Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Confronting Speed at the Blue Line

Markus Nutivaara
For many Blue Jackets fans this last few games since the streak has been hard, as the team is not playing particularly well.  Personally I think this kind of thing is normal after a streak of that magnitude, but there are some underlying issues that erode the teams ability to play the smothering style of defense that they played during the streak.  It is related to the injuries in the defensive corps, and it was illustrated last night very clearly (i.e. even I saw it).

Dalton Prout is a sturdy, defensive defenseman, and I will always love him for that one-punch knock down of Milan Lucic, which settled his hash with the Blue Jackets.  However, even his mother wouldn't call him fast (by NHL standards).  So a good solid depth defenseman.  And in this particular instance it illustrates what the Islanders did to the Blue Jackets last night.

The Islanders scored a couple of goals late in the game by attacking through the neutral zone with speed.  Prout has two options.  First he could confront the speed at the blue line.  If he wins that confrontation, its all good.  However, if he gets beat, the opposing forward is going to make him look like a pylon as he goes flying around him wide.  So Prout exercises his second option.  He gives ground (ice) back into the defensive zone.  The Islanders were coming through the neutral zone so fast that he was giving up a lot of ice so they wouldn't beat him.  This gives the shooter time and space, and the Islanders were using the Jackets defensemen as screens to confuse Bob as they launched their shots.  And NHL shooters with time and space make goalies look bad.

How does this happen?  During the streak, it was near impossible for the opposition to get through the neutral zone.  To illustrate the recent differences, I am going to talk about Markus Nutivaara.  He was a revelation in training camp, jumping over several people on the depth chart, and has had an outstanding rookie season so far.  His primary asset is his speed, and he can flat out fly for a defenseman.  When he confronts someone with speed at the blue line, he has the speed to recover from losing that confrontation.  Prout simply doesn't have that option.

But wait, our offense has dried up too!  Well, what Nutivaara and Jones, and Zach, and Murray are doing is confronting the opponents speed at the offensive blue line, not the defensive blue line.  If Nutivarra gets beat by a play at the offensive blue line, which causes a break away, he has the speed to chase the play down and interfere with the shooter so they don't have a clean shot at Bob.  So on a 50-50 play, Nutivarra can afford to hold the fort at the blue line.  Prout, on the other hand, has to give up the offensive blue line on that 50-50 play, and starts giving ice before the play has exited the offensive zone in order to make sure he at least gets into a defensive position.  This allows for cleaner exits by the opposing team, and all of a sudden the CBJ forwards are trapped deep on the forecheck because we can't hold the offensive blue line with confidence.  With cleaner exits, the opposing team generates more speed, Prout gives more ground, and you get a result like last night.

With our defense healthy, and Nutivarra and Murray playing that third pairing, we have as good a third pair as anyone in the league.  When the other team was trying to make a breakout, they would confront the puck at the offensive blue line (as would Jones and Werenski as well as Johnson and Savard), and those 50-50 plays they won would contribute to increased offensive pressure.  With Prout conceding the 50-50 play up front, the offensive pressure breaks down, and bad things happen.

Prout has played what, four games this year?  He will get better at some of these things, and find ways to do better.  He's a solid NHL defenseman.  But his strength is physicality, and the league is getting faster.  When Nutivarra gets healthy, it will help solidify some of the systems that are breaking down now.

But injuries are part of the gig in the NHL.  That's when your depth is tested.  So we have sagged to a .500 team.  I gotta be true to you folks, that's all I was hoping for at this point in the season before the season started.  I'd be looking for a late playoff run based on my preseason expectations as well, not figuring they would do that in December!  Woot!  16-0 baby!  Ahem.  Sorry.

So the speed of the game is bothering part of our defensive corps right now, but not every team has enough speed to cause that kind of problem.  That will change when defenseman heal.  We were going to lose some games anyway, because this certainly isn't a 136 point team, yet.  So this is a natural process in a long season, tough as it may be to stomach.  Get well fast Markus!!

P.S.  Will everyone please lay off Ryan Murray!  He is a left shot playing the right side for the first time in his career in the toughest league on the planet.  There will be warts!  He is playing on his backhand.  If you feel you need to criticize, okay, but spend a day doing everything with your off hand.  You likely will find it awkward.  Do if for a year, no problem, you get used to it.  He is somewhere in between right now.

These guys have earned a break.  Sneak out of Nashville with a win, and you went .500 after the streak, and you deserve a vacation.


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