Saturday, February 4, 2017

Running With the Big Dogs

Seth Jones
I was all over the place last night thinking how this blog post should go.  Towards the end of the first period I had "A Tale of Two Defenses" picked out as my title to describe why the Penguins pulled away after scoring 2 goals in the first period.  They finally have their top 6 D-men healthy.  Letang went down right before we played them the first time and Dumoulin suffered a broken jaw; a couple of hits to their top 6 D.  And, of course, now we have injuries to our D corps, and our top 6 are depleted.  I was thinking those injuries would limit our ability to really compete with the elite teams, such as the Penguins.

But a funny thing happened in the second period.  Dubinsky scored a greasy goal to put the Jackets back in the game.  Sure they promptly coughed up another goal, but the CBJ kept at it, tilted the ice, and came up with the third period goals necessary to forge a tie and garner a point.  A tough bounce in overtime and the Jackets lost to the Penguins 4-3.

As I mentioned before, poor Prout has a hard time keeping up when we are playing the elite teams.  I will be interested to see if the same thing is the case with the New Jersey Devils tomorrow night.  We have not played them yet, so I really don't have a good feel for them as a team.  But I get the sense that New Jersey isn't going to try to kill you with speed, and Prouter may feel more comfortable in one of those games.  Plus we are at home, and the CBJ have more control on the match-ups.  But in the Penguins game, the coaches were forced to staple him to the bench, and played with 5 defensemen in the later parts of the game.  At this point the team really seemed to get going.

Pleasingly, Scott Harrington seemed up to the pace last night once he started getting paired with Seth Jones.  Harrington has only played in 10 games this year, and only 35 NHL games overall, but he looks like he is a real NHL defenseman.  No wonder Jarmo wouldn't risk sending him to the AHL, even though we would have been compensated with a 5th round pick.

So what we have learned in these last two road games against the elite of the Metropolitan Division is that if you are crazy enough to roll out a Prout-Harrington pairing, the opposition will load up a line to pin you deep and squeeze a goal out of you because your forwards will be forced to come back in the help defend the goal.  I'm happy to give Prout an A for effort, but like every human he has his limitations.  He attempted to stretch those last night by carrying the puck, but the results weren't good.  It's just a statement of how quickly the league has changed to a bunch of speed demons, especially for defensemen, and Prout is a physical, stay at home defenseman.  The team ended up being better off playing with 5 fast defenseman, a la Joel Quenneville and the Blackhawks.  Quenneville won a Cup by ignoring his bottom pairing defensemen.

So if you are reading this, and you listened to the DKM Hockey podcast (see right column or, you are probably the hockey guy/gal in your office/class, and you are going to be asked the question, "Do the Blue Jackets have what it takes to really compete with the leagues elite?"  And you are going to get those questions with increasing frequency over the upcoming months.  In my opinion, the answer is yes, and I'll tell you why.

First and foremost is the defense.  Well, okay first and foremost is Bob.  But he doesn't score any goals, and you need those to win hockey games.  So back to the defense.  In the space of a little over a year and a half the NHL has become a haven of speed merchants.  Your defense has to able to really skate.  And give Jarmo credit.  When you compare the defense that began 2015-16 to the one that began 2016-17 it has been completely transformed into the prototypical modern NHL defense. Jarmo is aided in this task by having two rookies, Zach Werenski (wow!) and Markus Nutivaara perform at extremely high levels.  Our top 6 D, when healthy, move the puck, transition the puck and more importantly spring the forwards from collapsing defensively so that they can get in on the forecheck.

This was abundantly illustrated last night, as in the first period the forwards were remaining high in the offensive zone launching shots from a distance, because in the face of transition from the Penguins, the third D pair was giving ground, so the forwards had to collapse with them, abandoning the offensive zone.  This results in a lot of 'one and done' shots.  When the coaches started to only put the more mobile defensemen on the ice, they were able to support the forwards in the offensive zone, confident that they could get back in the face of a transition.  Dubinsky's goal was about the third shot the put on Murray, rapid fire from point blank range, the antithesis of one and done.  In spite of giving up another goal, the Jackets game was functioning the way it is supposed to function, and the end result was they were able to tie it up, and put real pressure towards winning it in regulation.  That's how the mobility of the 2016-17 defense makes things work.

One of the other main reasons that I think the team has the wherewithal to 'Run with the Big Dogs' is Alexander Wennberg.  He is quietly transitioning into an elite center in this league.  And though I agree with the DKM boys that picked Bobrovsky as the MVP, my pick is Wennberg.  When you think at this point he has replaced the production of Ryan Johansen, a really good player, it means that functionally the organization got All-Star Seth Jones (what a player!) for free.  Wennberg did not look at all out of place, on the road, in the barn of the Stanley Cup Champions.  And, I think he will continue to improve as the year goes on.

The forward corps is deep, and while it lacks glittering stars, the drop off between the top and the bottom is not really great.  With the fast, mobile defensive corps launching them at the opposition, they are in a position to maximize their abilities, and come at people in waves.  That is what we saw during The Streak.  Since they are not dependent on one or two people for production, you tend to see it out of the line that has the favorable match-ups.

In summary, if you are asked, the Columbus Blue Jackets have what it takes to run with the big dogs.  Lots of hockey yet to play in the regular season.  Tonight's game against the Devils, the first of the year against this team will be interesting.   Part of running with the big dogs is that you get everyone's best shot.  And you need to take that, and handle it.  While the Devils aren't real high in the standings now, they have what it takes to beat you if they are playing their best game.  So after an emotional game last night, how will the Jackets respond to a lesser opponent, albeit on home ice?  (Hint: the fans can help here).  Because we WILL get the Devils best shot.

Two road games against elite teams in the Metropolitan Division, 3 of a possible 4 points.  That kind of performance will take you far.  Should be a great time at Nationwide tonight!  Hope to see you there.


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