Heading into the Columbus Blue Jackets’ play-in series against the Toronto Maple Leafs, it’s clear their one decisive advantage is their elite blue line group. Headlined by the dynamic offensive top pair of Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, which our Kristyn Repke detailed, and a rugged shutdown pair behind them comprised of David Savard and Vladislav Gavrikov. But the third pair is still up in the air. According to head coach John Tortorella, it will be either Markus Nutivaara or Dean Kukan who gets the start alongside Ryan Murray.
The Blue Jackets need a few key players to step up, but it’s clear their defensive engine will be the key to their success this series against a loaded Toronto offense. As The Hockey Writers‘ Mark Scheig detailed, Tortorella’s detailed mentality will also play a major role if they hope to win. But they have to make the right pick for their sixth defenseman to pair with Murray.
Murray is a rock-solid defensive defenseman who owns an elite first pass out of the zone to start the transition up ice. Kukan and Nutivaara are somewhat similar players, but both have a few areas notably better than the other. Which one would be best fit as his partner against a high-powered Toronto team? Let’s break it down.
What to Make of Ryan Murray
In order to know who fits best alongside Murray, we first need to dissect where his strengths and weaknesses are individually. He is not a very good shot or goal-producing defenseman, as his shots on goal per 60 minutes (SF/60) ranks dead last among Columbus defensemen at 28.17 and his expected goals for per 60 (xGF/60) and actual goals for percentage (GF%) are both seventh at 2.16 and 45.13% respectively.
However, he is excellent at limiting opposition chances, particularly high-danger opportunities from in close to the net in the home plate area. His shots against per 60 (SA/60) numbers are third-best among the 10 Blue Jackets defensemen who have suited up this year, and his 1.91 expected goals against per 60 (xGA/60) ranks second.
He’s also probably the best Blue Jackets defenseman at having his head up and making the right read for a first pass out of the zone, allowing the team to transition quickly – those “North-South” plays that Tortorella always talks about. The quality of his passes are exceptional and he rarely makes the wrong read or creates a turnover. He doesn’t just throw the puck off the glass and out of the zone, allowing the opposition to reload and come right back in again (cough, cough… Scott Harrington).
Nutivaara vs. Kukan
So, who would be the best option to partner with him on the third pair, Kukan or Nutivaara? Both are better puck-carrying defensemen in transition, something Murray is rarely responsible for, so either would benefit him there. But each have their strengths and weaknesses as well.
Nutivaara is a really good puck handler who, at first glance analytically, seems like the obvious choice. His 52.71 GF% ranks fourth among Columbus defensemen, his 1.64 goals against per 60 (GA/60) ranks first and his 31.81 SF/60 comes in third. This, at face value, gives the impression that he was a play driver who produced many more scoring opportunities and goals than he gave up this season.
Kukan, on the other hand, had an abysmal 38.75 GF%, second-worst among Jackets defensemen, despite his SA/60 and xGA ranking first, at 27.26 and 1.86 each. Interestingly enough, his xGF/60 was also first. So, why is his 38% GF% mark so much lower than Nutivaara’s 52%?
It’s relatively simple: luck. Well, goaltending, which for defensemen is a lot of luck. When Kukan was on the ice, the Blue Jackets’ save percentage was 90.78%, the worst mark of any defenseman on the team. He simply didn’t get saves that others did, and it certainly wasn’t due to an increase in shot quality or any fault of Kukan’s. Conversely, when Nutivaara was on the ice, Jackets’ goalies saved 94.57% of all shots they saw, a massive increase and by far the highest on the team among blueliners.
That’s why, despite suspect underlying numbers, Nutivaara’s GF% and GA/60 were so stellar, while Kukan’s individual impact was significantly better but his results weren’t as successful. It’s the same concept as to why using goals against average falls well short when comparing one goalie to another goalie – goals against don’t tell the whole story, since each team gives up different quantities and qualities of shots. Kukan largely did better work on the ice but didn’t get the saves Nutivaara did.
Kukan was the best Columbus defenseman in xGF/60, the best in limiting xGA, the best in limiting SA/60 but second worst in actual goals against. Goaltending. If he can get anywhere close to the middle of the defensive pack in goalie save percentage while he’s on the ice, his analytical results should be a much more accurate representation of his strong play.
Is Kukan the Answer?
So, that’s it then, right? Kukan starts alongside Murray. Well, yes and no. He would absolutely be my vote to start over Nutivaara and should give the Blue Jackets a play-driving and transitional boost next to the steady Murray. But what if Columbus decides to go with a more defensively minded third pair? After all, Murray doesn’t carry the puck in transition, but his passes are elite at moving the play up ice. Should Scott Harrington be thrust back into the lineup?
No. Please… no. Limiting Toronto’s ridiculous forward group’s offensive chances certainly makes sense, but putting Harrington in would be a mistake, and the Blue Jackets would be pinned in their own zone while he’s out there. Instead, if Tortorella wants to go with a more defensive route, there’s another logical fit sitting right there in the bubble waiting to play. A right-shot, too. A guy who really impressed but didn’t get much attention for it.
Andrew Peeke’s 1.96 GA/60 ranks fourth-best among CBJ defensemen. His 27.28 SA/60 ranks second and his 1.92 xGA/60 ranks third. Interestingly enough, his 53.64 shots for percentage (SF%) is the best mark on the blue line, despite his actual SF/60 ranking fifth. That shows he limits opposition chances, particularly dangerous chances, better than essentially any other Columbus defenseman. Together with Murray, that could be the making of an elite shutdown pair.
This season, Peeke was the best Columbus defenseman at limiting high-danger chances against, giving up only 7.15 per 60 minutes. To put that into perspective, among all NHL defensemen to play at least 250 minutes this season 5-on-5, Peeke was the second best. He’s ahead of elite defensive defensemen Joonas Brodin (3rd), Ryan Murray (4th), Jared Spurgeon (10th), Ryan McDonagh (12th) — ahead of nearly everyone. If Tortorella wants to keep Toronto from getting high quality chances, which is paramount to Columbus’ success, Peeke is the best option and it’s not particularly close.
All in all, it will depend on what style Tortorella wants. He made it clear in his presser that the battle for the sixth defensive spot seems to be between Kukan and Nutivaara only, so Peeke will be fighting an uphill battle to see playoff minutes. Between Nutivaara and Kukan, he should lean towards the latter. With a steady partner in Murray and better goaltending luck behind him, we should see Kukan excel. But if it’s not Kukan, Nutivaara shouldn’t even be the next man up – it should be Peeke.