After missing 11 games with an upper-body injury, the Blue Jackets have Markus Nutivaara back in the mix.
Funny how quickly things change, no? Just a month ago, Ryan Murray was on the shelf, Jack Johnson's name was swirling in trade rumors, and Ian Cole was still a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Seth Jones and Zach Werenski have been dominant at both ends of the ice, and while Murray and Johnson haven't been perfect, they haven't been a liability, either. David Savard and the newly-acquired Cole have been something of a revelation, and John Tortorella echoed that by saying Cole has "rejuvenated" Savard's game.
That puts Nutivaara in a tough spot. Tortorella already said that there are no plans to change the top-six defensemen for tonight's game against the Montreal Canadiens.
But even that allows room for flexibility; does Tortorella plan to bring along a seventh defenseman? It seems unlikely, given how his four lines have been rolling offensively and coupled with the fact that the club's offense is rolling (weird to type that), and relatively healthy.
— Steve Gorten (@sgorten) March 11, 2018
Further complicating matters is the status of Dean Kukan. Once seen as an overthought (he's played just 10 games for the Blue Jackets this season), Kukan's limited sample size has brought fruitful results. He leads all Blue Jackets defenders in CF% and SCF% (scoring chances), though he's been sheltered with his zone starts.
There is no one perfect metric for measuring the play of defensemen, but the past seven games (since the arrival of Cole) have clearly shown the separation in pairs. I prefer to use the simple Corsi For %, which helps paint of picture of how the ice is tilted based on all shot attempts at 5-on-5.
All six defensemen have played between 104 and 117 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey. Savard and Cole have led the way with a 59.42% and 57.22% CF%, with Jones and Werenski also showing well with 56.54% and 55.79%. Bringing up the rear have been Johnson at 48.73% and Murray at 42.86%. To be fair, Johnson and Murray lead the group in defensive zone starts, putting them at an inherent disadvantage.
Among the six Blue Jackets defensemen with 500+ minutes of 5-on-5 hockey this season, Nutivaara ranks third behind Jones and Werenski in CF%, with a 53.60% clip. Simply put, Nutivaara is almost certainly one of the Blue Jackets' six most effective defensemen. But apparently that doesn't mean he'll be gifted a spot in the lineup.
Nutivaara brought his game to a new level in the postseason a year ago, though it was short lived.
Tortorella jokingly said that he'd have difficult roster decisions to make with "900 defensemen." Now that all defensemen are readily available to play, those decisions will become more scrutinized.
The surplus of players will mean someone(s) will be the odd-man out. The competition should be a welcome sight for a team playing desperate hockey down the stretch run. With just 13 games to play, the time is now for the Jackets' defenders to ensure their spot in the lineup.