David Savard and Vladislav Gavrikov are the quintessential defense pairing that was all the rage yester-year.
As the game has evolved, so too have defensemen. Teams today covet the puck-moving, smooth-skating, offensive-minded defenseman. But every year in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, teams are reminded that having a bit of sandpaper in the lineup is far from a bad thing.
Seth Jones and Zach Werenski are microcosms for the modern defense pairing. Both are elite skaters, power-play quarterbacks, always looking to join the rush or contribute offensively. As it stands today, Werenski leads all NHL blueliners in goals (20). Jones has a 57-point season in his pocket. Most NHL teams would swap first pairs with the Blue Jackets in a heartbeat.
But that doesn't mean that players like Gavrikov and Savard aren't appreciated. As the checking gets tighter as the Stanley Cup looms closer, players who are asked to fulfill shutdown roles take on greater importance.
For as great as Werenski and Jones are, their defensive games are sometimes questioned by the scouting and analytics community. Jones struggles to attach to and stay on his check, particularly in transition. He tries to make up for his large gap with his reach, but it's far from textbook. It's led some to wonder if he's actually an elite player or if he just plays elite minutes. Werenski's in-zone play has improved dramatically over the years, finally convincing the coaching staff to give him a role on the penalty kill. But he's probably never going to be confused with the league's premier shut-down defensemen.
The Blue Jackets have been reluctant to split up the Jones-Werenski pairing. They started the season (coincidentally against the Maple Leafs) with Jones playing with Ryan Murray and Werenski playing with Savard. By the time they played again just days later, the pairs had been set. The club learned by then that Gavrikov, who was scratched for the season-opener, should be in the lineup. They settled on a top-four of Werenski-Jones and Gavrikov-Savard. Not much has changed since.
The pairing has a no-frills feel to it. No nonsense. John Tortorella called Gavrkiov's game "ugly as sin" before complimenting him. Savard, who was a prolific scorer in his QMJHL past, now more resembles a soccer goalkeeper than an offensive defenseman, flailing around on his stomach and jousting his stick like a fencer to break up passes.
But it's hard to argue with the data. Per MoneyPuck, the Savard/Gavrikov pairing has the 11th best expected-goals for percentage in the NHL (among pairings with 700+ minutes), at 51.8%. That's one spot ahead of the Zdeno Chara/Torey Krug pairing in Boston. For reference, Jones/Werenski ranks 19th at 49.2%.
It will be interesting to see how John Tortorella and Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe choose to match lines and deploy players. Keefe has shown more of a propensity for playing his top-line players than Mike Babcock did, and one could argue it was part of the latter's eventual demise. Giving players like Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, John Tavares, etc. more ice could prompt Tortorella to re-think his deployment strategy.
Enter Savard and Gavrikov. While they won't grab the headlines like Jones and Werenski, they may be the wildcards in a series where suppressing the Maple Leafs' attack is of utmost importance.