Not every player can be a goal scorer or a playmaker, but every player can play defense and every player can forecheck. Those tasks don’t require skill as much as they do desire, dedication, and accountability.
Despite an early string of injuries that had many NHL pundits putting the Blue Jackets behind the 8-ball, Columbus is off to an impressive 2-0 start mostly due to a forecheck that is part of the gritty identity that head coach Todd Richards has crafted.
“Our strength of our team, I think, is forechecking the puck," Richards said. "And then once we get it in their zone, it’s playing below the goal line and using our size and our strength."
Richards later said that it’s an expectation of every player, not a task for a few role players to fill.
“Every player is expected to forecheck, every forward is expected to defend," he said. "It doesn’t matter who you are. I think the strength of our team is ‘what line’s our top line, what line’s going to score for us. We’ve had contributions from all lines, but we still need to get better, and we need to find more consistency in our game doing it shift in shift out.“
It’s a heavy-pressure style that fits players like Brandon Dubinsky and Boone Jenner well, and both will be welcome additions when they return from injury. In the meantime, the newcomers like Michael Chaput and Alexander Wennberg have caught on quickly to Richards’ offensive zone system, while Blue Jackets regulars like Nick Foligno and Matt Calvert have led the way.
“For young guys it helps when you’ve got older guys that are comfortable and confident in the system because you can just follow suit," Calvert said. "I’ve been in that position before as a young guy and it’s a much easier transition.
“Even if a team is a real good defensive team, any time you can disrupt the D and make them think twice or get a good hit on them, then that’s usually when they’ll start turning pucks over. I think the key for us is not to get caught with our (high forward) low in the offensive zone. I think if we take care of that, we’ll be fine.”
The “F3” Calvert refers to is the high forward in the offensive zone, who waits above the tops of the circles while his line mates pressure the puck deep in the zone. This forward plays a crucial role in the Jackets' system, and has to make the decision whether to join the forecheck or start tracking back if the play goes the other way.
Defenseman Dalton Prout believes that high forward has been important in generating offense for the Jackets early on.
“If you have skill you can make something out of nothing, but I think with our game plan of being hard on pucks, when you create a turnover and their forwards are out of position there is a lot of space high in the zone," Prout said. "Maybe that’s why our offense is coming the way it is.”
Artem Anisimov opened the scoring against the Rangers when he stepped into a rocket from the high slot to beat Cam Talbot. Anisimov came off the bench and was lurking high in the zone when Marko Dano and Scott Hartnell combined to force a deep turnover and feathered the puck to the high slot for a wide-open Anisimov to finish.
Marko Dano’s first career goal was a product of his strong forecheck efforts with Jared Boll, dragging the Rangers wingers deeper in the zone and opening up lanes for Prout to shoot, the rebound finding Dano in the slot.
Strong forechecking also plays a role in the Jackets' strong defensive performances, with the team giving up only three goals in two games. Just as the best way to defend against an elite quarterback is to keep him off the field, the best way to control the NHL’s best offensive players is to pin them down where they’re least dangerous - in their own zone.
“The best defense against a top-six line is making those guys spend some energy in their own zone," Richards said. "If we slow them down through the neutral zone and offensive zone, and if we can force them to spend some more time in their own zone. If we don’t do that then they’re going to have all kinds of energy and we’re going to be spending time in our own end."
Through two games, the Jackets have stuck to their systems well and they’ve seen results. With that discipline, they can have success with whatever line match-ups Richards throws on the ice.
“As a team you have an identity and a game plan," Prout said. "And if you execute, you should have your in-zone time and your offensive zone pressure. We’ve executed our systems well and that’s what’s allowed us to spend less time in our zone, more time in their zone and put the puck in their hands and force them to make mistakes."