Blue Jackets Pressure Points: Top Defensemen

We continue our summer series, titled Blue Jackets Pressure Points, on the Columbus Blue Jackets. We ask hard questions about the team and attempt to answer them as it relates to the upcoming season and beyond. Last time, we asked if the Blue Jackets could win without a true, number-one center. Today, we turn our attention to a pair of young studs expected to do a lot in Columbus. Are Ryan Murray and Seth Jones ready for a full workload on the Blue Jackets blue line?

The Blue Jackets Messy Blueline

If I had to come up with one word to accurately describe the state of the Columbus Blue Jackets defense in 2015-16, that word is “messy.” I think I’m being polite using just that word.

From beginning to end, the Blue Jackets were a mess on the blue line. Opposing players consistently got behind the defense and generated high-quality scoring chances against. Sergei Bobrovsky started the season as a goaltender under fire. I’m surprised the Blue Jackets net stayed in one piece given how many pucks went in.

Confidence was gone. Nothing was going right. The result was an 0-8 ugly start. This start propelled the Blue Jackets into a 29th place season finish in goals against.

The team had a major hole on the blue line at the start of last season. They needed a legitimate, number-one defenseman on the right side. As it turns out, they played half the season without that player. Then, they landed their guy, although it cost them a lot. It took a number-one center to get it done, but the Columbus Blue Jackets landed one of the most promising defensemen in the league in Seth Jones. They were willing to pay the price. The need on defense was that massive.

The Blue Jackets paid a heavy price to land Seth Jones, but given their defensive need, the price was worth it. (Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports)
The Blue Jackets paid a heavy price to land Seth Jones, but given their defensive need, the price was worth it. (Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports)

The move surely helped the defense, but there was still the issue of adjusting to a new role and team. Jones played lower on the depth chart in Nashville. He now found himself playing top-line minutes for Columbus. I expected an initial regression in Jones’ game as he adjusted to his new role. Not surprisingly, that’s what happened. He still performed well given the circumstances around him.

The folks at Buckeye State Hockey did a nice write-up about Jones’ season in Columbus. They show that Jones finished with a 49.51 Corsi-For%. That number seems low. But as it turns out, 49.51 was the second-highest percentage on the team. For a 21-year old newcomer to post that number on the top pair is rather impressive in my mind. He’s posed to breakout.

What I really wanted to see was the impact Jones would have on Ryan Murray. To my naked eye, Murray was a much more confident player. I then wondered if the numbers agreed with my eyes. That same article from Buckeye State Hockey addressed this.

Murray was better with Jones than without. The CF% went from 46.3 to 49.4. Although still under 50%, there’s a clear improvement for Murray with Jones. Now they’ll start the season together and have a full season ahead of them. The potential is certainly there for this pair to shine.

We now ask, are Murray and Jones ready for the task in front of them this season, to play as effective top-pairing defensemen against the league’s best players?

Ryan Murray's game went to a new level once Jones arrived in Columbus. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)
Ryan Murray’s game went to a new level once Jones arrived in Columbus. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

What Can We Expect?

I believe they are ready for the challenge. But how will they fare? I think they will be great, but it will take some time to get to that point. I still have concerns especially for this season.

My biggest concern is the current roster. Even though a couple of youngsters from the Lake Erie Monsters could crack the opening night lineup, this roster remains mostly the same from last season. That is an improvement given who is not on the roster, but most of this roster finished 29th in the league in goals against. To jump from 29th to near the top-10 is extremely difficult. The good news is that there’s really only one direction the team can go.

The team will see improvement, but it will be gradual. Goaltending will have a lot to do with the outcome. If the Blue Jackets get the amazing version of Sergei Bobrovsky back, then they could make dramatic improvement. As noted earlier in the Pressure Points series, I’m tempering my expectations on Bobrovsky.

There are two things in particular that excite me this season. Assuming Zach Werenski makes the Blue Jackets out of camp, I can’t wait to see how the defense plays in more proper roles. Murray and Jones will handle the heavy lifting. Jack Johnson and David Savard would start as the second pairing. Werenski and most likely either Dalton Prout or Cody Goloubef would fill out the defense. Given where everyone is at in their career, this is a nice setup.

Johnson and Savard have struggled in their time playing the top pair. This is a more suitable role for them, where they’ll still have an impact, but won’t be asked to do as much as Murray and Jones. This allows the team to ease Werenski into the NHL game. This isn’t the best defense in the league, but it’s a marked improvement for the Blue Jackets.

I’m also very much looking forward to seeing the impact of Brad Shaw on this group. He joined the Blue Jackets after spending 10 seasons with the St. Louis Blues. Shaw primarily worked with the defense in St. Louis. Check out how the Blues ranked in the league in goals against since 2010-11.

2010-11: 18th

2011-12: 1st

2012-13: T-5th

2013-14: 3rd

2014-15: T-4th

2015-16: T-4th

Let’s take a quick trip down memory lane. The Blues finished 18th in 2010-11. This was the season that saw former first-overall pick Erik Johnson traded to Colorado. In return, the Blues got Kevin Shattenkirk. Alex Pietrangelo was already with the Blues at this time. The pieces were now in place to make a dramatic improvement from 18th. They finished first the following season. They haven’t been out of the top five since.

I expect a similar pattern in Columbus with Shaw. I believe the Blue Jackets will finish in the middle of the pack defensively this season, somewhere in the 15-18 range. Then, they will crack the top-10 in future seasons. Not only will they crack the top-10, they’ll stay there for a while. A core of Murray, Jones, and Werenski is scary good. Shaw will work with them to get even better.

The key here is patience. It’s still a young group with plenty of room to grow and develop. We are at the beginning stages of something great in Columbus. The team is clearly making defense their number-one priority. As GM Jarmo Kekalainen has said, you have to build from the back-end forward.

As for this season, the team will experience ups and downs as they gain valuable experience. The front-end of the Blue Jackets schedule is not easy. The defense will have to respond to keep the team in the race early on. If Murray and Jones answer the bell and meet the challenge, the Blue Jackets could make the second half of the season interesting.

The future is very bright on defense. This season will help springboard the Blue Jackets to future success. Now it’s your turn. What kind of season will Seth Jones have in 2016-17? Vote in the poll listed below.