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Defense, depth continue to be strengths for Blue Jackets

Columbus has kept Maple Leafs to just three goals in first two games of series

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider /

It all started in 2009. 

On the second day of the draft as picks were put on the board every minute or so and television cameras jumped from story to story, Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson and his staff chose David Savard with the 94th overall pick in the fourth round of the draft. 

A lot has happened since then. Savard, for one, has gone from a high-scoring junior defenseman to a rugged, shot-blocking pain in the neck to play against. The Blue Jackets' defensive corps, meanwhile, runs 11 deep in the NHL bubble and is one of the deepest and most effective in the league. 

Seth Jones and Zach Werenski highlight a unit that is much more than that pairing, even as that duo has gained increasing respect around the NHL for its two-way success the past few seasons. Savard, Vladislav Gavrikov, Ryan Murray and Dean Kukan have completed the unit during the first two games vs. Toronto, while any one of Markus Nutivaara, Scott Harrington, Andrew Peeke, Adam Clendening or Gabriel Carlsson could step in at a moment's notice and get the job done if need be.  

"Our depth on defense is definitely a strength of our team," Jones said after the Blue Jackets' shutout win in Game 1. "We have guys that aren't even in the lineup that could come in and play in our top six as well. On any given night, we have everyone going, I think that's what's great about our D corps." 

It's one reason Columbus finished third in the NHL this year in scoring defense, and one reason the Blue Jackets so far have limited Toronto's high-powered attack in the Stanley Cup Playoffs qualifying series the two teams are playing. 

Thus far, Toronto has scored just three goals in the two games of the series, which is knotted at one apiece. It's a small sample size, of course, but the Maple Leafs have tallied 1.29 goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, good for 19th of the 24 teams inside the NHL bubbles, after placing eighth in the league during the regular season with 2.74 goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. 

In addition, Toronto's shot quality numbers have dropped as well, with the Maple Leafs going from 2.47 expected goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 during the season, third in the league, to 2.09 against Columbus, good for 10th in the restart. 

A lot goes into a team playing excellent defensive hockey, including standout goaltending, forwards who are committed to playing a 200-foot game, and a coaching staff that focuses on the details of the game. 

With the Blue Jackets, it's a focus born by personnel as much as anything. After the offseason departures of offensive-minded forwards Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel as well as longtime goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, head coach John Tortorella realized that without the same game-breaking offensive skill on his team and with two goalies jumping into bigger roles than they'd ever filled in their careers, the style the 2019-20 Blue Jackets team was going to have to play was going to have to be focused on defense. 

While "Safe is Death" was his mantra the past two years, "Safe is Smart" seems to have taken over this year. The Blue Jackets are certainly encouraged to use creativity in the offensive zone when there, and Werenski and Jones have a lot of freedom to range forward, but it has to be the right situation. Risk is not the name of the game; responsibility is. 

It helps, too, when you have a defensive depth chart that allows that to happen. Werenski and Jones, both top-10 draft picks in their respective draft years, have fulfilled the promise of their talent, with Werenski leading all NHL defensemen this year with 20 goals and Jones considered one of the most consistent two-way blueliners in the game. Both were named among the top 10 defensemen in the game in a recent ranking by NHL Network. 

Then there's the pairing of Savard and Gavrikov, who came together early this year and meshed so well together as a shutdown pair that Tortorella almost couldn't break them up the rest of the season.  

"They just play well with one another," Tortorella said. "They play well off one another. They've been paired for quite a while. I just think they're in sync. They are very good defensively underneath the hashmarks and very underrated as far as what they can do up the ice offensively." 

The depth is so strong that Murray, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2012 draft and a player who has earned top-line minutes in the past, has been earning third pair minutes with Kukan so far in the series. Before the series began, Tortorella raved about the two-way play of Murray as well as the skating and confidence of Kukan, who has consistently moved up the depth chart the past two seasons.

Kukan left part of Tuesday's Game 2 after suffering a hard hit in the first period but did return, and Tortorella said after the game that the Swiss defenseman was fine. But if he weren't, the Blue Jackets have plenty of depth in reserve, including Nutivaara, who has been a standout playoffs performer in the past; Harrington, who was a full-time player a year ago and is a six-year NHL veteran; Peeke, a rookie who showed excellent promise this year; Clendening, who stepped into postseason play last year; and Carlsson, who essentially debuted with postseason hockey as a rookie.

And it all started with a draft pick more than a decade ago.  

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