With opening night on the horizon, there’s not much left to discuss other than the fact that it’s go time. From here on out, every check, every shift and every shot counts.
Of course, there are many components that factor into a win or a loss. But, at the end of the day, it all comes down to the players.
The Blue Jackets’ roster is arguably one of its best in recent years (if not ever), and starting off on a positive note – with everyone healthy – is nothing to take for granted.
While we’ve already taken you through the deep group of forwards for the 2015-16 season, now it’s time to focus on the defensemen and goalies.
A highly discussed topic throughout the offseason, the Blue Jackets’ blueliners have been evaluated by local and national media alike. Rounded out with energetic, young talent, workhorses, offensive-minded individuals and veteran NHL players, management has been very clear that they are happy with this group of players.
"There's a lot of talk around the league questioning our defense," coach Todd Richards said in September. "I don't question our defense at all. I'm 100 percent confident in our group. I hope they use that as a motivational tool."
So, to kick off the season, let’s take a look at each of the defense pairings that Richards will employ to begin the 2015-16 season:
For Ryan Murray, the past two seasons have been nothing short of disappointing. The 22-year-old has been plagued with injuries since he was selected second overall in the 2012 NHL Draft.
During the 2014-15 campaign, Murray played only 12 games, but the season prior, he scored four goals and tallied 17 assists for a total of 21 points in 66 games, showing the Jackets’ management a preview of what he can do.
"If he shows us what he showed that first year, that's a great addition to the club," said John Davidson, Jackets president of hockey operations.
Murray spent the summer working out and training to get back into elite game-playing shape, and it showed during training camp and into the preseason games. GM Jarmo Kekalainen has said that having a healthy Murray will be a key factor for the success of the blueline this season.
And the young defenseman knows he has something to prove.
“It’s great to hear that they have that confidence in me, but at the same time, I have to show up and prove it,” Murray said prior to camp. “Right now, I’m not thinking too much about opening night, I’m just thinking about the things I need to do on a day-to-day basis to get ready. Once we get closer to playing actual games, I’ll be focusing on that more but right now it’s the one-step-at-a-time approach still.”
Newly-extended David Savard opens as Murray's defense partner, and he's coming off a stellar campaign in 2014-15 that opened some eyes as to how good he can become.
"(Savard) took the game seriously before, but he didn't know what level he had to take the seriousness to, and that's what he did last year," Richards told NHL.com.
He saw a lot of playing time last season and was the only defenseman on the Jackets’ roster to play all 82 games. Savard led the blue line with 11 goals and 36 points, and those 11 goals were also good enough for second-most by a defenseman in club history.
“We’re not flashy, but we work really hard,” Savard said. “We’re still a young group back there. We can learn a lot from guys like Jack and Tyutin who have been around this league for a long time. Our coaches do a great job with us, too, working extra after practice, going over video and showing us what we need to improve on.
“We really pride ourselves on doing the right things and we have each other’s backs. We’re going to make mistakes, but that’s also how you grow.”
Dalton Prout is going into his fifth season with the Blue Jackets.
During the 2014-15 campaign, the 25-year-old led all blueliners with 85 PIM and made a name for himself across the NHL when he dropped Boston’s Milan Lucic with one punch. Additionally, Prout tallied eight assists in 63 games.
Prout spent his summer in Ohio training and gearing up for the big season ahead. While in Columbus, he pedaled alongside David Clarkson in the Pelotonia bike race to raise money for cancer research.
“I’m excited with our forward group and we have one of the best goalies behind us,” Prout said in a Sept. article in TodaysSlapshot.com. “We have the dynamic of a team that can be very good. From the outside looking in, I’d be envious of any defenseman on this team because we’re surrounded with good players.”
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Kevin Connauton started the 2014-15 campaign with the Dallas Stars, and was claimed off waivers by the Blue Jackets on Nov. 18. In 54 appearances with Columbus last season, Connauton scored nine goals and added 10 assists, and four of those goals were game-winners (most among club defensemen).
"You can't just pick up where you left off,” Connauton told NHL.com in September. "But that run at the end of last year shows our potential."
