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The Defense Will Not Rest

by David DiCenzo / Columbus Blue Jackets

When you think about the recent history of the Norris Trophy, a lot of the usual suspects immediately come to mind. Lidstrom. Pronger. Neidermayer. Chara.

"You don't like playing against those guys." - Captain Rick Nash

The Blue Jackets defensive corps doesn't boast one of those "name" players among its top six or seven D-men. But if there were an NHL award for the sum of a blueline's parts, then Columbus would be in the running.

A totally revamped back end has improved dramatically since the beginning of the season. And while timely goals and superb goaltending have been factors in the Jackets' good fortunes of late, it's that no-name defense that's the foundation for it all.

"I think it's been a work in progress for us," says first-year Blue Jacket Mike Commodore. "We've worked hard at it.

"If you were to talk to unbiased hockey fans that know the players in the game and looked at D corps around the league, as far as names go, we probably wouldn't be ranked very high. But you know what, that really doesn't matter. As long as a you play well as a group and know what you're doing on the ice.

"In Carolina, we didn't have any superstars, by any stretch of the imagination. It worked for us."

You apparently don't need a 60-point guy on the back end to have success. Columbus has done it with a good mix of size, strength and grit from players who can all make a good pass. There are the true stopper types like Commodore and his partner Jan Hejda, arguably one of the most underrated defensemen in the NHL.

Fedor Tyutin, and an emerging Christian Backman, are proving that the price tag of Nikolai Zherdev to get them out of New York was worth it. Marc Methot has done everything necessary to be an NHL regular, while Kris Russell, the most offensively gifted of the bunch, looks like a completely different player than in 2008. Ole-Kristian Tollefsen has endured some injuries but is still a beast when he plays.

Imagine if Rostislav Klesla, one of the best two-way guys in the D corps, had been healthy the majority of the season?

"When team's have good back ends, it definitely makes the game tougher," says captain Rick Nash, who agrees the unit is maybe the deepest in his tenure in Columbus. "We've got size back there and some skill.

"They play hard, they play aggressive. You don't like playing against those guys."

"The ultimate compliment is if opposing teams find you hard to play against," says Commodore. "It means you're doing something right."

The rest of the league is finding that out. The evolution of the D this year begins with the top pairing of Commodore and Hejda. They have been among the league leaders in hits throughout the season and given that they play against the opposition's best players every night, what they've done is pretty remarkable. Hejda is a team-best +23 with Commodore at +13.

That's a telling stat to head coach Ken Hitchcock, a firm believer in the importance of plus-minus.

"When you're defending pair is minus," Hitchcock says, "you're in really big trouble."

The coach is well aware of the intensity the duo brings. Hitchcock recently told the story of being at the rink on an off day following a loss. Hejda was alone in the lounge, muttering to himself about the previous game, just staring at the wall.

"The TV wasn't even on," says the coach.

Commodore has seen Hejda's commitment up close, though the Staley Cup winning defensemen admits he wasn't an expert on the big Czech back in the fall.

"When I signed here, they said I'd probably be playing with Jan Hejda," Commodore recalls. "And I said, 'Who?' I wasn't ignorant. I'd heard his name, but Jan Hejda could have walked in the room and I wouldn't know. I figured I better find out something about this guy before I came so I went on

"It's been a real pleasure playing with him. He's easy to play with. He makes smart plays, he's physical and he's strong."

But Hejda, like the other Jackets defensemen, is showing he can contribute offensively, as well. With 15 points, Hejda has already surpassed his single season career-high point total. Commodore is only seven points shy of doing the same, while Tyutin has already equaled his career-best in points and surpassed his own mark for goals in a season, which is currently at seven.

Hitchcock believes that to make the playoffs, a team has to be in the top 20 when it comes to defensive scoring. Columbus is 14th as of February 15.

"We've got a good mix of offensive guys and defensive defensemen," says Nash. "They can all make passes, they can all shoot and they can all score goals."

With so much personnel turnover on the team this year, particularly in the back end, the D deserves plenty of credit.

"We've had a bit of a transformation on defense," says Methot, who feels there is a lot of pride in the unit. "With all the new guys coming in like Backman, Commodore and Tyutin, they've made that transition easy.

"Especially being character guys, it's been easy to play with them and it's been a lot of fun."

Columbus opponents beg to differ.

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