueline. But it’s hard to see his development as anything other than a positive for the long-term health of the Blue Jacket defensive corps.