We are just four days away from the return of real NHL games and seven away from the start of the Columbus Blue Jackets season. Now is a good time to brush up on those team previews that have been trickling out over the past few weeks (Puck Daddy’s Olympic-themed overview, goal predictions from The Union Blue, four different perspectives from the crew at The Dark Blue Jacket, and even Mr. Cutler’s notebook here at THW are great starting points). A common theme in many articles is the potential lack of offense for the Jackets. This inevitably leads to a renewed spotlight on the purported defensive prowess of the team. Will Sergei Bobrovsky show more goaltending mastery? There’s no certainty, but it’s unlikely he’ll be quite as dominant. Can the supposedly strong defensive corps contain opposing offenses? Now we’ve found a trickier question, and it can’t be answered without the help of Columbus head coach Todd Richards.
This may seem a backward approach on first glance. The two most obvious concerns for the defenseman probably appear as 1) whether the existing players can perform at a high enough level, and 2) the impact new or rookie additions will have on the team. But a significant third issue serves as a bedrock for the first two: How will the talent be used?
This is more than a trivial question, and it’s something we’ve discussed before in the Ryan Johansen case (and he could be another point of coaching concern, but his own skill and development is at least equally to blame). But today, we’ll take a look at Todd Richards’ greatest weakness: the usage of Jack Johnson.
Jack Johnson’s Past
He’s a fan-favorite and an enthusiastic resident of Columbus, but Jack Johnson isn’t especially effective at being an NHL defenseman. In his five years with Los Angeles, Johnson was among the worst players in the NHL at driving puck possession. If you’re not fond of shot differential, Johnson’s goal results were also eye-popping, and a scouting view of the player was also not kind to his work. Unfortunately for Blue Jackets fans, the problem has persisted in the wake of the Jeff Carter trade. With Columbus last season, Johnson was quite adept at dragging down most of his teammates on the blueline.
It’s not a pretty picture, but it’s an unfortunate reality we must face: things did not always go well for Columbus last year. The team’s inability to drive play effectively wasted the Hasek-like performance from Bobrovsky, and Johnson was one of the leading culprits.
As it seems unlikely that the player will be traded, our Jack Johnson observations should lead to the following three points about sheltered usage:
- Johnson shouldn’t be matched against the toughest opponents
- Johnson shouldn’t get the biggest defensive or PK minutes
- Johnson should start in the offensive zone or on the powerplay as often as possible
These are pretty simple tenants. Johnson is regularly described as an offensive defenseman, so taking advantage of his powerful shot and putting him in scoring situations is an effective way to use his skills. Furthermore, while Johnson may be physically capable of playing over 30 minutes a night, that doesn’t mean he should be made to do so. So what does this have to do with Todd Richards?
The Richards Defense Case Study
The problem lies in the actual reality of usage. Among the Blue Jackets’ defensemen with more than 10 games played last year, Johnson faced the toughest competition (take the Sedins as an example of one of his most common even strength opponents). Johnson’s 5-on-5 offensive zone start percentage was the second lowest for Jacket d-men, which is to say he was deployed in a more defensive role than all but one other blueliner. Johnson also had the highest amount of 5-on-5 ice time for Columbus d-men and the highest amount of shorthanded 4-on-5 ice time (both timings on a per game basis).
Those are some pretty serious problems. One of the worst defensive players in the NHL was left to play away from the offensive zone, was used against stiff competition, and was given leading penalty kill minutes. Those Johnson rules we established? The first two were completely shattered, and the third was mostly broken (as Johnson did see the most powerplay minutes per game of Columbus d-men). Left to bail out the poor usage? Sergei Bobrovsky (the CBJ netminding managed a .929 SV% at even strength when Johnson was on ice, certainly saving the team’s bacon).
And a thought experiment while we’re here: recall that the Blue Jackets lost 14 games by one goal (including shootout losses, for illustration). If in any one of those games, a better play-driver was on the ice a few more minutes against tough competition, maybe the other team doesn’t have the puck and doesn’t score (or perhaps Columbus drives forward and makes up the difference). A single point from loss to overtime play (or OT loss to OT win) is flipped.
One pathetic point was all the franchise needed for its second ever playoff berth.
Can the Blue Jackets Change?
The blame here can (and probably should) fall at the feet of the coaching staff. Todd Richards is responsible for setting the lineup, matching lines, and deploying players. However, not all hope is lost in the coming year.
A confounding problem in Richards’ usage choices comes in the form of injury. As 2013 progressed and the number of wounded grew, the Blue Jackets were forced into using 11 different defensemen. This doesn’t fully excuse the game-by-game usage, but the coaching staff was compelled to give Johnson big minutes, hoping to fill the experience gaps while NHL regulars were out of the lineup. If the team sees healthier days in the new season, Jack Johnson won’t need to fill 70% of his games with more than 25 minutes of ice time.
Perhaps the biggest unknown impact on Todd Richards’ player usage may come as rising young players make their mark. If Ryan Murray, David Savard, or Tim Erixon display defensive abilities and force their way into the top 6, the entire blue line gets shuffled and ice time will be allotted differently.
But the threat remains: Todd Richards already spent half a year deploying a defensively deficient player in rough conditions. If we see more of that in the games ahead, the Columbus Blue Jackets may be in for a long season.