If you said that at any point this season that the Columbus Blue Jackets’ defensive pairings would be Michael Del Zotto-Seth Jones, Vladislav Gavrikov-Dean Kukan, and Mikko Lehtonen-Scott Harrington, congratulations. If you did, you might want to play the lottery and pick your own numbers.
What used to be the deepest position and strength for the Blue Jackets in the past few seasons has been decimated into a position that head coach John Tortorella said he is rotating for the rest of the season.
How the Blue Jackets Have Ended Up in This Position
The reason the Blue Jackets have run into issues on defense is simple – they lost a lot of experience and skill.
Since the offseason, they have lost Ryan Murray, Markus Nutivaara, and David Savard to trades. They then lost Zach Werenski to injury earlier his season and again to finish the season.
That is a loss of 1,574 games played, 539 points, 2,136 blocks (including a franchise-record 958 for Savard), 412 takeaways, and 1,755 hits. It is also a loss of a combined plus/minus of plus-68.
That is a lot of experience, leadership, and skill for a team to lose on defense. It is also impossible to make up for that kind of loss in just a season. The struggles from this situation are obvious for the Blue Jackets.
The Effect on the Blue Jackets
Last season (2019-20), the Blue Jackets gave up 187 goals (regular season), third-best in the NHL. They also had a goals-against average (GAA) of 2.61, well below the league average (2.82). Their penalty kill percentage (PK%) was also 81.66%, about two points above the league average.
This season they are 28th (out of 31) with 145 goals against and have a GAA of 3.23. That GAA is well higher than the league average (2.74). Their PK% has also dropped to 77.78%, nearly four percent lower than last season as well as two points lower than this season’s league average.
Columbus also went from 15.14 blocks per game in 2019-20 to 14.32 this season, and their combined plus/minus dropped from a minus-17 to minus-112. The goal differential had a considerable drop off from minus-7 to minus-33.
Clearly, the loss of four defensemen in the last year has been too much for the Blue Jackets. The clear and alarming drop in many defensive statistics has been a major issue this season and will play a big factor in why they will be missing the playoffs for the first time in four seasons.
The Rise of Michael Del Zotto
Not all has been bad for Columbus in their loss of defense. Michael Del Zotto has been the one bright spot. He was given a professional tryout offer (PTO), was believed to be a depth player, and was signed at the league minimum.
Del Zotto ended up being a surprise for the organization. In 41 games with the Blue Jackets, he has racked up 10 points, a team-high plus/minus (plus-12), 40 blocks, and 96 hits.
For a player who was signed off of a PTO to a minimum contract, Del Zotto has been a great piece for the team. He was the one bright spot on a defense that was lackluster and extending him must be a priority for Columbus this offseason.
Where Columbus Goes From Here
With other issues appearing this season, such as the lack of a first-line center, the Blue Jackets will not be using any pieces to trade for defense.
Columbus has no choice but to be patient, let some of the young defense, such as Adam Clendening and Scott Harrington, slowly gain in-game experience and develop, along with trying to extend Del Zotto.
It will be a long and frustrating process, but the Blue Jackets do not have much of a choice.
Cody Chalfan is currently a journalism major at the Ohio State University who grew up in Columbus and loves hockey, especially the Blue Jackets. He is disabled, therefore he is a major advocate for the NHL’s Hockey is for Everyone movement. A piece he wrote focusing on the Blue Jackets’ work on expanding the sport into the local special needs community can be found here. Cody can be contacted via Twitter (@cachalfan) direct message for comments, constructive criticism, or story ideas.