The Columbus Blue Jackets have one of the deeper defensive units in the NHL. Unfortunately for them, the Tampa Bay Lightning have an even deeper group.
By now, you've probably heard a lot about how the Lightning are the deepest, most talented roster in the NHL. But among the club's forwards, goalies, and defensemen, it's possible that the closest matchup is on the back end, where both teams rely heavily on a Norris-caliber defenseman, a shut-down pairing, and a wild-card of a third pair.
In the final segment of our series breakdown, we'll dissect the defense groups that each team will count on in round one of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Coming into the season, expectations were high for the top pairing of Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, two former first-round picks with huge pedigrees. In 2017-18, Jones and Werenski tied for the franchise record with 16 goals apiece. Werenski had offseason surgery after we learned he had been playing almost the entire season, plus playoffs, with a torn labrum. Jones had a breakout season, finishing fourth in the Norris Trophy race for the top defensemen in the NHL.
The two players looked poised to take huge steps this season... but neither took the leap we were expecting. Werenski spent the first half of the year playing almost unsure in his defensive game, which was compounded by his lack of offensive production (for his standards). Jones was good, but never quite reached his fourth-place in the Norris level of play.
The second pairing took a huge hit when Ryan Murray went down with an injury in February. Murray, who was in the midst of his best season, played just 56 games. In his absence, veteran David Savard paired with Markus Nutivaara, who have both had their share of ups and downs this season.
The Blue Jackets sought to fortify their defense corps by adding Adam McQuaid from the New York Rangers at the trade deadline. He's been out due to injury since Mar. 28, and his return isn't imminent.
That's a shame, because the third pair of Dean Kukan and Scott Harrington could use a veteran presence. Kukan, in particular, has shined at times, and has looked much more comfortable this season than any time in his professional career. But the 25-year-old played just 25 games this season, and that's not the type of experience that will give his coach confidence against the juggernaut Lightning. Harrington has been, in a word, average. According to The Athletic's Dom Luszczyszyn's model, Harrington is the only 'replacement level' player on the Blue Jackets defense corps. That's not impressive, considering he's facing, typically, less-imposing matchups on a nightly basis.
The Blue Jackets will likely ride their top two defense pairs to heavy minutes. Jones, in particular, will probably log near 30 minutes in every game. If the Blue Jackets' defensemen find themselves hemmed into their own zone for long stretches, it could be a long – err, short – series for the good guys.
Stop me if you've heard this before: Tampa Bay has high-end skill and plenty of depth up and down their lineup. The same extends to their defense corps.
The same year that Jones finished fourth in Norris voting, Victor Hedman won the prestigious award. He's been fantastic again this year, but the 28-year-old suffered an upper-body injury on Mar. 30 and missed the final four games of the regular season. He hadn't practiced with the team until recently, though he is expected to be in the lineup tonight for Game 1. His partner much of the season is ex-Blue Jackets defensemen Anton Stralman, who is also battling an injury. It's unclear whether he'll play in Game 1 or not, but if he does, the Blue Jackets may have something resembling an advantage against an anything-but-healthy top pairing.
If he doesn't, look for veteran Dan Girardi to pair with Hedman. Both he and Stralman played under John Tortorella in their days with the New York Rangers.
Somehow, that's not the Lightning's preferred 'shutdown' pairing. That title belongs to Ryan McDonagh (who also played under Tortorella) and Erik Cernak, a 6-foot-4 Slovak who has impressed in his rookie year. McDonagh is steady as they come, and slots perfectly on this team as a Robin to Hedman's Batman. Both Cernak and McDonagh play more than 20 minutes per night, and are important cogs in the Lightning's machine.
Mikhail Sergachev, a highly-skilled 20-year-old who was acquired for Jonathan Drouin, represents the future of Tampa Bay's blueline. For now, he's on their bottom pair, but don't let that designation fool you. He's a dangerous player with great offensive instincts and can make opponent's pay in a big way. The Blue Jackets have had a harder time than any other team in containing the 20-year-old: he has 10 points in six games against Columbus, five more points than his next opponent.
TL;DR: Sergachev is licking his chops to be playing Columbus right now.
His defense partner on the bottom pairing is in flux. For most of the season, it was 6-foot-5, 223 lb. veteran Braydon Coburn, he of 132 career playoff games. The 34-year-old has slowed, though, and Jan Rutta has taken his spot, at least, for the moment. Regardless, both are capable players, especially in a limited capacity.
The Blue Jackets' defense will be tasked with doing something that not many teams have had success doing this season: slowing down Tampa's offense. Unfortunately, Columbus once again finds itself with the weaker of the club's respective units, at least on paper. Look for Seth Jones to log huge minutes, as he should easily surpass his 25:49 average, which ranked fourth in the NHL this season. For Tampa, consistency is the recipe; Hedman, Stralman, and McDonagh can all log big minutes, but really didn't need to this season, as Tampa Bay coasted to winning the Presidents' Trophy.
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