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Nutivaara embraces his big opportunity for Blue Jackets

In wake of Jones' injury, Finnish defenseman gets the chance to play with Werenski

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider /

The Blue Jackets still have six defensemen on the roster who played minutes during the 2016-17 season, which to begin with is a heck of a compliment on the stability of the CBJ blue line. 

That means that over a four-season span, Markus Nutivaara has had the chance to play big minutes with five different defensemen in union blue. 

Since the start of that season, he's played more than 1,200 5-on-5 minutes with Ryan Murray, by far his most common defensive partner. He's played more than 800 with David Savard and more than 400 with Scott Harrington. He'd even played more than 200 with Seth Jones.

Then there's Zach Werenski. Going into Monday night's game against Tampa Bay, Werenski and Nutivaara had played just 134 minutes together at 5-on-5 in a 302-game span, so you can do the math on how little the two had split a defensive pairing. 

"I haven't played with Z a lot; I think he's the only guy I hadn't played with," Nutivaara said Tuesday with his trademark smile. "But it went pretty good. I think we played a good game (Monday), and it was pretty easy to hop on." 

But desperate times call for desperate measures, and as Nutivaara alluded to, he spent 16:23 of his 5-on-5 time on the ice Monday night paired with Werenski in the first game since Seth Jones' injury that will keep the All-Star defenseman out for at least two months.  

The returns were solid on the Nutivaara-Werenski pairing, as while mostly playing against the Bolts' supercharged top two lines, Columbus had a 16-12 edge in shot attempts, a 9-3 edge in scoring chances, and earned 65.21 percent of the expected goals share when the two were on the ice at 5-on-5.  

Head coach John Tortorella said he wasn't sure if that pairing will stay together going forward -- especially if Murray returns some time soon after skating with the team during Monday's morning skate -- but he was pleased with how the defensive corps came together against the Lightning. 

"He played good," Tortorella said of Nutivaara. "We give them 12 scoring chances against one of the top offensive teams (in the league), so I think our whole team defense was good." 

And Nutivaara thinks it can be even better. Considering how little time he had spent on the same ice as Werenski over their CBJ careers, chemistry is something that can be built.  

How long will it take? Well... 

"For perfection, it takes a couple of games," Nutivaara said. "Maybe three games if you play with the same guy. Then you get used to the routes and where he's gonna be in certain situations. But yeah, it went pretty good." 

Werenski agreed.  

"I thought we played well for three periods," Werenski said. "It didn't take too long to get used to each other." 

For Nutivaara, the opportunity is a bit rejuvenating. His first two seasons with the Blue Jackets in 2016-17 and 2017-18, the young Finn looked like a key building block for the blue line, forming a smooth pairing with Murray at times and finishing his second NHL season with a 7-16-23 line in 61 games at age 23. 

But a year ago, Nutivaara's offensive production dipped a bit, though he found his game at the end of the season and was playing at a high level before being knocked out of the postseason by a hit that earned Tampa Bay's Nikita Kucherov a suspension.  

This season, Nutivaara got off to an uneven start, then missed two months with a pair of injuries. Since coming back in January, he's been put mostly on the third pairing, earning just one assist and a plus-2 rating while averaging 13:21 per game over 14 contests. 

He ended up playing 19:56 against the Lightning -- he noted, "The first challenge was how I'm going to get through 20-25 minutes" -- and sees the chance to be the first to step up and play with Werenski as an opportunity to show what he can do and turn his season around. 

"I was really excited for the game," Nutivaara said. "I like the challenge and I like the spot where they put me, so I was really excited. I think it's an opportunity for all of the D. Jonesy is a big part of our defense and we can't replace that, but we can just get a step forward and be better and every D has to be better now." 

Time will tell how the pairings will shake out the rest of the season, but Nutivaara boasts the ability to move the puck and play with pace much like Werenski. He saw some spots he can be better than he was against the Lightning, and his hope is to get the chance to keep playing big minutes and showing well down the stretch.  

"I knew I could (play there)," he said. "I was up to that challenge. Of course I want to be better. I want to stay up there. I just have to make the most out of it.  

"That's the goal. Let's go. It's been four years here, so that should be my goal. I'm still working and getting better. Now I want to put my foot in there." 

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