If the Columbus Blue Jackets came into the season feeling confident about one aspect of the team, it was their defense.
Through 37 games, management and the coaching staff surely feel vindicated. Their defense has given up the third-fewest expected goals against/60 (1.95), the seventh-fewest scoring chances against/60 (24.32), and the second-fewest high-danger chances against/60 in the NHL, according to NaturalStatTrick. That's exceptional no matter the situation, but it's even crazier when considering that the team has already played 10 different defensemen in games this year.
Seth Jones has been advertised, to the surprise of nobody. His average TOI of 25:19 is fifth-most in the NHL, and his 18 assists lead all Blue Jackets. Then there's this: he's the only defenseman on the club to have played in all 37 games. Since returning early from a shoulder injury, Zach Werenski has been on a tear. His eight goals lead all Blue Jackets defenseman. He's been an offensive force and gives the club a dimension they simply lack with him out of the lineup, and his four points in the last three games support that.
David Savard has played in all but two games and has been steady all year long. He's a fixture on the penalty kill and consistently gives the club 20 hard minutes each night.
Vladislav Gavrikov has been a genuine revelation. After being promised by management that he was NHL-ready, he delivered and looks every bit the part of an NHL defenseman. While many of us were expecting a shut-down defenseman with no offensive upside, Gavrikov has quietly scored four goals this year, including one in each of the past two games. Alongside Savard, they've formed a legitimate shut-down pairing that is difficult to play against and eats minutes.
I know the limitations of plus/minus. I do. I really do. But I think it's worth pointing out Vladislav Gavrikov is plus-10 in the last 10 games.— Jeff Svoboda (@JacketsInsider) December 27, 2019
He was also plus-48 in 60 games last year in the KHL. This might not be a coincidence. #CBJ
Ryan Murray and Markus Nutivaara remain out with injuries, but when they return, the Blue Jackets will have a hard time determining which pair – these two, or the Savard/Gavrikov pair – is their "second" pair. Consider them trade candidates when they're able to return to the lineup.
We saw a good glimpse of Dean Kukan in the playoffs last year, and a more exaggerated look earlier this month when he played alongside Jones in Werenski's absence. It's not a perfect comparison by any means, but Kukan profiles similar to Werenski: a smooth-skating left-shot defenseman with offensive upside. He's proven himself well in 29 games this season. He's due for some puck luck on both sides of the puck, too; defensively, he's last among the club's 10 defensemen with an on-ice save percentage of 90.10% (5v5) while he's on the ice. And his on-ice shooting percentage of 5.94% ranks last among the club's defensemen (minimum 10 games played).
Scott Harrington seems to be a forever bridesmaid. He's consistently the club's No. 7 defenseman and has been passed up several times this year by Andrew Peeke and Gabriel Carlsson. His game is well-known at this point, and it appears that management and the coaching staff agree that it makes more sense to let a kid develop than to give him games. Even with all of the injuries surrounding this defense corps, he's played just 12 games, while Peeke has played seven and Carlsson two. Peeke, particularly, has developed faster than anticipated and doesn't look out of place in the NHL (small sample size alert), though he's out for at least the next month with a broken finger.
Adam Clendening was called up from Cleveland on an emergency recall, and if he plays Friday night against Washington, he'll become the 11th defensemen in the organization to play a game with the Blue Jackets – before the halfway mark of the season.
Heading into the season, the team knew it could trade from its one position of strength, the defense. With the number of injuries they've had, management should feel vindicated in not moving any of those pieces, as their organizational depth has passed its test with flying colors.