Don’t look now, but the Columbus Blue Jackets have a lot of depth on their blue line.
Going into their game against the New York Islanders on Friday night, the Blue Jackets top-five defensemen of Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, Jack Johnson, David Savard and Ryan Murray are part of one of the best groups in the NHL. There was a battle in training camp for their sixth defenseman between Markus Nutivaara, Scott Harrington and rookie Gabriel Carlsson.
Although Harrington played well in spot starts and Nutivaara played a lot in 2016-17, Carlsson rose up and won the starting job opposite Murray. That really speaks to the depth the Blue Jackets have built up.
So how was Carlsson able to win the starting job on opening night? Coach John Tortorella spoke of this during his pregame press conference before their game against the Islanders.
Tortorella Assesses Carlsson
“He’s not afraid to make a mistake,” Tortorella said. “He came in last year over from Sweden, played a few games. Went to Cleveland, played a few games and then I stuck him into a top-six role against Pittsburgh. He didn’t bat an eye. He understands positioning. He takes up a lot of space with that body. He can move a puck. I’m going to as we get going in the year put a little pressure on him to try to create more offense in his game as far as being up the ice. But to me he’s unflappable as far as the toughest position to play. If a mistake is made, it doesn’t take him as it does with a lot of players at that position 3-4 shifts to get his game back. He just goes out and plays.”
Then Tortorella gave an example of Carlsson’s calmness after a turnover against Pittsburgh.
“He turned one over against Pittsburgh in our end zone. Someone stripped him and Crosby bangs one off the crossbar. He came to the bench, sat down and just got ready to play his next shift. You can tell he understands that you just take each shift at a time.”
Ryan Murray Assesses Carlsson
Carlsson’s partner Ryan Murray had some insight into what makes Carlsson a good defenseman at just age 20.
“He just plays well,” Murray said. “He thinks the game well. His passing and his hockey sense are good. His defensive and offensive ability are good. He can make plays out there. He’s a good guy to play with. He’s easy to read as a partner. Some guys you just never know what they’re going to do with the puck. He always seems to make the right play. He makes it easier on me. He’s a pleasure to play with.”
This is high praise for someone who is just 20 and has limited NHL experience. Recall he was the second of two first-round picks the Blue Jackets had in 2015. Zach Werenski gets all the attention, but Carlsson is quickly developing into an important part of the defense.
Carlsson’s rise to starter forced the Blue Jackets’ hand. The team assigned Nutivaara to the Cleveland Monsters in order for him to play top minutes while waiting his turn. Harrington remains in Columbus as the seventh defenseman for now.
Carlsson is just scratching the surface of his potential. He’s good on the defensive end and shows some flashes of offense that should get better over time. He could easily work into a top-four defenseman spot if there’s an injury.
The thing to watch now is if he can stick for a full season. Defense is still one of the hardest positions in the league. Can he keep this up over a full season?
He’s off to a good start. Let’s see what else he can bring to the table.