Blue Jackets’ defensive mindset will be crucial to beating Maple Leafs

Breaking down the playoff matchup between the Maple Leafs and Blue Jackets in the proposed 24-team NHL postseason format with Shawn McKenzie, Chris Johnston & Steve Dangle.

“Thank God.”

This is the sound of a relieved Columbus Blue Jackets captain, Nick Foligno, when it’s relayed to him that coach John Tortorella won’t be running one his legendary make-’em-sweat-till-they-puke training camps this summer.

“Tortorella’s training camp is notorious for being a real hard training camp, and I’m sure he’ll be the first one to say that this time it’ll have to be completely different,” GM Jarmo Kekalainen explains.

“It will be completely different from preparing for the training camp and first game of the season, when you still have 81 left. This will be the first game of the playoffs. It will be the most important game of the year.”

The Blue Jackets, fashioned well after the man with the whistle dangling from his neck, are the poster boys for a grinding, pounding, slapshot-eating, suffocating brand of hockey that tends to serve teams well when stakes are high.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

But as they prepare for their best-of-five elimination series against the super-skilled Toronto Maple Leafs, they are being mindful not to exhaust themselves before facing one of the youngest, fastest units in the sport.

As the players begin gathering for minicamps in June, Kekalainen’s group will be the healthiest its been in months. The goal now is “to make sure that we’re staying healthy and not getting any soft-tissue injuries that could easily happen when you grind the players to get ready for an 82-game season.”

“I don’t know,” Foligno responds, with a smirk even visible over the phone line. “I think Torts is still gonna find a way to grind us.

“It won’t be a normal Torts training camp, but I’m sure when next season starts off, he’ll be making up for what he lost out on this last one.”

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Seriously, though. The Jackets’ preparation for the Leafs — and whoever lies beyond — must be modified, because camp will be shorter and the grand prize closer.

An urgency will be placed on structure and details and getting synchronized with the other five guys on the ice. The skating, the stickhandling, the conditioning—those individual skills, Foligno figures, will come back quick.

It’s the muscle between the ears and the reads with your teammates, cornerstones of Columbus hockey, that will at once be the most difficult to tune and the most critical to grasp against an opponent that — let’s face it — is blessed with more God-given talent.

“It’s that team mindset, the system play, where you need to be, that feel…. I mean, that’s the only stuff you really get when you’re doing the reps over and over and over again. And so that’s going to be really important for us,” Foligno says.

“It’s going to be that other team aspect that we’re going to need to really harp on and make sure we focus on. I think Torts is smart enough, and our coaching staff is smart enough, to know that that’s gonna have to come to the forefront.”

Even with a nearly comical string of injuries and an inexperienced goaltending tandem, the 2019-20 Jackets’ ability to defend is astonishing.

Per Sportlogiq, they rank first overall is expected goals against (2.33), first in goals against off the rush (0.43), fourth in goals against (2.42), and fifth in slot shots against (11.4).

They spend more time in their own zone than the average NHL team, but they block the highest percentage of shot attempts against (32.3%), a Tortorella calling card.

“We know what we’re in for in terms of style of play,” Leafs GM Kyle Dubas says.

The trick, particularly in a short elimination series, is this: Who can find their game fastest?

“What makes you good? What made you successful this season? And how quickly can you get your team wrapped around that?” Foligno says.

“The advantage is going to be huge if you can get out on top early. So, I think that’s gonna be a mindset of ours. We’ve had a lot of practice this year on what makes us successful and playing as a team, the defensive side.”

And if the Maple Leafs push this into a run-and-gun affair?

“It could be ugly,” Foligno says. “We know we’re in tough. It’s a great team we’re playing against, and it’s a reason why it’s gonna make for an exciting format when we do get back to playing.”

Few teams have welcomed three months or rest and recovery as much as Columbus, which will welcome No. 1 defenceman Seth Jones, skilled winger Cam Atkinson and top sniper Oliver Bjorkstrand off the IR. (Centre Brandon Dubinsky, who never dressed this season, will still be shelved with his chronic wrist injury.)

“There’s a good chance that we’ll be fully healthy. I think Josh Anderson (shoulder) is probably the only one where the timeline is going to get close to when he would be ready. Everyone else is on schedule and should be ready to play,” says Kekalainen.

Foligno couldn’t be more enthusiastic about those returns and how they’ll help the 25th-ranked offence find the net.

“They’re established. They’re leaders,” Foligno says. “That’s a huge boost to the morale, first and foremost. Then just the minutes those guys can eat will bump everyone back where they need to play and make you a stronger team. So, we’re thrilled to be able to get those guys back.”

Foligno, 32, reminds that he’s in his 13th season. He’s only seen the second round of the playoffs once. There’s a legacy at stake here. Personally, he feels proud of how the Jackets’ injury- and free-agency-ravaged roster responded to all this adversity.

“We could’ve went one of two ways, and we chose to respond the right way. Now, it’s time to put all we learned this year to good use and make sure it’s not wasted,” the captain says.

“I don’t care if you’re a young player or an old player, they don’t come around very often. So, when you get a chance to go to the dance, you want to make the most of it.”

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