After broaching the possibility of a Noah Hanifin trade, it became abundantly clear that the ends likely wouldn’t justify the means for the Canucks. Put simply, Hanifin’s a good player — one that fits a need for this team, but the cost of prying him from the Hurricanes likely exceeds the value he’d provide.
But what if I told you there was another young defenceman that shared an eerily similar statistical and underlying profile as Hanifin — one that could likely be had for a fraction of the cost?
Enter 23-year-old, Columbus Blue Jackets defenceman Markus Nutivaara.
Both Hanifin and Nutivaara were effective at driving possession and offence from the backend in sheltered roles.
Nutivaara’s 23 points might not jump out at you, but it’s made all the more impressive when you contextualize the results. For starters, he scored those points in just 61 games. That scoring pace, if prorated over the 79 games Hanifin played, would leave Nutivaara with 30 points — just two shy of Hanifin’s total.
While it’s true that both players registered most of their points at even-strength, it’s Hanifin that got meaningful power-play time — upwards of 100 additional minutes compared to Nutivaara to be precise. The deployment discrepancy resulted in seven power-play points for Hanifin compared to just two for Nutivaara.
In fact, isolating even-strength production shines the Finnish defender in a brighter light than even Hanifin.
|Primary Points %||73.7||69.6|
Nutivaara’s scoring efficiency is highlighted when looking at five-on-five points per hour. Here, his production rate is good enough to slot into the top 10 among all NHL defencemen(minimum 600 minutes TOI).
What may surprise you in all this is that Nutivaara’s offensive game was relatively unheralded coming into this season. His traditional calling card has been as a reliable, stay-at-home defenceman that can move the puck up the ice, but this year he became more active as he got comfortable with John Tortorella’s system.
In this system, the Blue Jackets rely on their defenders to push the pace of the group’s offence by playing an active north-south game. As such, Nutivaara was given the green light to expand his game and become a more dynamic threat on the rush — whether it be joining the play as a late trailer or leading transition plays himself.
Affording the smooth-skating Finn that freedom was necessary for him to expand his offensive arsenal because he doesn’t have the greatest shot or the most creative skill set to capitalize on sustained offensive zone pressure.
Instead, Nutivaara’s game is predicated on using his vision and awareness to take calculated risks once he’s identified the opposing teams’ coverage deficiencies. He couples those smarts with exquisite passing accuracy and above average mobility to allow him to exploit those coverage holes and lapses. Usually, that means taking advantage of transition plays where the opposing team hasn’t established itself positionally.
In this clip, Nutivaara keeps his head up to look for the best entry option. He realizes that Nugent-Hopkins is late to take away his time and space, and so he takes advantage by gaining the zone and then cutting inside with the aid of his quick hands. Nutivaara knows exactly where his teammates are so he slips a backhand feed to Oliver Bjorkstrand, who finds the back of the net.
Most impressive about this play is that Nutivaara didn’t even need to hit full stride to complete the rush — it was all about using vision to identify the open seam to carry the puck.
Nutivaara’s penchant for capitalizing on open lanes lends itself as an asset on puck retrievals as well.
The pinpoint stretch pass is what likely stands out to most in the preceding clip, but pay attention to Nutivaara’s approach to the retrieval. He knows that the Bruins are going to change once they’ve dumped the puck in, and so he looks to take advantage of this by urgently orchestrating a swift counter-attack. The key to this play is how Nutivaara looks over his shoulder multiple times to survey the developing play before he collects the puck.
He then threads a beautiful saucer pass right onto Tyler Motte’s stick to spring him on a breakaway.
Plays similar to the clips above couple with impressive microdata to illustrate Nutivaara’s year over year improvement when it comes to both leading zone exits and offensive zone entries.
While he lacks the dynamic offensive traits to consistently crest 40 points, Nutivaara does boast a sound defensive package to go along with his puck moving abilities.
Defensively, Nutivaara is most effective in the neutral zone, where he uses his smarts to anticipate the opposition breakout as well as his mobility to maintain a tight gap. Those strengths led the 23-year-old to own the second-best percentage among Blue Jackets’ defencemen for preventing controlled offensive zone entries this season.
Regarding own zone play, Nutivaara is pretty reliable positionally, though he lacks the size and strength (only 178 pounds at 6’1″) to win battles along the boards consistently. It’s not for a lack of effort though — his competitiveness is particularly evident when you watch him box out and tie up forwards down low and near the goal mouth.
All this sounds fine and dandy, but the issue with sheltered players like Hanifin and Nutivaara is projecting how they may perform higher in the lineup. In Nutivaara’s case, his acclaimed defensive acumen attenuates that concern to a degree, but so too does the copiously favourable effect he had on his various partners’ ability to control shot attempts.
Each of the defenders that spent at least 100 minutes with Nutivaara on the ice saw their possession numbers plummet away from the former 7th round pick. Jack Johnson and David Savard were especially hit hard away from Nutivaara — indicating that it was indeed the Finnish defenceman who drove the success for his pairings.
Despite this solvent two-way performance, Nutivaara found himself buried on the depth chart, averaging just over 16 minutes a game on Columbus’ bottom pairing. It’s unclear whether he’ll receive additional opportunities next season when considering the possibility that either Jack Johnson or Ian Cole could return to the Blue Jackets.
Would Columbus Be Open To A Nutivaara Trade?
Columbus was quick to ink Nutivaara to an extension following his breakout year — locking him up for four years at an AAV of 2.7 million dollars. While it shows how much the Blue Jackets value the sophomore defenceman, they boast enough defensive depth to supplant Nutivaara’s loss, but more importantly, they have a need the Canucks can fill.
As it pertains to the former, Columbus has a slew of players that could fill a potential void left by Nutivaara in both the short and long-term. One option is the possibility of re-signing pending UFA Ian Cole, whom they acquired to solidify their top-4 at the trade deadline. Should they not have a desire to commit to Cole, they could also shift Ryan Murray to the left side given his alike handedness.
The Blue Jackets would also finally have the opportunity to give one of Gabriel Carlsson or Dean Kukan a look on the bottom pairing. 2015 1st round pick Carlsson, in particular, hopes to be a long-term fixture on the left side of the defence group.
Clearing the logjam on defence would certainly make things easier for the Blue Jackets, but it doesn’t make sense unless the Canucks are able to provide serious value for them. It just so happens to be that they have an expendable piece in Sven Baertschi that could be of interest to Columbus.
Baertschi would provide valuable scoring depth in the top-9 for a Blue Jackets’ squad that had just four forwards score more than 35 points. Out of that group, Artemi Panarin stood out as the only left-winger of the bunch.
It’d likely take additional pieces to convince the Jackets into making such a move, but it’d be well worth it to acquire a responsible, puck-moving defenceman of Nutivaara’s calibre. A trade for the 23-year-old Finn certainly wouldn’t be the flashy acquisition with Noah Hanifin still on the market, though there’s no shortage of evidence to support its merits as the more prudent deal in the long-term.