Blue Jackets 2020-21 Season: Grading the Defensemen & Goalies

Now that the offseason is in full swing in Columbus, and off to a strong start, as my colleague Mark Scheig discussed, it’s time we look back on what was a very forgettable season for the Columbus Blue Jackets and grade how some players performed. In this piece, we’ll be looking at a couple of the key defensemen and both goaltenders, Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo. We’ll only be discussing skaters who played at least 20 games and finished the season in Columbus, so no David Savard, Gavin Bayreuther, Andrew Peeke, Scott Harrington, Gabriel Carlsson, or Mikko Lehtonen. Let’s get into it!

Seth Jones: D

Let’s start with the defensemen, and the biggest name on this blue line is undoubtedly Seth Jones. Jones was fourth on the Blue Jackets in scoring with five goals, 23 assists for 28 points in 56 games, averaging 25:14 on ice per game. He had, to put it lightly, a horrible year. Coming in as a presumed Norris Trophy favorite he ended near the bottom of many metrics we currently use to measure defense. A huge engine on this team, generally how Jones (and Werenski) goes, so go the Blue Jackets. And this year, they went…all the way to the bottom of the Central Division.

Seth Jones Columbus Blue Jackets
Seth Jones, Columbus Blue Jackets (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Among defensemen, Jones was a team-worst -5.8 GAR (Goals Above Replacement), -1 WAR (Wins Above Replacement), and -1.9 SPAR (Standing Points Above Replacement), all of which ranked sixth-worst in the entire league out of 300 NHL defensemen per Evolving-Hockey. He was the worst among CBJ blueliners with 33.65 SA per 60 (Shots Allowed per 60 minutes) and allowed 3.7 zone entries with chances against per 60, which was also worst among the group, according to Corey Sznajder’s transition data. He was also worst in xGF% (Expected Goals For Percentage) among defensemen at 43%. No matter which way you slice it, Jones really struggled. And don’t be mistaken – he wasn’t bad because the Jackets were bad this year. The Blue Jackets plummeted in the standings, and a huge reason why was the play of their top defenseman.

Over the past two or three seasons, there has quietly been a growing discourse about whether Jones is a true elite number one defenseman or not, particularly among those in the analytics community. His talent is obvious, and his skill level on the puck is pretty high, but some have wondered if that masks some real underlying issues that cause people to overvalue him, as brought up in this piece by writer JFresh, an analyst for Elite Prospects Rinkside. SportsNet and Hockey Night in Canada insider Elliotte Friedman recently spoke on 31 Thoughts: The Podcast and brought up Jones, saying:

“One of the things you have to be most concerned about is how do you judge people who struggled this year? Like one of the guys I look at is Seth Jones. He had a really tough season. I think he’s better than he played this season. And I’ve been told he really struggled with just the overall way that this year went, in terms of, you know, you couldn’t be ‘normal’ off the ice. Not to say he’s a party animal or anything like that but you can’t do the things that you normally do. And I think that’s a really good point”

Elliotte Friedman, 31 Thoughts Podcast

This isn’t a deep dive on how good Jones is or isn’t. I think he’s a really good defenseman, and the way we currently measure defense with analytics is just somehow missing something about his game, but it is undeniable just how much he struggled this year. It will be interesting to see what version of Jones we see moving forward under a new coach and system should he stay in Columbus, which is a huge priority for GM Jarmo Kekalainen this offseason. But regardless, he’ll have to be significantly better than he was this past season if he wants to be worth his new contract, whatever amount it is, whether that’s in Columbus or elsewhere.

Zach Werenski: C

Next up is Zach Werenski, another core member of the CBJ. Werenski was seventh on the team in points, with seven goals and 13 assists for 20 points in 35 games, averaging a career-high 24:22 per game. His 1.41 points per 60 rate was the best on the team among defensemen, as was his ixG per 60 (Individual Expected Goals For Rate). However, per Money Puck, he and Jones were the worst CBJ defensive pair by expected goals share by two percent, coming in at 43.6 xG% on the season. It’s impossible to blame that solely on either one of them, especially after the season Jones just had, but it is worth noting that Jones’ xG% improved when he was placed with other partners. Werenski didn’t see enough minutes away from Jones to make any hard conclusions.

