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Blue Jackets look to play a smarter game in upcoming season

With young goalies in net, Tortorella wants a concentration on intelligent play

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider /

Is "Safe is Death" … dead? 

The mantra John Tortorella has used for the past few seasons to push the Blue Jackets forward in an NHL that's younger, faster and more mistake-filled than ever could go back on the shelf this season. 

With a pair of untested goaltenders set to man the Columbus nets this season, the head coach has spoken a few times of making sure his team doesn't make life any more difficult on the netminders than it has to. 

So, again, is "Safe is Death" dead?

Well, yes and no. You might not hear that mantra much this year, but don't expect the Blue Jackets to turn into the 1995 New Jersey Devils when it comes to clogging the neutral zone and trying to win games 2-1.  

Nor will the Blue Jackets exactly turn into last year's surprise package team, the New York Islanders, who lost their best forward in the offseason and responded to make the second round of the playoffs thanks to airtight defense and despite an offense that finished in the bottom third of the league. 

"Oh no, no, no," Tortorella said Sunday. "This isn't line up at the blue line and wait for them there. We're attacking. We just have to have a concentration on what we're doing away from the puck." 

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In other words, maybe a good way to put it is "Smart is Life." The head coach said the Blue Jackets will want to play smart hockey and stay "above the puck," but it's not exactly like the team is switching from -- in football terms -- the Run and Shoot to the triple option. 

To drive home what that might look like, Tortorella pointed to the end of last season. Columbus won seven of its last eight regular-season games before its playoff run, in which the Blue Jackets swept Tampa Bay in the opening round before a knock-down, drag-out second-round series with Boston.  

Down the stretch and into the postseason, the Blue Jackets played the style of hockey they hope to play again this season. 

"It's going to look like when we were in the playoffs," Tortorella said. "We made small adjustments, and to me, it's more not within the system but within the concentration of the system. I thought everybody bought into it during a very crucial time at the end of the year when we went on a little bit of a run and brought it right into the playoffs. 

"There's no change in the system, it's just a concentration and an understanding (that) we have to let our goalies get their feet wet here and get some games here and start feeling good about our team concept as far as playing away from the puck." 

Center Pierre-Luc Dubois said it comes down to not forcing plays; if an aggressive play has a 10 percent chance of working, it's not the time to do it. In that framework, positioning is key, so freelancing might be cut down a bit from past seasons. 

But at the same time, the Blue Jackets can't lose their sense of aggressiveness, especially in an era where goals are on the rise and mistakes are the name of the game. 

"It's a game where you have the puck for a second, kind of like basketball," Dubois said. "You have the puck a second, and the next second you're on defense. It's really about being smart. It's just about where to be when you don't have the puck, not necessarily when the other team has the puck, even when we have the puck, just where you want to go and how to get open and stuff like that. 

"Honestly, it's just about being smart with the puck." 

As for whether the concentration on being smart will impact the team's young defensemen, pretty much all of whom have an offensive streak about them, Zach Werenski doesn't think so. Safe is Death seemed to have been created with players like Werenski in mind, as the blueliner has topped 10 goals in all three of his NHL seasons thus far and is ninth among defensemen in goals with 38 over the past trio of years. 

But Werenski doesn't anticipate a huge difference in how he'll play from a season ago. 

"I just want to play like I did at the end of the year last year, be good defensively, be hard to play against," he said. "Whenever I can, just jump up in the play. I don't think (Tortorella has) taken that away from us by any means. I just think he wants us to think a little bit more about it before we jump, make sure it's the right time to go. 

"If we have that mind-set of just creating turnovers, being good defensively and not giving up much, we're going to create offense." 

Columbus again can point to a season ago to know this could have good results. In the last eight games of the season, the Blue Jackets scored 35 goals, then tallied 19 more in four games in the sweep of Tampa Bay. Many of those goals came after forcing turnovers, either in transition or because of a standout forecheck.  

"I thought we did a really good job," said veteran Riley Nash. "When we started to adapt that style with maybe 20 games left to go or so, we really fell into that and started to find our groove and our rhythm.  

"I think there are obvious opportunities (to be aggressive). The game is getting faster, you need that fourth guy activating. But you can't be giving up 3-on-1s and 3-on-2s all night because that's a recipe for disaster." 

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