Blue Jackets’ Defensive Woes Plaguing Team Early This Season

The Columbus Blue Jackets faced a dark situation at the end of the first period in the Oct. 18th game against the Vancouver Canucks. Down 2–0 and staring down an 0–4 start, the Blue Jackets won each period that followed and finished with a 4–3 overtime victory that may have saved the season.

While the recovery allows room for optimism, the reality of the situation is that the team is a self-inflicted 1–3 and in last place in the Metropolitan division. The schedule hasn’t been a cakewalk—three of the four opponents faced so far were playoff teams in 2021-22— but the Blue Jackets have consistently looked sloppy and lethargic.

The team statistics are not pretty. Columbus is fourth-to-last in goals for per game, while they are fifth lowest in goals against per game and shots against per game, and notably have a team save percentage of below .900.

However, statistics do not tell the entire story. The goaltending has been suboptimal to this point in the season, but the quality chances that the Blue Jackets are surrendering make the job much harder for Elvis Merzlikins and Daniil Tarasov.

Three aspects of the Blue Jackets’ defensive zone play have stood thus far, and these are largely why the team has looked to be weaker than the talent on the roster is capable of.

Careless Corner Play

One of the first lessons a young hockey player is taught is to be responsible in the defensive zone, especially when engaging below the goal line. Breaking the puck out is crucial, and the Blue Jackets have been struggling to do this effectively.

An errant, soft flick of the wrist from the corner that ends up in the opponent’s possession is happening several times a game for this team. One example occurs in the Blue Jackets’ loss versus the St. Louis Blues on Oct. 15th. On this play, defenseman Andrew Peeke retreats into the corner to get the puck and attempts to clear the puck out of the zone due to the significant pressure facing him (1:17). The reality of the situation is that the puck finds the stick of Blues defenseman Torrey Krug, who whistles the puck to Pavel Buchnevich who fires the puck into the net.

Mistakes like this happen occasionally, but the Blue Jackets are seeing them occur far too often. In this situation, the goal gave the Blues an early lead that they did not relinquish.

YouTube player

Corner play isn’t just about the breakout passes, however. The Blue Jackets are also struggling with winning battles and protecting the area around the net. In the above video, Columbus has three players caught in the same position on the ice while the area behind the net is wide open (2:00). This results in a broken play and a goal for Canucks forward Elias Pettersson, doubling the early lead. This is a lackluster effort that is alarming for fans to see.

Lack of Engagement in Front of Net

The inability to play securely behind the net is also extending to the play in front of the net as well. The Blue Jackets are not struggling with this as much as the previous point, but it is still happening often enough that the goalies are being left out to dry consistently.

An example from the game against the Canucks is on the third goal, which ended up breaking a tie in the game. A harmless shot from the blue line trickles through the defenders and right onto Canucks forward Bo Horvat’s stick. This results in an easy goal (6:00).

Sean Kuraly Columbus Blue Jackets
Sean Kuraly, Columbus Blue Jackets (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The goal itself appears to have a lot of contributing factors but what sounds the alarm is that two Canucks players are in closer proximity to the net than Sean Kuraly and Peeke. This is unacceptable defensive zone coverage and will consistently lead to a higher volume of scoring chances for the opposition.

Blue Jackets Committing Too Many Turnovers

The cliched statement that whoever wins the turnover battle likely will emerge victorious may be overused, but that does not change the fact that it is usually true. What should be valued higher, however, is the quality of turnovers.

The Blue Jackets are turning the puck over in crucial situations. That is what is sounding the bell in this case. Let’s look at a new game.

YouTube player
In the Blue Jackets’ home opener, a loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, an early turnover is especially eye-opening. On the play, Cole Sillinger picks the puck up in the corner and looks to skate through the middle before being stripped by Lightning forward Vladimir Namestnikov, who is able to place a quality shot on net (0:30).

This play, while not resulting in a goal, is an example of every weakness mentioned in this article so far, but the most egregious aspect is that it is a turnover in the slot. This play sets Daniil Tarasov up for failure, and while the netminder is able to handle it, these plays will overwhelmingly turn wins into losses.

Related: THW Blue Jacket Writers’ Predictions for the 2022-23 Season

Overall, it is early in the season and every team in the NHL has had rough moments as the season goes on. Still, the Blue Jackets are a team that needs to limit these mistakes and take advantage of any the opposition offers if they want to find success. So far, that is a work in progress.

Sign up for our regular 'Blue Jackets Newsletter' for all the latest.

Latest News & Highlights