Film Session: Blue Jackets Defensemen Are Finding Success Activating In Offensive Zone

By Dan Dukart on October 14, 2019 at 11:49 am
Markus Nutivaara and Ryan Murray celebrate a goal
James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into the season, it wasn't exactly breaking news that the Blue Jackets' most skilled and deep position would be their defense corps. 

In the modern NHL, a team's defense is tasked with more than simply defending. Being able to contribute in the offensive zone has gone from an added bonus to a prerequisite. Team concepts have evolved over time, too. The best defense is a good offense is not a punch line, it's a legitimate philosophy.

Simply put: having the puck > not having the puck.

Many teams have unsuccessfully chosen to protect a lead by falling into a 'prevent defense' type shell, only to be, well, shelled. From transporting the puck quickly and efficiently out of the defensive zone to its forwards to becoming active participants - not statues - in the offensive zone, the Blue Jackets are well equipped with a solid defense unit.

You'll have a hard time finding a hockey coach that says they want their defense to be inactive in the offensive zone, but actually having a defense that is active in the offensive zone is easier said than done. 

Before I show how this applies to the Blue Jackets, a brief history lesson, if I may.

In the mid-1990s, Detroit Red Wings legendary head coach Scotty Bowman had a hunch to play his five Russian players together as one unit. Their play was, stylistically speaking, unique, as they eschewed the dump-and-chase, grinding type of play that dominated this era in favor of a puck-possession, free-flowing attack. It may not sound revolutionary today, but it took the NHL by storm and completely confused and humiliated opponents en route to the Red Wings' first Stanley Cup in 40+ years. The five players, Sergei Fedorov, Slava Fetisov, Slava Kozlov, Igor Larionov, and Vladimir Konstantinov became known as "The Russian Five." (If you have a chance, I would highly recommend watching The Russian Five documentary.)

Their legacy is that defensemen now 'activate' (read: become active) instead of standing like pylons at the blue line. John Tortorella has given his defense a long leash, allowing and encouraging his defensemen to become part of the attack. Knowing that his team will need to replace goals this season, the club's defense corps has been as active as ever in the offense, and finally were rewarded with a big goal in Saturday night's 3-2 win over the Carolina Hurricanes

In fact, that may be understating it. On the first goal of the game, the battery that was responsible for a back-door tap in goal were both defensemen, as Ryan Murray fed Markus Nutivaara with a sensational pass that Nutivaara simply had to tap into an empty cage for a 1-0 lead.

First, credit to Alexander Wennberg for winning a puck battle. Once he does that, he and Ryan Murray complete a nice scissor passing play, which gives Murray plenty of time and space (0:05-0:07 is a great look at that). At 0:07, Murray clearly sells "shot", and freezes both Hurricanes' defenders, as well as goaltender James Reimer. At 0:08, Nutivaara has an empty net to shoot at. But if you rewind it back to 0:05, you'll notice that Nutivaara has already begun his route to the goal, and we know that Murray is coming downhill, too.

It's worth mentioning that with Wennberg making the pass and Nick Foligno at the net-front, we can't even see the fifth Blue Jackets player in this frame, as Oliver Bjorkstrand was replacing Cam Atkinson on a line change. Because the Blue Jackets know they have "help" higher in the play, they can afford to send a defenseman - or in this case, two - low into the offense. The Hurricanes fail to account for this confusion, and the puck ends in the back of their net.

The Blue Jackets had another goal earlier this season where a defenseman activates, when Zach Werenski scored to make it 2-1 before the Pittsburgh Penguins blew the doors off Elvis Merzlikins and co. 

Werenski doesn't even appear in the video until the 0:15 mark when he pinches low to keep the puck alive in the attacking zone. At 0:20, you'll note that the Blue Jackets have four players at or below the faceoff dot, which is a risky structure, particularly against a team like the Penguins, who can make any team pay with odd-man rushes. 

Luckily for Columbus, the Penguins were never able to gain advantage of the puck, most likely due to the pressure applied by the Blue Jackets. At 0:23, the puck finds Werenski, who makes no mistake. If he isn't activating in the offensive zone, that puck squirts into the corner, where the Penguins defensemen will easily win the race and the bad guys will be able to exit their zone with minimal pressure.

On the below video, Seth Jones activates and nearly scores his first goal of the year, but is robbed by Ryan Miller. 

The Blue Jackets will continue to encourage their mobile defensemen play this style, and it should pay dividends. The biggest risk, of course, is having too many players in an offensive posture when the puck goes the other way. John Tortorella has said that Safe Is Death is no more, but he and his staff still think (correctly, I'd add) that allowing some of his most talented players to play in offensive spots is a net-win for the club, even with the inherent risk.