Declaring your team's most important player is not a simple thing. It's not always the most valuable guy or the highest points producer. It is the player who makes your team go; the one you can't afford to lose, even if all he contributes can't be measured by fancy stats.
Blue Jackets' Most Important Player: Ryan Murray, Defenseman
Assuming Bobrovsky reaches those expectations, the ceiling for this Blue Jackets team is excitingly high for a franchise that is still looking for its first playoff series win. The development and health of defenseman Ryan Murray will dictate just how high that ceiling is this season.
General manager Jarmo Kekalainen has built the forward group into one of the deepest in the East, with the addition of Brandon Saad making a solid group potentially great. He inherited a franchise goalie in Bobrovsky from former GM Scott Howson.
The defense? Well, that’s a work in progress. As it stands, the bluelines of division rivals New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Islanders and Washington Capitals are deeper and more talented. Even landing one of the veteran free agent defensemen stragglers won’t change that.
It’s not a new problem. James Wisniewski averaged more than 20 minutes per game with the Blue Jackets last season and then couldn’t crack the lineup in Anaheim after the trade to the Ducks. David Savard averaged nearly 23 minutes of icetime per game for Todd Richards on defense last season, skating on Columbus’ top pair.
That's what makes Murray so critical to the Blue Jackets' success this season. If we’re going to take the Blue Jackets seriously as a future Stanley Cup contender, they need their anchor on defense. They need their Duncan Keith or Drew Doughty. They need the guy who can push Jack Johnson down a slot to the second pair, especially considering that, despite all his skill, Johnson is still looking for his first positive plus/minus season. If possession is your preferred metric, Johnson’s teams have never controlled more than 50 percent of the shot attempts over the course of the season when he’s on the ice at even strength.
Murray, however, has all the makings of a legit top-pair defenseman. He could be that transformative defenseman. In 78 career games, he’s a plus-5 overall, and the Blue Jackets have controlled 51.2 percent of the even-strength shot attempts when he’s on the ice.
That’s all well and good but the biggest issue is that he’s only played in 78 games since Columbus made him the second-overall pick in 2012 because of an assortment of injuries.
According to Kekalainen, the Blue Jackets expect Murray to be completely healthy to start training camp this season, and if he emerges as the Blue Jackets’ best defenseman, that likely means things are going really well for Columbus in the standings because the Blue Jackets are in great shape everywhere else on the roster.
Murray is a strong decision-maker and skater who is capable of transforming the Blue Jackets' defense, along with fast-tracking their status as Cup contenders. He just needs to be on the ice to make it happen.