Blue Jackets Showing Good Early Defensive Signs

The Columbus Blue Jackets in consecutive games have scored eight goals and then got an overtime winner from Patrik Laine to start the season 2-0. As exciting as those moments are for the team, there’s even better news for them that is worth mentioning.

Have you seen their defensive play especially on Saturday night against the Seattle Kraken?

After cruising to an 8-2 win on Thursday against the Arizona Coyotes where the Blue Jackets weren’t necessarily at their defensive best, they made it more of a priority on Saturday to lock it down and grind it out.

With the Kraken, the Blue Jackets knew they had to play a better overall game. Thanks to goalie Elvis Merzlikins and a defense playing within their structure, they did just that. This deserves more attention as the early signs here are promising.

Elvis Merzlikins Columbus Blue Jackets
Elvis Merzlikins and the defense are off to a strong start in 2021-22. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Truly a Good Defensive Start

One of the big questions coming into this season was how would this defense do with two new players in the top-four and a third pair with obvious questions. At least in Saturday night’s game, the third pair of Andrew Peeke and Scott Harrington did enough while both Adam Boqvist and Jake Bean are showing well.

As a unit, the Blue Jackets held the Kraken to 20 total shots on goal. According to Nat Stat Trick at 5-on-5, the Blue Jackets held a 54-44 advantage in shot attempts. In all situations, the Blue Jackets held the edge in xGF 1.87-1.52. With the final score 2-1 Blue Jackets in overtime, they got a result indicative of the numbers.

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So what’s working overall? As mentioned above, Boqvist and Bean are playing well on their respective pairs. Bean is playing the right side with Werenski while Boqvist is playing with Vladislav Gavrikov.

There was some talk that Werenski and Boqvist would play together especially since it’s a lefty-righty combo. But with both players having good offensive instincts, coach Brad Larsen thought it would be better to put Boqvist with a more defensive player in Gavrikov. It is working so far.

Case in point: the pair of Gavrikov and Boqvist when on the ice at 5-on-5 held an over 60% share in shot attempts. Meanwhile Werenski and Bean were each over 56% per Natural Stat Trick. When both of your top-four pairs are working like that, you’ll generally enjoy success.

Larsen had some good things to say about the team’s structure after their overtime win.

“I thought we were a lot more plugged into this game for sure mentally,” Larsen said. “It was a grind. We had the (scoring) chances at 2-1, 3-1 us in the first. I think 6-4 for them and then even in the third. We only gave up two chances. So structurally we were better in a couple areas that we addressed as a group. We knew it was going to be a tighter game there. They’re a big team. They got a big group there on the back end with some heavier D. You had to fight for your ice tonight.”

The Blue Jackets were in for a much tougher game given the opponent than what they had in their opener. The Kraken were known for playing a more structured game while also using their speed to create pressure. The Blue Jackets had to match that and then some. They did just that.

Many in the preseason thought the Blue Jackets would have to win game 5-4 and 6-5 given the youth and questions on defense. But Saturday night they showed that they can grind out games when the situation calls for it. It helps having Merzlikins only giving up three goals in two games. But that exudes confidence to the team as a whole.

It is early and there is 80 games left. But you have to be encouraged by the early defensive start to this season. If Boqvist and Bean can continue this trend, it changes the outlook of this season. This could be an example of good players finally getting their chance in a bigger role. We’ll see in time if that is the case. Regardless, the defense is off to a good start and that is good news.

Blue Jackets Side Dishes

  • What if Laine is back? That too changes the outlook of this season. From the eye test he looks like a different player. He got to experience a loud Nationwide Arena especially after scoring the game winner. That’s a good and important moment for him.
  • Who are the Blue Jackets early scoring leaders? Oliver Bjorkstrand has four points. That’s not surprising. Guess who else has four points? Yep. Max Domi. He wasn’t supposed to be back until November. That’s what hard work and a contract year do for you.
Max Domi Columbus Blue Jackets
Max Domi is tied for the early team scoring lead. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)
  • Couple early faceoff numbers. Boone Jenner is winning 66.7% of draws while Sean Kuraly is at 64%. Jenner won the opening draw of overtime to help get the first possession.
  • Something to watch now. If Merzlikins continues this kind of play, how will Larsen handle the goalies? Do you take out a red hot goalie? How do you keep Korpisalo ready? I feel this will be a season-long storyline.
  • We also have to discuss the fourth line. Eric Robinson scored the only goal of regulation Saturday. He’s with Kuraly and Gregory Hofmann, who recorded his first NHL point with an assist on Robinson’s goal. Do you see how fast they are? That’s a sneaky line who is giving this team energy. Here’s Larsen postgame: “I think that line has got a ton of potential. I really do as far as their energy that they can bring. We talked to them as a group before the game just trying to make sure that we’re clear on what we want from them. There’s big bodies. They can skate. Huge goal for us obviously getting the (tying goal.) They provided some really good minutes for us tonight. I’m hoping there’s going to be more of that and just build off that.”

Monsters Side Dishes

  • The Yegor Chinakhov show continues. The Blue Jackets assigned him to the Monsters Friday. He played his first AHL game Saturday. He proceeds to score a goal from his office in his debut. He just continues to show what kind of player he’s eventually going to be. Now when will he get his chance in the NHL?
  • Both the Blue Jackets and Monsters did a wonderful job in handling the Matiss Kivlenieks festivities in pregame. I was in Cleveland on Friday night and got to witness the tribute video and puck drop ceremony with Kivlenieks’ family. You can see the video below.
  • Here’s Monsters’ head coach Mike Eaves on Kivlenieks from Friday’s postgame: “Even though Kivi is not here with us, he was such a special lad that a piece of him is going to be around us all, that’s for sure.”

Related: Blue Jackets Honor Memory of Matiss Kivlenieks With Huge Win

  • As for on the ice, the Monsters had mixed results. Friday started well but then went south. Hard hits and injuries were a big story including seeing Crunch forward Otto Somppi carried off on a stretcher. They lost 6-4 on Friday but then got revenge on Saturday winning 5-4 in overtime thanks to Liam Foudy’s OT winner. Foudy needs big minutes and big situations. Seeing him win the game is a good start for him.
  • Finally, the Monsters are excited to be back to a somewhat normal season and situation with fans. Here’s coach Eaves on that excitement: “I have to say we came over to Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse this morning and walking in the building right away gets you that it’s going to be a little but more normal, the underneath stuff. The basketball court was up signifying that basketball was going to get going. I think in watching TV and seeing all the baseball playoffs going on now, seeing the fans, it’s exciting. The fans make a big difference in the energy that’s in the place and to have that energy is going to be fun.

What’s on Tap

The Blue Jackets have Sunday off and will return to practice Monday morning at 11 A.M. in advance of Tuesday night’s game in Detroit. After that they’ll play three in a row at home. With nine of their first 13 at home, the Blue Jackets have a chance to get a jump on the standings with a lot of home cooking.

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