The Blue Jackets' defensive depth has been a point of contention this summer, but Richards has said on more than one occasion that he is happy with the current group, especially the younger players who he believes have plenty of room to grow, and that hasn't been lost on Connauton.
"As a younger group, we're motivated because we've got a lot to prove," Connauton said. "You read the headlines that there's not much faith in us coming from the media and outside our locker room. It makes us hungry and pushes us to get better."
Another hungry player is Jack Johnson who, at 28 years old, is the second-oldest defenseman on the Blue Jackets’ roster - a tribute to the back end's youth and potential.
During the 2014-15 campaign, Johnson scored eight goals and tallied an impressive 40 points in 79 games. He led the Jackets’ defense with 32 assists and was once again a constant presence on the ice, averaging 24:09 TOI per game.
Johnson plays a solid two-way game, possessing the ability to move the puck up the ice, quarterback the power play (he's currently operating on the second unit) while using his skating to cover for any mistakes.
“We’ve talked about it before with Jack, that one of the best attributes he has is his skating ability," Richards said back in April. "He’s a great skater and he can get up the ice, and he has endurance, too. He can just outlast guys. It might be the end of a 45-second shift and he has that extra push to beat his opponent up the ice, and now he’s created some separation and scoring chances.”
Johnson is going into his 11th season (fifth with Columbus), and will provide stability and experience to a relatively untested group of defensemen.
Tyutin, 32, is the 'old man' on defense. Entering his 12th NHL season and eighth in Columbus, Tyutin adds significant experience and a calming presence that makes him a valuable piece to the puzzle.
One of the many things the Blue Jackets like about Tyutin is his professionalism and approach to the game; he's always prepared, sets a good example and is a solid resource for the club's younger players.
“Some nights are going to be better than others, but he’s a guy you don’t have to worry about,” Richards said in a January story in The Dispatch. “You don’t have to worry about his preparation and you don’t have to worry about him out on the ice.”
ON THE VERGE: CODY GOLOUBEF
For the time being, Goloubef is still trying to break through into a top six spot on defense. Goloubef has slowly worked his way up the depth chart, spending most of his time in 2014-15 at the NHL level, but suffered a knee injury in November that set him back a bit.
The Blue Jackets know what they're getting from the 25-year-old native of Mississauga, Ont.: a no-frills, maintenance-free style that enables him to seamlessly step in when called upon. Goloubef signed a two-year, one-way contract extension in the offseason that serves as evidence of the team's confidence in him.
“(The timing) was the most frustrating part,” Goloubef said of his injury. “I felt like I was moving my way up the depth chart, and then I got hurt and knew immediately I was going right back to square one. I had to scratch and claw and fight my way back, but I think it’s a good learning experience and I proved to myself that I could do it.
“They told me that they’ve seen a lot of growth in my game, which is good to hear. But the positive thing is they see a lot more potential and growth, and I was thinking the same thing. To hear them say that was a big confidence boost.”
Sergei Bobrovsky and Curtis McElhinney will be taking care of business in between the pipes this season. No surprises here.
The 27-year-old Bobrovsky is a fan favorite, and for a good reason. Only two years removed from a Vezina Trophy, Bobrovsky had another 30-win season in 2014-15 going 30-17-3 with a 2.69 goals-against average and .918 save percentage. He played 2,994 minutes in 51 games, but – like many of the Blue Jackets – fought through injuries during the season.
This summer, he changed up his training and came to camp in top shape, ready to get this season underway.
"You have to be smart and find the balance between work and rest," Bobrovsky told NHL.com. "It comes with experience. You want to be the best. You want to work every night. Sometimes it causes you some problems."
Bobrovsky is backed up by the veteran McElhinney, who will be heading into his third season with the Blue Jackets (10th NHL season overall). During the 2014-15 campaign, McElhinney was 12-14-2 with a 2.88 goals-against average and .914 save percentage.
He recently signed a two-year extension, and has proven himself as a reliable puck-stopper that both the players and management feel comfortable with in net.