There’s good news, there’s bad news and then there’s this news: in the midst of an already injury-riddled season – everyone from top-six scorers to starting goaltenders missing varying amounts of time this season – the Columbus Blue Jackets announced Monday morning that their blueline has taken a massive blow. All-star defenseman and perennial Norris Trophy contender Seth Jones has been placed on injured reserve and will be sidelined indefinitely as the result of an ankle injury suffered Saturday night.
Initially, it appeared that if Jones were going to miss any time, it wouldn’t be significant. In fact, after heading for the dressing room in the first period of Saturday’s game against the Colorado Avalanche, Jones returned in time for the second frame and even landed on the scoresheet with a power play tally, the Blue Jackets’ only goal in a 2-1 loss. It wasn’t as though Jones’ was played sparingly through the remainder of the contest, either. Despite missing the final three minutes of the opening period and the fact he was in clear discomfort at times, Jones skated 23:35 in the outing, the third-highest ice time of any skater on either team.
Those early appearances belied reality, however, and now the Blue Jackets are left without their top defenseman for an indeterminate stretch at what might be the most inopportune time of the season. Columbus is in the thick of the playoff race, one of the biggest surprises of the season, and with the deadline approaching there will be reason for the Blue Jackets to consider their options for patching the now-gargantuan hole on the blueline. That said, though, Columbus may have no real option other than to continue with the next-man-up philosophy that has been a guiding principle throughout this campaign.
In the immediate, that means a blueline shuffle is to be expected, which is going to be taxing on a defense corps already without Ryan Murray and Dean Kukan. Called up has been defenseman Gabriel Carlsson, but he’ll slot into a limited role with most of the major minutes thrust upon Zach Werenski and David Savard. Meanwhile, Vladislav Gavrikov seems certain to see an increase in ice time, as does Markus Nutivaara. But it’s hard to fathom that significant reinforcements beyond what already exists in the system, where the Blue Jackets are thankfully already deep on the blueline, will be on the way.
To be sure, that is in part because there is no possible way Columbus could replace what they’ve lost in Jones at the deadline. Rearguards of his caliber are few and far between as it is, and even if a Jones-esque player were available via trade, the cost of acquisition would almost assuredly be prohibitive for the Blue Jackets. And truth be told, price is the biggest issue for Columbus when it comes to finding a pseudo-replacement for Jones for however long it is that he’ll be sidelined.
After last season’s all-in extravaganza, consider what the Blue Jackets have available in terms of tradable assets as the deadline approaches. Columbus is without second-round picks in each of the next two seasons, without a third-round selection this campaign and as far as pending unrestricted free agents who are clear-cut trade bait, the Blue Jackets have…minor-league winger Markus Hannikainen? That’s about it. Thus, even if Columbus was in the market to upgrade their defense in the wake of the Jones injury, their trade options are limited to second-rate pieces or trading the few premium futures they have remaining and potentially hamstringing any hope of landing valuable young pieces at the draft. Not exactly an appealing option.
But none of this is to say it’s all doom and gloom for the Blue Jackets. Yes, the Jones injury stings, to put it in the mildest of terms. However, Columbus’ wins and losses this season have been predicated far less on one single standout star than it has been the play of the Blue Jackets as a six-man unit. That’s particularly true defensively, where the buy-in coach John Tortorella has gotten from his group has been nothing short of spectacular. Columbus surrenders the fifth-fewest shots against per game, boasts the fourth-lowest expected goal against rate at five-a-side and the only team that better insulates its crease against high-danger attempts is the Minnesota Wild.
Without question, Jones has played a sizeable role in those results. To wit, the Blue Jackets’ 5-on-5 Corsi percentage (2.4 percent), shots percentage (1.5 percent) and goals percentage (3.3 percent) have all been greater with Jones on the ice than when he’s watching from the bench. Conversely, Columbus’ expected goals percentage (1.6), scoring chance percentage (1.6) and high-danger chance percentage (6.6) have all been greater when Jones is off the ice. There are certain factors influencing those positives at both ends of the ice, including the zone starts Jones receives and the caliber of player Jones is regularly tasked with defending, but that there are any positives with him off the ice is worth noting at a time when silver linings are coming at a premium for the Blue Jackets.
What it comes down to now is a matter of who steps up. And Columbus’ hope will have to be that the by-committee approach they’ve taken to just about everything this season from offensive output to goaltending can mask what has been lost with the Blue Jackets’ no-question No. 1 defender on the shelf. And, hey, if nothing else, maybe Elvis Merzlikins can continue his late-season charge into the Calder Trophy conversation and manage to keep Columbus in the post-season picture with the Blue Jackets’ blueline holding the fort until whenever Jones is ready to make his return.
(All advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)
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