Sean Kuraly On Blue Jackets' Need For Defensive Improvement: "It All Starts There"

By Coby Maeir on September 29, 2023 at 10:15 am
Columbus Blue Jackets center Sean Kuraly (7) skates against the Nashville Predators during the second period at Bridgestone Arena.
Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

Sean Kuraly, one of the leaders on this Blue Jackets team, is entering his third season in Columbus after signing a four-year, $2.5M AAV contract in 2021. 

The Blue Jackets allowed the second-most goals in the league last year, and Kuraly said there are tweaks to the defensive system they are working on in training camp.

"[There are] a few tweaks for the center and the reads and the [defenseman] maybe hanging a little closer to the net than getting out," Kuraly said on Saturday. "Without giving all the secrets away."

"I mean, you look around the league and see what works and you kind of go with that," Kuraly continued. "[You] see what's working. We've got mobile [defensemen] and big [defensemen] and long sticks. We think [we have] centers that can play well down low. So it's a few different reads. But we'll have more work to do on that."

It's not rocket science, but if the Blue Jackets significantly improve their defense, they should be a much more competitive team. Kuraly said that's where the improvement must come from.

"It all starts there," Kuraly said. "The improvements have to start. I think we talked today and one of our three keys is going to be defending the slot. [That is] a key indicator of teams that go to the playoffs." 

Kuraly added that new head coach Pascal Vincent has used analytics to give the team three clear statistical objectives that if reached, equate to teams that make the playoffs.

"[Vincent] doesn't tell us how he got the numbers and go through all the graphs and stuff," Kuraly said. "He says these are the numbers and it's a quick little mention. And you get my attention when you say, 'How do you make the playoffs?' So I think it's just a quick mention, we hear that and it sticks with us when you start talking about teams that make it over the hump, this is what they're doing. Perfect. Let's do it."

"It all starts there. The improvements have to start. I think we talked today and one of our three keys is going to be defending the slot. [That is] a key indicator of teams that go to the playoffs."– Sean Kuraly on defensive improvements.

One of the reasons for the Blue Jackets' abysmal defense last season was the play of goaltender Elvis Merzlikins, who posted career lows in save percentage (.876) and goals-against average (4.23). However, Kuraly said that the best goalies have the best team defense, alluding to the idea that the improvement of the Blue Jackets defense will lead to a bounce-back season from Merzlikins.

"We're gonna have to do a way better job for Elvis," Kuraly said. "And he should expect us to be better for him. And we will. We're gonna stick to it. We've got some good direction. We're going to be very clear and black and white [about] what our roles are and what our jobs are. [So] when we watch [the tape] back we're going to know where the deficiencies are coming [from], and it'll be really clear."

Kuraly added that the players love clear objectives. 

"We love a clear message," Kuraly said. "And we want to win games. So when we're watching tape and you can tell me I did this wrong and I [have] to do this differently the next time, and I do it the next time and it works out better for us, we're all happy." 

If you include Mike Babcock, Kuraly will be playing for his fourth head coach in four seasons. Like many of his teammates, he's excited to play for Vincent. 

"I think Pazzy's a really good mix of being demanding and communicating," Kuraly said. "We obviously know how hard he works and we're all going to have to match that. So we're excited. Pazzy brings a lot of stuff to the table. He's seasoned, he's been around for a long time and as a group [we're] really excited and really behind him and he's got the respect of the room. There's no doubt." 

Kuraly said the group of prospects, which has been highly rated across the league, has been impressive, highlighting Adam Fantilli

"I've been in the group with Adam," Kuraly said. "So it's been fun to see him and [he's been] as advertised. And he really seems like a really good teammate. And he's got some special attributes as a player which are fun to see. And he's going to help us big time up the middle. We're excited. He's a little feisty, and he's got a little jam to him, he's competitive as hell and we love that. We love to see that. So we're excited for that."

Entering the 2023-24 season in the gauntlet that is the Eastern Conference, the Blue Jackets will need those tweaks on defense to pay dividends in a big way if they are going to be a competitor.