When it was announced that star defenseman Seth Jones would miss 4-to-6 weeks with a knee injury, there was some concern regarding who – and how – those minutes would be replaced.
Compounded with the free agent losses of Ian Cole and Jack Johnson, the Blue Jackets depth on defense (a strength of their team mere months ago) would be tested before the season even began. It's early, no doubt, but the early season play of Markus Nutivaara has been a revelation.
Even simpler: he's been awesome.
Before the season began, the question was who would slot in with David Savard on the second pair, as Zach Werenski and Jones would start as the club's top unit. But due to the Jones injury, Savard bumped up to the No. 1 pair, leaving two spots open.
Ironically, the two defenseman competing for the honor of playing alongside Savard – Nutivaara and Ryan Murray – formed their own pair. They've been terrific together.
Nutivaara has stepped into a top-four role and given John Tortorella plenty of reason to feed him more responsibility; he's played 20:06, 18:33 and 19:32 in the Blue Jackets' first three games and, at 5-on-5, has a Corsi just under 58 percent.
Nutivaara was especially impressive in the Blue Jackets' 5-2 win over the Colorado Avalanche, logging minutes in key situations against top players, but also created more shots than any other player in the game.
Just a monster night for Markus Nutivaara. One assist, eight shots, seven on target. Second in 5v5 TOI (17:31); and 63.33% of all shots went the #CBJs way with him on the ice.— Alison (@AlisonL) October 10, 2018
Heres what his night looked like individually, and for the team with him on the ice. pic.twitter.com/0MK6K62m05
Nutivaara had several golden chances and set up the eventual game-winning goal by Artemi Panarin, a beautiful play that should not go unnoticed:
Ryan Murray's pass over to Markus Nutivaara, which opened the lane for Panarin....— Rob Mixer (@RobMixer) October 10, 2018
Murray skates the puck over the blue line for a controlled zone entry. At the :03 mark, the Avalanche have three players back in defensive posture and a fourth (Matt Calvert) reaching but not in optimum position. Murray spots the 4v3 advantage and hits Nutivaara cross ice. At the :05 mark, Calvert has slid his way into the corner, Alexander Wennberg has occupied two Avalanche defenders by driving to the net, and Panarin is standing wide open in the most dangerous spot on the ice.
Instead of firing the puck right away, Nutivaara picked his head up and waited for Calvert to clear his passing lane. Then came the easy part: a simple, cross-ice pass that found Panarin with nothing but time and space.
The replay shows how well Nutivaara is adapting to the NHL game. At the :27 mark, he breaks up Nathan MacKinnon's entry to switch possession to the Blue Jackets. Then he joins the play. The result is the game-winning goal.
It's a small sample, of course, but the early returns are encouraging for the Blue Jackets, who look to have a skilled and dynamic defense beyond Jones and Werenski.