When the Blue Jackets started to get ready for last season, John Tortorella had a new direction in mind for his team. It was time to change the way the Jackets were going to play, starting in the defensive end of the ice.
"It's a speed game now," head coach John Tortorella said during training camp. "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."
With that in mind, the 2016-17 Jackets rolled out a younger, new look defensive group, and they helped bring about immediate results. After losing their first two games, the Jackets won six of their next nine and, of course, strung together that 16-game winning streak.
The team finished the regular season fourth overall in the League and earned the franchise's third ever post-season appearance.
"I think we're a better team," Brandon Dubinsky said. "Plug Zach Werenski and Markus Nutivaara in and get Seth Jones through a first full camp and season, those guys are studs. They're young guys that are huge. Add them to Jack (Johnson), (David) Savard and (Ryan) Murray and it just allows our D to be so mobile to get us out of the zone fast."
How did the Jackets do in that transition game? Thanks to work being done by Corey Sznajder, we know that, through 35 Jackets' games tracked last season, the Jackets were able to exit the defensive zone successfully on 77% of all attempts made. Further, they did so with possession 53% of the time.
Moreover, the defense, nicknamed "the engine of the team" by Tortorella, also contributed up the ice after getting out of the zone by making significant contributions offensively.
Werenski and Jones finished sixth and seventh respectively among all Jackets in points scored. All Jackets defensemen contributed 16.6% of all goals scored by the team, compared to 10.3% of all goals that came from the blue line in the 2015-16 season.
"I do not want to put any type of harness on these young defensemen as far as just getting up the ice and allowing them to play," Tortorella said. "It's not always about being in your position. We're doing a number of different things with our defensemen in the offensive zone as far as not just staying in the backend and looking for a shot, or looking for a pass and trying to get a shot on net."
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The added focus on Jackets' defensemen as part of the offense helped propel the team to some solid improvements overall.
According to naturalstattrick.com, in five-on-five play, the Jackets improved in score and venue adjusted Corsi for percentage from 24th overall in the League in 2015-16 (47.63) to eighth in 2016-17 (50.99).
The team also bettered their performance in generating scoring chances, rising from 14th in the League in 2015-16 (35.76 per 60) to eighth last season (27.8 per 60).
But the team's defensive corps know it's about more than offensive efficency.
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"We have to be responsible and we, as a defensive corps, have talked about that," Jones said. "It doesn't matter how aggressive offensively we are, we can't take anything away from our sound defensive play. That's a balance that we need to have."
After last year's success playing within a more defensively-active system, next season looks promising up and down the blue line. The Jackets have eight defensemen set to return this coming year who have earned NHL ice time, and six of those eight are under age 25.
"They're all so young, we're thrilled with what we can build there," Jarmo Kekalainen said. "That's going to be our engine as we go through and keep working at the process to get to try to get where we want to be and who we are. I'm so excited about our defense."
All data reflects 5v5 play and comes from naturalstattrick.com unless otherwise stated. Games tracked by Sznajder for the 2016-17 season include: Oct. 13 / 15 / 21 / 22 / 25 / 27 / 28. Nov. 4 / 9 / 18. Dec. 3 / 5 / 22 / 29. Jan 7 / 8 / 13 / 14 / 17 / 22 / 31. Feb. 13 / 26. Mar. 7 / 10 / 11 / 13 / 16 / 18 / 19 / 22 / 25. Apr. 6 / 8 / 9.