The last time Zach Werenski played in a game for the Blue Jackets, they were humiliated in Boston to the tune of a 7-2 loss.
Four games later and the club, decimated by injuries throughout the lineup, has managed a 2-0-2 record, with both losses coming in shootouts at Pittsburgh.
Before you think this article is to besmirch the good name of Zach Werenski, think again. Werenski is arguably the Jackets' best player, and will be a foundational, cornerstone piece for a long time.
The soon-to-return Werenski isn't the problem, but he could be part of a new solution: splitting him and Jones on two separate defensive pairings.
Just two weeks ago, John Tortorella was adamant that he would not split his two young star defensemen. Here's his rationale:
"I'm not splitting up Jonesy and Z. They control games for us. If they have to play 30-32 minutes, they'll play 30-32 minutes if we don't get something from the other guys. And they're capable of doing that. I'm not interested in splitting them....They determine too much of the pace of the game for us to split them.”
Message received, Coach. Tortorella sure didn't leave much room for interpretation, but... perhaps he should.
In the four games since Werenski left the lineup, Markus Nutivaara has played on the top pairing with Seth Jones, and has played remarkably well. He's played over 20 minutes each game, and through nearly 80 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey, the pairing is registering north of 55% CF% (55.70% and 55.26%). In no way has Nutivaara appeared overwhelmed, overworked, etc, though the pairing has received favorable zone starts.
With the additional absence of Ryan Murray (also injured, though not day-to-day), the club's depth on defense is being tested. One could make the argument that since his promotion, Nutivaara has been the club's second best defensemen, trailing only Jones.
As good as Jones and Nutivaara have been, the elephant in the room is how atrocious Johnson and Savard have been playing. It's almost inconceivable that they were so solid just a season ago when watching their play today, but hockey is a fickle game. The Blue Jackets need them to bounce back.
At this point, Johnson-Savard is a liability as the second pairing. Their (lack of) defensive coverage on the game-tying goal in the Penguins game was maddening, and I found myself pondering: Why were those two out there to protect a lead in the closing minutes of the game?
Because they're veterans? Because in 2016-17 they were among the best in the league at stifling oppositions? Because Tortorella didn't trust his makeshift third pairing of Scott Harrington and Gabriel Carlsson, and Jones and Nutivaara can't play the whole third period?
It's likely a combination of all of those, but the simple fact is this: Zach Werenski returning to your lineup doesn't fix that...unless Nutivaara remains in the top four, which Tortorella indicated yesterday (via Aaron Portzline). We're off to a good start here.
The thinking for splitting them is simple: If Werenski and Jones played on separate pairs, it would enable the Blue Jackets the ultimate luxury, keeping one of their two star defensemen on the ice for nearly 50 out of 60 minutes (per NHL.com, Jones is averaging the 19th-most ice time in the league at 24:30, and Werenski the 34th-most at 23:03). This would leave just 12:30 or so in ice time to cover, or as I like to call it, Scott Harrington's average ice time.
I understand the reluctance to make the move. Jones/Werenski is tried and true, with amazing results. Maybe Werenski would pull back the reins in his offensive game when paired with a less gifted player. Maybe Savard and Johnson pick up their games as veterans sometimes do when the hint of playoff games start to become more immediate.
Ultimately, it's on the coaching staff to properly deploy its players, and Jones and Werenski is as dynamic a pairing as there is in today's NHL. But maybe the fact that they're both so talented is the exact reason they should be split up.