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Winter break-down: Blue Jackets defense has led the way

No matter how you slice it, Columbus has been one of the NHL's best at preventing goals

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

John Tortorella made no bones about how the Blue Jackets were going to have to play to be successful this season. 

With a pair of goaltenders taking on new roles in the net and such names as Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel no longer on the team, the "safe is death" mantra was no longer going to apply. 

Tortorella hasn't exactly told his team to stop attacking, but it was more like the new slogan was "smart is life." The phrase "above the puck" has been said numerous times by Tortorella, with the team focusing on positioning and not allowing opposing teams to earn odd-man rushes and fill up the net. 

He still has no problem with his defensemen going forward if the opportunity is there, but in general, he wants the puck going north as quickly as possible leaving the zone, and that might mean just getting the puck out of danger quickly with a flip out to neutral ice rather than trying to pass or skate it up the ice. 

"When we came into the year and with the departures from last year and during the summer and the question marks with our goaltending, we made a conscious effort to bring more concentration to our play away from the puck," Tortorella said. "I think our team has done a really good job of that." 

WINTER BREAK-DOWNS: Forwards looking for more

A large part of that is because of a strong corps -- and core -- of defensemen who have held down the fort and contributed offensively as well when need be. Ten different players have suited up on the blue line for Columbus this year yet there haven't been any noticeable dips in production. 

What's gone well 

No matter how you slice it, the Blue Jackets have been one of the best defensive teams in the NHL this year. 

So far, Columbus allows 2.51 goals per game, which is tied with Boston for second in the league. Over the last 22 games, the Jackets have allowed just 1.73 goals per game, half a goal better than anyone in the NHL in that span. When it comes to advanced numbers, the team's mark of 2.08 expected goals allowed per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 -- a stat that measures shot quality against -- places fifth in the league per Natural Stat Trick.

Forwards doing their part in the defensive zone and on the backcheck, as well as goalies who have stood on their head for the past 20 games, have played a factor in that as well, but it does show just how impactful Blue Jackets defensemen have been throughout the season. 

As the year has shaken out, two pairs have cemented themselves and been leaned on by Tortorella throughout recent weeks. The first is no surprise, as Seth Jones and Zach Werenski are two players who have the ability to excel on all 200 feet of ice. 

Jones recently earned his fourth selection to the NHL All-Star Game and is coming off a pair of seasons in which he finished in the top 10 in the Norris Trophy voting. Though he hasn't been as big as a goal scorer as in recent years -- he has five goals in the first 51 games -- he continues to play a massive amount of minutes and is on pace for 45 points, a total in line with his Blue Jackets career numbers at this point. 

After an inconsistent start, his game has come on over the past 20 games or so. 

"He's played better," Tortorella said. "I think Jonesy can improve. I think he's so young he's still going to improve even more. I have a very high standard for Jonesy. I think he's played really well, but you don't stop trying to get better, and I think there's more there." 

His defensive partner, Werenski, has also submitted evidence he should be viewed as among the top blueliners in the league. Not only does he lead all NHL defensemen with 15 goals, he's shored up his defensive game, with his ability to move the puck up the ice joined by strong play in all facets in the defensive zone.  

Video: FLA@CBJ: Werenski earns first career NHL hat trick

Then there's the pairing of Vladislav Gavrikov and David Savard, who have the potential to be a shutdown pairing in the defensive zone. Savard's ability to defend below the hashmarks has been championed by Tortorella for years, and he seems to have a like-minded soul in Gavrikov, the Russian rookie who like Savard has a little bit of offensive flair to his game but is also at his best when he's preventing teams from scoring.  

Over the past 22 games, Gavrikov is plus-16 -- the best mark in the NHL in that span -- while Savard is plus-11.  

"I just think they play very similar games," Tortorella said. 

Where there can be improvement 

Much like with the forward group, once you get past the top players, there has been some inconsistency in performance. 

With someone like Ryan Murray, it's yet another injury that has kept him from being his best. Murray came into his own a year ago as a force in both zones, and this year the Blue Jackets have a 53.7 percent share of expected goals when he's on the ice at 5-on-5, showing his utility when healthy. 

Markus Nutivaara also has been banged up, missing nearly two months with a pair of injuries, but Tortorella has asked for more when the smooth-skating Finn has been healthy. He's noted for his ability to transition the puck up the ice -- his breakout pass is one of the best on the team -- but Nutivaara has had trouble finding his entire game at times, both the player and Tortorella have acknowledged.  

Dean Kukan has worked himself into being deserving of a top-six spot, with a smooth offensive game and great skating ability earning him time on the first pair when Werenski was out. Consistency is still the biggest bugaboo for a player who didn't earn regular playing time until late last year, but the Jackets have a 54.5 percent share of expected goals at 5-on-5 when he's on the ice. 

Scott Harrington has continued to battle when given opportunities and is a reliable third-pair defenseman at the moment with Nutivaara, while youngsters Andrew Peeke and Gabriel Carlsson have shown promise in limited action.  

On the spot: Ryan Murray 

It's probably a bit unfair to put Murray here considering he's been out injured for nearly two months, the latest in a string of unfortunate maladies to hit the defenseman taken No. 2 overall in the 2012 draft. Yet if he comes back healthy and effective in the second half -- he has been skating recently -- it could be huge to solidify the defensive corps. He's often formed an effective puck-moving duo with Nutivaara in the past, and it's easy to see how that combination could give the Blue Jackets one of the best third pairings in the league.  

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