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Young defense 'encouraging' for Blue Jackets

Jones, Murray, Werenski just a few of Columbus' talented blueliners

by Alison Lukan / BlueJackets.com

The NHL game is getting faster and faster, and the Blue Jackets are building a young and skilled defense in order to keep pace.

"It's a speed game now," head coach John Tortorella told BlueJackets.com "It's not 15-20 years ago (where you are) worrying about if your 'D' is going to be able to handle the physical play. It's about moving the puck and getting going.

"The game has completely changed. It's about tempo and skill (and) getting out of your end zone as quickly as possible."

Six of the 11 active defensemen left on this year's training camp roster are 23 or younger, so there's ample reason to be optimistic about what that means for the organization over the long haul.

When it comes to speed and skill, look no further than Seth Jones. Jones signed a six-year contract extension with the Blue Jackets over the summer and participated in the World Cup of Hockey as part of Team North America before joining camp in Columbus.

In just 41 games with the Blue Jackets last season, Jones led all club defensemen in shot assists that led to scoring chances with 42.86% (data courtesy of Ryan Stimson's passing project*) and was the third-highest scoring defenseman (two goals, 18 assists).

Jones' most frequent defense partner last year was Ryan Murray. Murray, who just turned 23, joined Jones on Team North America after playing in all 82 games last season. He tied David Savard for the scoring lead among all defensemen (4-21-25), and, with the most shot assists tracked in the passing project, he was third behind Savard and Dalton Prout when tracking passes that led to shots on goal (46.05%).

Then, there are the players in the Blue Jackets' developmental pipeline.

Zach Werenski is attending his first NHL training camp fresh off a Calder Cup championship with the Lake Erie Monsters. The 19-year-old was third among all Monsters and seventh among all AHL players in playoff points (5-9-14) with .82 points per game.

"The skill set he has: his size, strength and poise with the puck, he's a complete player," former Monsters head coach Jared Bednar said during the playoffs. "To be able to step into our lineup in intense games and get the job done, it's impressive especially for his age, and that's why everyone's so excited about him."

Another player who's drawn notice in camp? Finland's Markus Nutivaara who is experiencing his first foray playing on North American ice, and the smaller rink hasn't seemed to be challenging for the 6-foot tall, smooth-skating defenseman.

Even though it's the preseason with a sample size of just four games, Nutivaara has posted an impressive 58.29% 5-on-5 score and venue-adjusted Corsi For percentage (fourth overall on the team) in a team leading 65:07 minutes on ice, according to NaturalStatTrick.com.

"What he has, we can't teach - his skill and his moxie," Tortorella said. "He's not afraid to make a difference in the game and I think that's really important for a young defenseman. He's willing to hold on to pucks, to maybe make that next play. He has some speed too."

There's still more than a week left in training camp to decide which players will slot into the Blue Jackets lineup for the start of the regular season, but Tortorella believes the future is bright for his team's defense.

"(Defense) is a very important position now," Tortorella said. "We have youth in that situation and I don't think it's all going to come to fruition right away, but the progression of this is very encouraging on the back end. I look at the youth there, that's your engine as far as to get you up the ice and play with speed, and it's encouraging."

*Passing project data for the Blue Jackets includes 22 games from the 2015-16 regular season. Data tracked by Ryan Stimson and team.

 

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