Blue Jackets Must Get More From Their Top Four

Before the season began, we wrote in our season preview that the strength of the Columbus Blue Jackets was their defense and goaltending. We said not to worry about them.

But seven games into the new season, we need to reevaluate that position.

Where’s the Top Four?

The pairs of Zach Werenski/Seth Jones and Vladislav Gavrikov/David Savard were expected to carry the load on the blue line. But in watching video of the past few games, it’s been the third pair of Michael Del Zotto and Dean Kukan that have stood out in a positive way.

Both the eye test and the numbers confirm this.

On tape, the top four just isn’t having the normal impact they’re expected to have. The one noticeable thing they and most of the Blue Jackets are struggling with is their passing. It’s been off. This is preventing the team from generating much needed offense. Werenski and Jones in particular have struggled getting the puck up ice to the forwards. Werenski has one goal in seven games and Jones has one assist in seven games while playing huge minutes. One look at the numbers also indicates a scary trend. They’re being dominated while on the ice.

All numbers cited are courtesy of Natural Stat Trick at 5-on-5. The pair of Werenski and Jones after seven games are at 38.7% and 37.3% respectively in expected goals for percentage (xGF%.) Think of it this way. For every eight goals scored, the opponents score five and their team scores three while they’re on the ice. The Gavrikov/Savard pair is somewhat better, but it still favors the opposition (47.7% and 46.2%.)

But now let’s look at Del Zotto and Kukan. Their percentages are 57.9% and 55.0%. They’re the only pair that produces a positive xGF% outcome so far. In fact the Blue Jackets have outscored opponents 8-2 thus far while Del Zotto has been on the ice (at 5-on-5). On tape, they are in position and are able to get the puck up the ice. They’ve also been able to create chances that have led to goals. They’ve been the most consistent pair to this point.

Granted, the top-four will see tougher matchups but this is still not the trend you want to see. Werenski and Jones are widely thought of as one of the best duos in the game. They still are but they’ve fallen way short of expectations in the early going. As John Tortorella says, they are the engine for their team. When they sputter, the whole team sputters.

Tortorella was asked on Wednesday about his defense and he agrees his top-four is struggling.

“There’s no question that 8 and 3 set the tempo for our game,” Tortorella said. “It has been a little bit of a struggle there. Del Zotto and Kuks (Kukan) they’ve been probably our most consistent pair which is really good but also worrisome for me. Our top-four have to play better.”

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This season for the Blue Jackets takes on a different feel if the defense continues to struggle. They are at their best when the top-four gets the puck up ice while cleaning up their own end. Instead, getting the puck up ice has been a struggle and they find themselves having to defend more without the puck.

They know they need to be better. If they improve then the rest of the team improves with them. They have so much more to give. The time is now that they play the way they know they can.

The GBU: Game 7

Good: The Blue Jackets got an undeserved standings point. The game Tuesday night as about as bad as it could be for a team coming off a huge win Saturday against the defending Cup champions. They showed little energy in the first two periods allowing Florida to skate circles past them. Even though they built a 2-0 lead, the Panthers were the dominant team. Yet, the Blue Jackets almost stole two points. They came within 2.5 seconds of doing just that before Patric Hornqvist batted the puck in to tie the game to send it to overtime. Hornqvist then scored the shootout winner to send the Panthers to their first ever 3-0 start. John Tortorella said postgame that they should run and sprint from the building with the point they got. On most nights this is an ugly loss. They managed a point and now have points in five straight games heading into the rematch on Thursday night.

Bad: The first two periods. The Blue Jackets built a 2-0 lead and then couldn’t do much of anything for most of the next 40 minutes. Aleksander Barkov’s line did whatever they wanted. They tilted the ice in the Panther’s favor and didn’t let up. Barkov showed why he is a world-class player. The Blue Jackets had no answers for that line or the speed the Panthers brought. Although it stabilized a little bit in the third, the Panthers were the better team and deserved the win. The Blue Jackets must do a better job of playing their structure and limiting the Panther’s speed.

Ugly: The power play, again. There were several chances to score especially on the 4-on-3 power play in overtime, the Blue Jackets could not find a way to get one. Their 0-for Tuesday night leaves the team with just one power-play goal in 19 tries, a brutal 5.3%. Only the Anaheim Ducks have yet to score on the power play this season. But this is a consistent theme that just won’t seem to go away. An average power play likely gets them the two points. Asked about what needs to improve on the power play, Tortorella simply said “everything.” Perhaps Patrik Laine’s arrival will jump start this crew. But for now, the massive struggles continue.

Side Dishes

  • Speaking of Laine, he is reportedly in Ottawa waiting for his paperwork to clear so he can arrive in Columbus to start protocol. Given that he could arrive any day now, that gives us a glimpse of when he might be able to suit up. We know he’s out Thursday vs. Florida and Friday in Chicago. With a mandatory 48 hours required once he arrives, Sunday is pushing it but not completely out of the question. If that doesn’t work, then he could make his debut on home ice next week assuming he’s over his injury and has cleared all protocol. Both he and the Blue Jackets can’t wait to get started together.
Patrik Laine Winnipeg Jets
Patrik Laine could start protocol once he arrives in Columbus which could be any day now. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)
  • Jack Roslovic will make his Blue Jackets’ debut on Thursday night according to Tortorella. He returns home to the team he watched growing up as a kid. This is a huge moment for him, the Blue Jackets and the city of Columbus. The team expects big things from him. Tortorella has admitted how fast he already looks. While Laine and Pierre-Luc Dubois get the attention in the trade, Roslovic has the potential to flip this trade in the Blue Jackets’ favor should he reach the levels the team thinks he can get to. He gets his first chance to show everyone on Thursday.
  • How can the Blue Jackets overcome the challenge of no fans in the building and have the energy they need in these games? We posed that question to Cam Atkinson on Wednesday. “Energy is a choice, right?” Atkinson said. “And it’s a mindset as well.” He went to say the little things matter such as a guy making a block, a good play or scoring a goal. Even someone saying “man on” from the bench can create energy. He says that’s when you have more fun. But this is something worth watching as we continue with no fans in the stands. What will the team do to ensure they have the energy they need for these games? Watch how engaged the players get in certain situations.
  • The Blue Jackets enter Thursday night just one point behind Nashville in the Discover Central Division. But in context, they are sixth in points percentage at hockey .500 with a 2-2-3 record. They need to pick the pace up if they hope to finish in the top-four.

Looking Ahead

The Blue Jackets will get their chance at revenge Thursday night. After that, they get two games in Chicago Friday and Sunday. The Blackhawks are down three players due to Covid protocols. Alex DeBrincat, Adam Boqvist and Lucas Wallmark are all on the list and are unavailable for these games. Simply put these are games the Blue Jackets must win. And in a sign the season is flying by, we will be near the 20% mark completed once Sunday passes as the team will have played 10 games out of 56.