Werenski is by far the best Blue Jackets defenseman in transition, and that held true this season too with almost 11 controlled zone exits/60 this year, exiting the zone with possession around 51% of the time. Werenski is easily the best CBJ defenseman at gaining the offensive zone with control with 10 entries per 60 this season and a 41% possession rate. Transition play was something the Blue Jackets really struggled with this season, and it’s no coincidence the team went 3-7-4 allowing 50 goals and only scoring 31 down the stretch after his campaign was ended by injury. With one season left on his $5M per bridge deal and arbitration-eligible next summer, the team will try to negotiate a long-term deal with him this offseason. If it seems an agreement can’t be reached, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him dangled in trade talks for a potential top-line center, but it would be a massive blow to the blue line – he’s arguably been its best player over the past two seasons.

Michael Del Zotto: A

Very little was expected of Michael Del Zotto this season. Signed to a veteran minimum deal as ideally a sixth/seventh defenseman, he likely played his way into a solid extension, and it’ll be well deserved. After years of being a journeyman, he seemed to find a home in Columbus, logging four goals and nine assists for 13 points in 53 games played. He had the seccond highest GAR on the CBJ at 6.1, by far the highest among defensemen, and was tied for second in WAR and SPAR among all skaters and tops among the blue line group. And while I don’t put much value on +/-, it is probably worth noting that MDZ was the only defenseman and one of only three skaters in the positive this year, along with Eric Robinson and Emil Bemstrom.

Michael Del Zotto Columbus Blue Jackets
Michael Del Zotto, Columbus Blue Jackets (Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)

Del Zotto isn’t a shutdown defenseman and isn’t overwhelmingly offensively gifted, and as long as Jones and Werenski are above him, he likely won’t receive much power playtime. But he proved useful in transition this year and made a strong pair with Dean Kukan when they were paired together, which we’ll touch on later. For only $700K the team got a pretty big return on their investment, and it would not shock me to see him return on a two or three-year deal for a pretty low AAV. He was one of the few bright spots in Columbus this season.

Vladislav Gavrikov: C

Gavrikov this year was again as advertised – a legitimate, stay-at-home shutdown defenseman. He scored two goals and added 10 assists for 12 points in 55 games and averaged 19:24 of ice time per night. This season he was used in an even more defensive role: only 35% of his zone starts came in the offensive zone with 65% beginning in his own end, compared to 42% offensive zone starts and 58% defensive zone starts, a year ago. Over the past couple of seasons, Gavrikov and David Savard earned a deserving reputation as one of the top true shutdown defensive pairs in the NHL. It’s part of the reason why there was interest around the rugged Russian at this past deadline, and why Savard fetched such a hefty return when he was dealt. Both their underlying numbers and their on-ice results were really strong.

With Or WithoutCF%SF%GF%xGF%
Gavrikov and Savard41.3642.7944.2142.17
Gavrikov w/out Savard46.2546.1245.4547.38
Savard w/out Gavrikov44.5644.1547.2845.94
Data provided by NaturalStattrick

Strangely enough, though, this past season wasn’t quite the same. Gavrikov’s Corsi For percentage, Shots For percentage, Expected Goals For percentage, and other key metrics all improved away from Savard, who did have a below-average season per his lofty defensive standards. Savard similarly produced improved metrics away from Gavrikov, although overall to a lesser extent. He has another two seasons left on his $2.8M per deal, which is excellent value – he reaffirmed this year that he isn’t reliant on Savard or any other individual partner to succeed. It will be interesting to see who he’s paired with long-term now that his d-partner has moved on from Columbus.

Dean Kukan: C

Kukan was pretty under the radar this year, as seems to be his usual game the last few seasons under John Tortorella. He had one goal and four assists for five points in 14:11 per night. He was 3rd best on the Jackets across the board among CBJ defensemen in GAR, WAR, and SPAR with 1.2, .2, and .4, respectively. He was, however, the worst defenseman as far as turning the puck over, committing over two turnovers per 60 minutes of play. I think that’s largely because he’s generally the riskiest defenseman in transition, although overall it is a strong part of his game and something the Jackets need from him desperately. This season he was excellent in even-strength zone exits with eight successful exists/60 and a 34% possession rate.

