For much of their history, the Columbus Blue Jackets have been, to be blunt, a bad defensive team. Even two seasons ago, in 2015-16, this was a blue line in transition. Ryan Murray, who played in all 82 games that season, led Blue Jackets skaters with nearly 1900 minutes of time on ice for the season, an average of 22:51 each night.
Several events occurred that season to transform the Blue Jackets defense into what it is today, and we're not referencing the hiring of John Tortorella.
To kick things off, the Blue Jackets traded the talented but contentious Ryan Johansen in a blockbuster that sent Seth Jones to Columbus. Jones played with Murray for the rest of the year, dropping David Savard and Jack Johnson to the second pairing, where they played mostly a shutdown role.
Then, at the NHL Draft, the Blue Jackets drafted Zach Werenski with the eighth overall pick, Gabriel Carlsson with the 29th, and Markus Nutivaara all the way in the seventh round, 189th overall.
Who could have envisioned, just two years later, the impact that this crop of draft picks would have on the Blue Jackets? This past season produced the best team in the history of the franchise, and much of it had to do with the play of goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. But there is no denying that the defense took a huge step forward this past season under the tutelage of assistant coach Brad Shaw, and every defenseman on the roster had perhaps their best individual campaign, as well.
Coincidence, or beginning of a trend?
Barring any trades, the Blue Jackets will enter training camp with more depth on their blue line than any other year in their history. Are there any question marks heading into the season?
1 – SETH JONES
Jones took a huge step forward last season. He led the team in average TOI, playing 23:24 a night against tough competition. He made his first All-Star team and finished 18th in Norris Trophy voting for the NHL's top defenseman. The crazy thing to remember about Jones (foreshadowing alert) is how young he is. Jones just wrapped up his fifth season in the NHL and has played in 315 regular season games, but is somehow just 22 years old (to be fair, he'll be 23 when the season starts). He's expected to be the top defenseman on this team, not just this year, but for the foreseeable future.
2 – ZACH WERENSKI
Werenski was so dominant as a rookie that it's hard to believe he'll be able to live up to the expectations placed on him for his sophomore season (that's the pessimist's viewpoint, at least). Here's the optimism: Werenski, at age 19, had one of the most impressive rookie campaigns by a defenseman in recent memory. Consider that the list of teenage NHL defensemen since 2009-10 to post at least 0.5 points/game are: Tyler Myers, Cam Fowler, and Zach Werenski. Oh, and Werenski is tops on the list, averaging 0.6 PPG last year. Myers won a Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year that season, and the only defenseman to have won a Calder since then was Aaron Ekblad, who had 0.48 PPG in his rookie campaign. Just about any other year, Werenski wins the Calder, but it's okay, Connor McDavid didn't win one either, and it's not the only place they've come up in the same conversation.
3 – DAVID SAVARD
Savard is steady as they come. The 26-year-old was second on the roster in TOI behind Seth Jones, logging an average of 21:50 a night. Known for his low-maintenance game, the coaching staff clearly feels comfortable playing Savard in stressful situations, as evidenced by the fact that he led all Jackets defensemen in average shorthanded TOI/game, logging 2:27 per game. His steady play should continue to be an asset for the Jackets.
4 – JACK JOHNSON
Johnson had something of a resurgence this past year, playing perhaps the best hockey of his career. The definitive elder statesman on the blue line, Johnson proved to be a key cog on the second pairing with Savard. A valuable commodity to have, the 30-year-old led the team in total shorthanded minutes this year and was third among defensemen in TOI. He's entering the final year of his contract, and that's something worth keeping an eye out for as the season rolls along. Is this his last season in the union blue?
5 – RYAN MURRAY
Murray is perhaps the most polarizing player on the team. A former second overall pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, Murray will be just 24 when the new season starts. Still, he's watched as his minutes and role have been taken over by younger players. In the aforementioned dumpster fire of a season that was 2015-16, Murray led the team in total minutes. Last year, however, he saw his average TOI go to a career-low 18:20 per game, fifth most among Jackets blue liners. This is something of a make or break year for Murray, too, as he will be entering the last year of his contract before his second stint as an RFA. Certainly, he's an NHL-level defenseman, but this year could have major implications on his future, not just with Columbus, but for his career in general.
6 – GABRIEL CARLSSON
Carlsson, to put it lightly, came out of nowhere. After his season in Sweden ended, Carlsson suited up for AHL Cleveland, playing in just three games before getting the call-up to Columbus to end the regular season. After playing two more games, he was deemed ready for the Stanley Cup playoffs, where he appeared in all five games against Pittsburgh. The rangy 6-foot-4 defenseman has the frame of a true shutdown guy, something the Blue Jackets don't currently have on their roster. Carlsson is only 20 years old and has only played 10 professional hockey games in North America, so to say he's a wild card in 2017-18 would be an understatement. The talent is there for him to play a lot of minutes this year.
7 – MARKUS NUTIVAARA
Similar to Carlsson, Nutivaara was a surprise rookie in 2016-17. The 189th overall pick in 2015, he's the lowest player selected in that year's draft to have played one NHL game, let alone 66. You have to go all the way to Brandon Carlo, pick No. 37, to find someone from this draft who has played more than the 66 NHL games that Nutivaara has played. The Finn is a smooth-skating puck mover who never seems to panic. His skating prowess allows him to work his way out of trouble spots, a requisite for defensemen in today's NHL. Similar to Werenski, he'll have to be careful to avoid a sophomore slump, but there's no doubting his talent. He'll likely compete with Carlsson for a spot on the bottom pairing, at least, for now.
Others in contention: Scott Harrington, Dean Kukan