Last season saw the pairing of Jack Johnson and David Savard take on a new role on the blue line and it was one in which they flourished. In the process, the two became a big part of how the defensive "engine of the Blue Jackets" is evolving.
"Our back end is as hard to play against as anybody in this league," general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. "(Johnson and Savard) are heavy, mobile, and strong as bulls."
What underlies this assessment?
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When the 2016-17 season started, Johnson and Savard not only heard head coach John Tortorella's message that defensemen should join the rush and become part of the team's offensive efforts, they also saw that they would be changing when they played.
With rookie Zach Werenski and Seth Jones taking over on the two power play units, veterans Johnson and Savard decided their calling was to be as sharp as possible at their defensive game.
"Our role changed from last year and we wanted to play really well defensively," Savard said. "That's what we focused on early in the year. That's what we're trying to do every night.
"Settling into our defensive play gives us more chance to go on the offense. Because we are playing defensively, we close guys quicker, and we get more chances to go in the offensive zone."
And the on-ice results showed that the pairing's efforts produced results.
They became the twosome that the coaches put on the ice to protect a lead and assistant coach Brad Shaw would deploy for more defensive zone starts.
Johnson saw his defensive zone starts increase by just over four instances per 60 minutes according to naturalstattrick.com, and Savard saw his grow by two-and-a-half per 60. Even with the change, both players' play produced a slight decrease in scoring chances against per 60 when they were on the ice.
Each player also slightly improved in shot attempts against per 60 over the 15-16 season, (Johnson went from 58.65/60 in 15-16 to 56.28 while Savard went from 57.55 in 15-16 to 54.97).
"I have a huge comfort level with them knowing what I'm going to get every time I put them on the ice," Shaw said. "You can't say a much better thing about a D pair. To play that consistent game with and without the puck is a really tough thing to do on a nightly basis. They seem to have found a groove individually and as a pair working off one another."
But showing up defensively wasn't the only goal for Tortorella's defense, and Johnson and Savard answered the offensive bell as well. Even in a new role, Savard stayed consistent in five-on-five points scored per 60 from 2015-16 (.8) to 2016-17 (.9) while Jack Johnson saw a jump in point production from .3 points/60 two years ago to .7/60 last year according to firstlinestats.com.
"It was exciting to play for Tortorella because he was encouraging us to get up (and join the offense)," Johnson said. "I haven't had that many coaches over the years encouraging defensemen to get up there."
And for Shaw, so much of the pair's evolution on both sides of the puck ties back to the mindset they had coming in - to be the best defensive pair on the team.
"To make that statement changes how you play," Shaw said. "You play with less risk, you don't get on the wrong side of the puck quite as often. When you know you have to provide the example, it changes how you play. You play more positionally.
"It doesn't take away from how often they've done a good job getting up in the play, that's not what we're trying to take away from them. They've done a great job of blending it. Their reads on when to (play defensively and when to play offensively) have been fantastic."
All data represents score, venue adjusted five-on-five play. All data from naturalstattrick.com unless otherwise specified.