Thu. Jul 18th, 2024

The Columbus Blue Jackets enter the week leading into Christmas with three games in five nights starting with Tuesday night’s tilt against the Buffalo Sabres. The three-goalie rotation takes another turn.

It will be Daniil Tarasov who gets a second-straight start on Tuesday night. But this time it will be Elvis Merzlikins who will dress as the backup. Spencer Martin will be a healthy scratch.

The Blue Jackets also have some game-time decisions in their lap. Most notably, Alex Texier will be one of those decisions. He skated at the optional but coach Pascal Vincent had to check afterwards to see if he could play. If he can’t, expect to see Brendan Gaunce draw in after being called up from the Cleveland Monsters.

Latest News & Highlights

We have a lot to get to this week. Zach Werenski stopped by and gave an honest assessment of his defensive game. We’ll also discuss why coach Vincent sees growth on the defensive side despite some of the numbers. It’s also Eric Robinson’s first game against the Blue Jackets since the trade. And what does Merzlikins think of the goalie rotation and his relationship with coach Niklas Backstrom? Read on to find out.

Werenski/Vincent on Team Defense

We wrote in our piece on Sunday about how the Blue Jackets are giving up a lot of shots and giving up the second-most goals per game in the NHL. It’s a clear area of improvement.

Both Werenski and Vincent discussed where the team is at on the defensive side. Werenski an honest assessment of where he thinks his game is at.

“I think we can do a better job,” Werenski said. “We still have good players and guys on our team that can play defense and doing a better job of keeping the puck out of our net.”

What in particular has stood out to Werenski as to why the high shot totals?

“I think we spend a lot of time in our D-zone. Ultimately, that’s going to lead to shots and chances and goals. Teams are too skilled nowadays. It seems like we have that pack it in (mentality.) We’re not supposed to play that way.”

“It seems like we just spend too much time in our zone. That obviously leads to you get tired. You quit playing in the D-zone and you’re flipping pucks out and you’re hopping to the bench and then they’re coming again. I think our system is fine. Boston plays a similar system. Vegas plays a similar system. But they’re just more aggressive with it. I think for us, we get too passive.”

“We have a lot of new guys, a lot of young guys, some new systems. I think it takes time to adjust to that. But I think we’re slowly starting to implement and trying to be more aggressive in it. It comes with doing it more on repetition.”

The Blue Jackets are spending too much time in their defensive zone. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Werenski believes his individual game as been up and down. Of late, it hasn’t been his best hockey. He’s getting the points but he knows he can be better in his own end.

“I think it has gone in waves for me,” Werenski said. “I think early on it was slow, come back form injury and I thought I played well defensively for a stretch there. Then it’s gone the other way a little bit here recently. I’m honest with myself. I’m not going to say I played great when I didn’t. It’s hard to play with different partners (and adjusting) to different systems. I’m not trying to make excuses here. I know at the end of the day I have to play better. I know the consistency part of it goes in waves. Some games are good. Some games aren’t and it’s just finding that consistency now.”

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Coach Vincent acknowledges that he sees some growth in the overall team defense, but not all of the numbers are going to bear that out yet. Here’s what he had to say about that growth.

“It could be in the offensive zone without the puck. It could be in the neutral zone without the puck. It could be our faceoff reads without the puck. It could be our D-zone coverage. And I see growth in all areas,” Vincent said. “Some of (the numbers) are supporting what I’m saying right now. Some are not necessarily and numbers will only tell you so much of the story.”

“When we track, we’re doing a better and better job. Our forechecks need some work. So that’s one area of our defensive game that is not where I want it to be. But we’ll get there. And our D-zone coverage, we started with a foundation. We wanted to set a foundation first on what we want to do in our D-zone coverage and then add some components to our D-zone.”

Pascal Vincent says the team is seeing some growth in certain areas of their defensive game. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

“So right now we spend way too much time in our D-zone coverage and that’s something we’ll well aware of. But we wanted to focus on the foundation first, making sure that we master one skill and we’re getting close to that. Now we’re gonna move to the next level of D-zone coverage. It’s about limiting time in the D-zone. So there’s growth but lots of room to improve.”

Robinson Faces Old Team

It hasn’t even been a month since the trade that saw Robinson go to the Sabres. He now gets his chance to face the Blue Jackets on Tuesday night. He’s quite excited for the opportunity but also realizes how much the Blue Jackets have meant to him.

“It’s got a little extra meaning,” Robinson said. “It’ll be a bit weird. It hasn’t been that long. It’ll be a bit strange at first being on the other side seeing so many familiar faces. Once the puck drops you gotta turn that off and focus on the job ahead.”

In terms of what were some of Robinson’s best memories with the Blue Jackets, he said there were a lot to choose from. Besides all the time with his teammates, two moments stuck out to him.

“My first NHL game comes to mind, just bright eyed and excited for that and can’t believe it’s been five years since then. But (also) getting a chance to play in the playoffs. It was a little bit different playing in the bubble but it’s still the NHL playoffs. And just the guys, so many good teammates that come to mind when I played there. So I’d say the memories with them are the first that come to mind as well.”

Robinson admitted knowing something could happen given the roster situation but then said things happened really fast. He figured given his UFA status, the writing could be on the wall. He was able to say goodbye to several of his teammates as the trade happened on a travel day. In the end, he’ll remain forever grateful to the Blue Jackets for giving him his dream of making it to the NHL.

Side Dishes

Merzlikins said that being a healthy scratch on Saturday against New Jersey was weird for him. But he’s taking the positives that this opportunity presents him. “I spend more time with Nicky (Niklas Backstrom.) I can work on some things that maybe during the stretch of games where I was playing so much, I had no chance to work on the things I wanted to. I had a solid 60 minutes of work and I could work on my stuff.”
Merzlikins says that he is confident overall in his game. He praised Backstrom for allowing him to get to that place. “Having my freedom. I feel like I have the freedom to do whatever I want. I just feel free. There’s a lot of communication and I tell him what I want or what I would like to have. It’s really nice that things are working well together. If I need a day off, I can ask him for a day off and I’m gonna have a day off. We’re all together in this and then obviously we want to help each other. That freedom and that communication together, that brought me to that level (of confidence.) I feel pretty good out there.”
Damon Severson skated at KeyBank Center on Tuesday while continuing to work his way back from injury. He’s still a little ways away but a good first step to getting him back.
The Sabres are getting Jack Quinn back in the lineup Tuesday against the Blue Jackets as expected.

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