An old coach of mine used to say that games were won and lost at the blue lines. I didn't quite understand what he meant at the time, and I certainly didn't buy into it 100%.
Years later, the Columbus Blue Jackets proved his point, as they were brutalized by at their defensive blue line to the tune of a 5-0 loss to the Minnesota Wild. Two turnovers cost the team two goals, and this roster can not afford to spot teams a free goal, much less two.
Today, I'm only going to talk about the defensive blue line. Here's the premise: When the Blue Jackets (or any team) get control of the puck in their defensive zone, at least one but as many as three of the forwards will look to exit the zone, giving them a chance to beat the opposition's forecheck and create offense in transition. John Tortorella famously likes his defensemen to get the puck out of the zone as quickly as possible, as opposed to a traditional D-to-D pass that has dominated defensive hockey systems for decades.
The strengths of this strategy are clear. If you can get out of your zone with the puck, the threat of offense against is null. More so, you can create a speed differential between your forwards and their defensemen in the neutral zone, which could lead to an odd-man rush, but if not, at least you have numbers heading towards their zone.
The weaknesses are that turnovers will prove costly. Tortorella entrusts his defensemen to get the puck out of the zone, because if they don't, at least one (but maybe all three!) of the forwards will be in a compromised position where they can no longer help on defense.
If you think of it on a risk-reward scale, the more forwards you have flying (leaving) the zone, the higher the risk, and the higher the reward (the inverse is also true).
The Athletic's Alison Lukan pulled several quotes from Zach Werenski last night, and he encapsulates what I'm talking about:
“I think obviously when we exit our zone clean it leads to more possession entries in their zone and whatnot. So I think we definitely have to sharpen up on that and take more pride in that. Breakouts, closing guys out one-on-one in the corner, all the little things."
We agree, Zach.
Take a look at these failed zone exits near the Blue Jackets blue line and watch how quickly they turn into goals against:
Werenski starts the play doing exactly what he wants to do: win a loose puck. But then he panics and just pushes the puck up the wall (Werenski mistake #1, though in his defense, his outlet, who should be LW Devin Shore (#74), is not available). No matter. At 0:05-0:06, Werenski has a chance to clear the puck, and all of his teammates think that's what's going to happen. Eric Robinson and Shore have already left the zone, as they're instructed, and Riley Nash is at the same depth level as the puck. But at 0:07, the puck is kept in by Joel Eriksson Ek (Werenski mistake #2). Markus Nutivaara plays the 2-on-1 perfectly, and Nash does his best to get back. But Werenski fails to find Eriksson Ek in the slot (Werenski mistake #3). By that point, Jordan Greenway finds Eriksson Ek, and he beats Joonas Korpisalo to make it 1-0.
The goals that made it 2-0 (nobody covered for Vladislav Gavrikov) and 3-0 (Shore and David Savard got mixed up in net-front coverage) were frustrating for their own reasons, but the goal that made it 4-0 was the first goal with different characters playing the same roles as the goal we've already discussed.
Boone Jenner wins the puck back to Werenski, who rims the puck up the wall to his winger, Stefan Matteau. At 0:11, you'll see the Minnesota defenseman pinch hard on Matteau, forcing the play in the zone. But being down 3-0, the Blue Jackets were cheating for offense. The center, Jenner, like Nash on the 1-0 goal, felt confident that his winger would get the puck out of the zone and allow him to gather the puck in the neutral zone with speed. But the puck didn't leave the zone.
If you freeze the play at 0:13, you'll note that all five Blue Jackets players are high in the zone, with Jenner being the highest (that's a no-no for centers who are an extension of the defense in the defensive zone, and I'm sure the coaching staff will address this with Jenner). The problem, aside from Matteau/Jenner failed breakout, is that Werenski and Nutivaara are both unaware of Zach Parise, who guessed correctly that the home team may again struggle to clear the puck. Greenway finds Parise behind the defense, and Parise makes the Blue Jackets pay.
Both plays are eerily similar. In each instance, the Wild players clogged the wall and pinched down to prevent the Blue Jackets from chipping the puck into the neutral zone and creating a race. In both instances, Werenski failed to find his place in coverage after the turnover. And in both instances, the Wild (Greenway) found the wide-open player for a Minnesota goal.
The elephant in the room in all of this is the absence of Seth Jones. Jones is so adept at cleaning up others (in this case, Werenski's) mistakes. Without him in the lineup, the margin for error has fallen, and the club is 1-4-5 in the games since his injury.
I certainly understand the argument for leaving the zone early. This club is starved for goals, and getting a head start on the attacking blue line is a way to cheat for offense. But it's also giving the opposition brilliant chances, as turnovers at the blue line are equally detrimental for the defensive team as they are glorious for the team that creates the turnover.
For the Blue Jackets to stay in the playoff race, they'll need to be better in their transition game, as it impacts both sides of the puck.
Just take it from Werenski: "I think it’s kind of funny when we’re very sharp in our D zone it’s crazy the offense we create off that. If we can clean up our D zone, clean up our exits, we’re going to start scoring some more goals cause it’s definitely obvious when you do have a clean exit, what comes of it. We get usually a pretty good scoring chance.”