He’s not a hugely impactful defenseman in the offensive zone, nor is he a guy that physically stands up to opponents at the blue line and on the walls, but is a really useful defense-first player and was strong again this year at controlling puck possession and driving play. According to Money Puck, the Del Zotto-Kukan pair was the CBJ’s best with a 52.4 xG%, a full percentage point ahead of any other tandem. He has another year left on his $1.65M deal and is eligible to negotiate an extension this offseason, which in my opinion is an easy extension for Columbus. He won’t be particularly expensive, and he’s proven to be a really solid third-pair defenseman who can move up the lineup when necessary.

Goaltending

Let’s move on and talk goaltending. The play in the home net in Columbus has spoiled both the franchise and fans alike with its strength over the last number of years. From Sergei Bobrovsky’s two Vezina trophies and Tampa Bay Lightning sweep to Korpisalo’s insane level of play in last year’s bubble and the emergence of a true star in Elvis Merzlikins, the CBJ have had it pretty nice in net. I already covered my opinion on Elvis vs. Korpi and who to trade, but let’s dive in now the season is over and see how they played this year.

Joonas Korpisalo: D

Prior to the NHL’s bubble playoff last year, Korpisalo was pretty consistently a replacement-level goaltender: one that wouldn’t lose you a lot of games but wouldn’t really win them often for you either. It looked like he had genuine No. 1 netminder potential. I still think he probably has above-average NHL starter upside, and that seems like a sentiment echoed around the league, but his superb level of goaltending he put on display in the NHL bubble did not continue into this past campaign, to put it lightly. Korpisalo played 33 games, starting 31, and ended with nine wins and 13 losses. His basic statistics were pretty miserable: an .894 save percentage (SV%) and a 3.30 goals-against average (GAA), logging only a .419 quality start percentage.

Analytically he was arguably worse. Korprisalo logged a -12.81 Goals Saved Above Average and a -18.72 Goals Saved Above Expected, which were both third-worst in the entire league behind only the Philadelphia Flyers tandem of Brian Elliott and Carter Hart. He was worth -10.9 GAR, -2 WAR and -3.6 SPAR according to Evolving Hockey. You have to be careful judging players who struggled this past season or two because of all the irregularities, stress and anxiety that came with COVID and attempting to play hockey through it – especially European players in my opinion. But no matter which way you look at it, Korpisalo really struggled this year.

I still think he’s is the right goaltender to move if Jarmo and the CBJ are serious about contending in the next couple of seasons. The return won’t be as big as what you’d get for Merzlikins, so if you go full rebuild then you might hold onto Korpisalo instead, but either way his value has certainly dropped from what it would’ve been had they made the move after his strong showing in the bubble, as my colleague Pete Bauer discussed.

Elvis Merzlikins: B+

If I’m being honest, I’m tempted to give Merzlikins an even higher grade than a B+. This year he played in 28 games, starting 23. He had 8 wins and 12 losses with a .916 sv% and a 2.77 GAA along with 2 shutouts, earning a .609 quality start percentage. He was by far the superior goalie this season in Columbus – and honestly he was the season prior too. Among goalies who played at least 20 games, Elvis’ 7.99 GSAA ranked 11th best in the NHL per Evolving Hockey, and 9 of the 10 goalies in front of him were starters on playoff teams (the one other was Thatcher Demko, who was the only reason the Canucks had a chance of avoiding embarrassment most nights).

Among goalies who played at least 20 games, Merzlikins ranked 26thth, 23rd and 26th in the NHL overall in GAR, WAR and SPAR per Evolving Hockey, earning a 7.1, 1.3 and 2.4 respectively. Those rankings jump up to 24th if you adjust for overall value per 60 minutes of play among goalies who played at least 20 games. Merzlikins will undoubtedly have the higher trade value this offseason, but as I’ve said multiple times: it would be a mistake to trade a goalie this talented and a personality this marketable, unless the return is a massive, no-brainer decision. Merzlikins shined again in a year full of disappointments.

Be on the lookout for forward grades from THW’s Pete Bauer. After a season like we just endured in central Ohio, I’m sure there will be some harsh criticism. One player who has shined though is Oliver Bjorkstrand, as our colleague Cody Chaflan covered in this piece. And finally if you felt like my grades were too harsh or too polite, feel free to tell me what you think on twitter or in the comments.


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