Earlier this week, we took a look at how Columbus used their forwards, and the skills that their top forwards have.
Today, we’ll do the same, but focusing on the back end. Lets start from the same spot, and look at all situations TOI.
There are no real surprises here. Seth Jones and Zach Werenski are the clear top pair, David Savard, Vladislav Gavrikov, and Ryan Murray form the tier below, and they have a host of third pairing guys, of which Markus Nutivaara is the most played. The Blue Jackets have played zero games where their top five defensemen were healthy (I’m specifying the top five because it’s clear they’re used and trusted more than the remaining defensemen by Tortorella).
They are healthy now, and as a result, we don’t know how the TOI will shift as a result. From the reports at practice, Savard and Gavrikov are on the second pair, with Murray and Dean Kukan forming the third. Interestingly, it seems that Nutivaara is the odd man out, practicing on a 4th pair with Scott Harrington (whom you may remember from the Phil Kessel trade).
Savard and Gavrikov became a regular pairing only after Murray got hurt, and it seems they’ll stay that way. As you might expect, this is the pairing that Tortorella uses most defensively.
We can see that Savard and Gavrikov are used the most among defensemen in defensively important situations, while Jones and Werenski’s usage skews more offensive. In previous years, Murray took Gavrikov’s spot, so while he’s kind of in the middle of nowhere on this plot this year, he’s had the trust of the coaching staff in the past to be defensively useful. This pattern is also borne out if we look at the zone usage of each of these defensemen.
Gavrikov and Savard stand out for their particularly defensive usage, especially relative to the rest of the Columbus defensemen. In terms of teammates and competition, the top two Columbus pairs look pretty similar.
This tells us that both the Werenski-Jones and Gavrikov-Savard pairings face roughly similar competition, though the former usually gets slightly better forward teammates. Given this, in conjunction with their defensive usage, it’s quite impressive that the latter pairing also gets pretty solid on-ice results
Jones and Werenski are a 50% CF% and 51% xG% pairing, which is solid, but unspectacular. The relatively less heralded Gavrikov and Savard have a lower CF% (48%) but essentially the same xG%, with harsher and more defensively important usage. That’s the pairing I’d expect to see when the chips are down and Columbus needs to defend. For what it’s worth, Gavrikov, Murray, and Savard were the three best performing Columbus defensemen in xG RAPM this year. Murray might be a bit of a forgotten man in this due to his injury, but he’s also a good defensive player, and he’ll elevate that third pairing to the point where I think that Toronto’s depth will be pretty well neutered, especially as Columbus’ depth forwards are all pretty strong defensively too. As a side note, this is where someone like Nick Robertson can be particularly useful, as a player with enough skill to force mistakes out of defencemen, and with a shot good enough to beat goalies from relatively low danger areas of the ice.
Jones and Werenski themselves are interesting. They’re talked about as a legitimate star pairing, and their numbers are .... fine. Good, even. They’re just not spectacular. Werenski had a bit of a shooting heater this year, scoring 20 goals, and in general, he can be pretty shot-happy. However, I’m rather lower on shot-happy defensemen than the general public, in part because I think they might cannibalize more efficient offense from their team’s forwards. In Werenski’s case, that’s less of a concern because the forwards on this team are so mediocre on offense. He’s been an above average shooter throughout his career, especially for a defenseman, but this level of shooting excellence was new to him. I’m skeptical it’ll last, but he definitely could pop up with some important goals in this series, and that could be the difference. This year, Werenski had strong play-driving numbers, as he succeeded with a variety of different defence partners after Jones was hurt.
Jones has the look of a star, but even more so than Werenski, his play driving impact has always been questionable. I honestly don’t know what to make of him. I always think he’s pretty good when I watch him play, but all the fancy isolated impact models seem to rate him as league average and no better.
As Katya has covered elsewhere, neither Jones nor Werenski do a lot of good things on a power play that seems more pre-occupied with passing the puck impotently than trying to score. However, basically all of the Columbus defence contributes effectively to what is an immensely strong penalty kill. If the Leafs power play looks as disjointed as they did against Montreal, they won’t have a ton of success there. On the other hand, the Leafs penalty kill should enjoy their time against the Blue Jackets power play.
All in all, Columbus’ defence is relatively conventional, especially when compared to their weird collection of offensively stunted but defensively masterful forwards. They have an offensive pairing and a defensive one, with a third pairing that more or less picks up the scraps. As mentioned, that third pairing will be bolstered by Murray, and is one of the better third pairs in the playoffs. The offensive pairing is still not all that offensively potent in a macro sense, because it’s Columbus. Depending on how real you view Werenski’s shooting talent to be, it may not be offensively potent at all. However, it’s also not particularly frail defensively, because it’s Columbus.
The defensive pairing is just straight up going to be annoying, and Gavrikov in particular will probably surprise many Leafs fans with his ability. So all that said, the puzzle remains the same for the Leafs. How do you score against a team with great defensive forwards and good defensive defensemen, all of whom play a style designed to frustrate, annoy, and stunt offense.
Well, that’s what we’re paying four guys in particular to do. We’ll see if they can.