Defense And Goaltending Have Given Blue Jackets A Chance While The Offense Needs To Pick It Up

By Will Chase on November 8, 2023 at 10:15 am
Columbus Blue Jackets' David Jiricek in action during the game between the Dallas Stars and the Columbus Blue Jackets at American Airlines Center.
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Columbus Blue Jackets are 4-5-3 and are being carried by defense and goaltending.

At least, that was the prevailing thought before the Florida Panthers game on Monday night. Then the Panthers put three goals past Merzlikins in 6:09 and held a 22-1 shots advantage in the first period.

Columbus was able to find their game and contain the Panthers through much of the remaining 40-plus minutes and was 56.4 seconds away from victory.

That game is a microcosm for the season to this point. Imperfect, sometimes ugly, mixed with really good tendencies, a belief and ability to come back, and a stretch of solid goaltending in which Spencer Martin came in cold off the bench and stopped 34 of 36 shots. 

Defense and goaltending, arguably the two biggest question marks and perceived weaknesses for the team, have been the reasons behind the team's limited success so far for the 2023-24 club.

It's what's giving the team a chance.

Meanwhile, the offense, led by defenseman Ivan Provorov, leads the club with nine points (nine assists).

It's good for Provorov, but not the start you expect from a team that has superstar Johnny Gaudreau (one goal, four assists), young skillful players like Kirill Marchenko (two goals, four assists), and a player in Kent Johnson (one goal, two assists) who is in Cleveland.

Boone Jenner is second on the team with eight points (six goals, two assists). He had three of those goals in a hat trick win against the New York Rangers on Oct. 14 and leads the club with 45 shots. Gaudreau is second with 36 shots.

So far, the offense has generated chances without being able to consistently put the puck in the net or finish off games. Columbus is 17th in the league in expected goals for per 60 (2.71) according to Natural Stat Trick. They're 19th in GF/60 (2.31).

The offense didn't score at the clip that was expected last season but there is so much talent, it feels like a matter of time before that potential is realized.

It's not time to worry, yet.

It might be too early to say the defense and goaltending are back but there is enough of a sample size to see growth.

Head coach Pascal Vincent might be Torts 2.0 with a different temperament from John Tortorella as the former preaches a lot of what the latter preached in his Blue Jackets coaching days: Changing the culture and belief.

Adam Boqvist has played two games this season and not since Oct. 16 against the Detroit Red Wings as he's been a healthy scratch for the last nine games. Andrew Peeke missed 10 games before re-entering the lineup on Monday, taking the place of David Jiricek.

Jiricek was recalled following the opening night loss to the Flyers when Zach Werenski left after a knee-on-knee collision and has become a blue-line mainstay.

Vincent has essentially used the same defensive pairs ever since Werenski returned to action after missing only two games and the results have allowed Vincent not to stray from what's working.

Coby Maeir talked about Erik Gudbranson's improved play and Jenner backed that up.

"He does so much for us on the back end," Jenner said after the 4-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Nov. 2. "The dirty work, blocking shots, he was doing it again tonight. And it was a heavy shot so (it was) great to see him get that one. He's been playing great for us. It's a big goal at a big time and we're pumped for him."

Here are the pairings we've seen predominantly this season.

Werenski-Severson at 5v5 (per
Time On Ice Per Game  Corsi For Per 60 Corsi Against Per 60 High Danger Goals For Per 60 High Danger Goals Against Per 60
13:33 74.83 64.21 1.77 1.33
Provorov-Jiricek at 5v5 (per
Time On Ice Per Game  Corsi For Per 60 Corsi Against Per 60 High Danger Goals For Per 60 High Danger Goals Against Per 60
10:50 59.19 64.72 1.66 1.11
Bean-Gudbranson at 5v5 (per
Time On Ice Per Game  Corsi For Per 60 Corsi Against Per 60 High Danger Goals For Per 60 High Danger Goals Against Per 60
11:44 69.84 72.39 0.43 1.28

The Blue Jackets have had a problem each of the last few seasons in goals allowed per game and shots allowed per game. So far this season, they're 19th in GA/GP (3.25) and 25th in SA/GP (33.1).

Before Monday's game, the other part of the equation that's been better for the Blue Jackets is their netminding production. Elvis Merzlikins' goals saved above expected is -0.8 after a three-goal first-period clunker. However, heading into that game, he was beginning to resemble the goaltender we saw a few years ago.

Beginning. We'll see.

Leading into the Florida game, he had allowed two goals each against the Washington Capitals and Lightning. He has a 3-3-2 mark with a 3.20 goals against average and a .897 save percentage. Martin has been a good pickup so far, going 1-2-1 with a 2.62 GAA and .928 SV%.

The Blue Jackets are back at it on Thursday against the Dallas Stars at 7:30 p.m. ET from Nationwide Arena.