EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second installment in a three-part series breaking down the 2014-15 Blue Jackets season by positions, including forwards, defensemen and the goaltenders.
The Blue Jackets knew entering the 2014-15 season that they were going to have a tremendous amount of competition in training camp to fill out their group of forwards. There will be a lot of competition again this September, but the Jackets figure to have a few more tough decisions this time around in determining their top six defensemen.
The Jackets entered this season with a pretty good idea of what veteran defensemen Jack Johnson and James Wisniewski would bring, but sophomores David Savard and Ryan Murray were far less certain commodities. Murray had a very strong rookie campaign with 21 points and a strong showing in the playoffs, but he was still recovering from off-season knee surgery when camp broke in September. Savard was coming off a strong postseason of his own, but whether or not he could build on his performance against Sidney Crosby and the Penguins was up in the air.
While injuries defined the majority of Murray’s second campaign, Savard solidified himself not only as an everyday NHLer but also as a top-four defenseman and logged a lot of ice time on what would be an injury-riddled Jackets roster.
Savard flexed the scoring muscle he displayed in juniors, scoring 11 goals and 36 points in his second full season while averaging nearly 23 minutes of ice time a game – and much of it came against the opposition’s top talent.
“David Savard played with Johnson a lot and played against the other team’s best players most nights,” said John Davidson, Blue Jackets president of hockey operations. “For a young man that took time to develop himself as an NHL player, he’s really earned the right to have us respect what he’s done. He’s a real pillar for us going forward.”
Savard flourished in the season’s early months while Johnson struggled, with only one goal and a minus-17 rating in the team’s first 22 games. Over the second half of the year, Johnson was the team’s best blue-liner, finishing the season with 40 points to lead all defensemen and posting a plus-4 rating over his remaining 57 games while leading the team in ice time.
READ: The 2014-15 Year In Review (Forwards)
While Johnson and Savard went the length of the season mostly unscathed by injury, the rest of the defense corps was hammered throughout the season. Murray is the prime example, with separate injuries and setbacks to his knee and ankles forcing him to the press box for all but 12 games. Also affected during the season were Cody Goloubef (knee), Fedor Tyutin (knee), and Wisniewski (hand). Those key players were absent for key stretches during the season, forcing the Blue Jackets to look outside the organization and under the radar for help.
Jordan Leopold was acquired in December for a fifth-round pick and was a good teammate and locker room voice despite little playing time leading up to his trade deadline move to Minnesota, but the real impact addition to the blue line was not a trade acquisition but rather a waiver wire pick-up.
The Jackets plucked Kevin Connauton away from the Dallas Stars on Nov. 18, after he registered only a goal and 10 points across 44 games in two seasons with the Stars. The young puck-moving defenseman improved on those totals pretty quickly with Columbus, scoring his first goal in his seventh game as a Blue Jacket in overtime to defeat the Flyers. Connauton would go on to score seven goals and 11 points over 15 games.
The Blue Jackets began the year with few question marks on the back end with most of the grey area concerning young Tim Erixon’s role on the team as a full-time NHL contributor. Eight months later, Erixon is no longer in the fold, and yet the injuries sustained during the season still leave GM Jarmo Kekalainen with questions to answer.
The Jackets hope that Savard’s progress will continue and that Murray, whom coaches and management alike have said makes their team better, is now fully recovered and ready for a full season. A healthy Tyutin still serves as veteran presence and sturdy two-way defenseman. Tyutin’s partner for much of the year, Dalton Prout, established himself as a physically imposing, heavy defender in his second full season, though his consistency in his own zone and minus-14 rating will be targets for improvement over the summer.
The Jackets will have shoes to fill both on the second pairing and their power play left by Wisniewski after he was dealt to the Anaheim Ducks at the deadline. Wisniewski had 29 points and seven power play goals, tied for third on the team. Murray’s healthy return would alleviate some of the offensive burden, but Wisniewski’s 20 minutes of ice time per game must be reallocated.
Connauton’s emergence this season certainly gives the Blue Jackets another option, with his offensive ability making him a solid power play fit. However, Connauton was a healthy scratch for two of the team’s final three games in favor of Justin Falk, making his full-time status with the team next season something that still must be earned.
Goloubef’s steady play earned him a spot out of training camp, but his knee injury cost him significant development time. Still, Goloubef had a plus-12 rating in 36 games; he will be an unrestricted free agent if not re-signed before July 1.
The Jackets’ blue line solutions for next season could very well be on the roster, but with injuries robbing many young players of ice-time this year, there is no certainty. It’s an area the team may attempt to target in free agency this offseason, with the likes of Mike Green, Christian Ehrhoff, Paul Martin and Cody Franson potentially available and the Jackets looking to bolster their blue line.
The Blue Jackets learned a lot about their squad through the adversity of this past season. In the offseason, they will learn more about their young defense both in Columbus and throughout the organization, giving way to one of the more interesting competitions for jobs when training camp opens in September.