When I read that suspended defensemen James Wisniewski was sitting in the press box during the first few games of the season chomping at the bit, I wondered what really could be the outcome of his return. I wasn't about to overlook his character which is usually invaluable in a locker room, but I couldn't help but be intrigued by the thought of one player making the difference between an 0-7-1 team, and victory.
Sure enough, he came through. Playing more than 27 minutes last night, and being the anchor of just about every single rush the Jackets made while he was on the ice, not to mention quarterbacking what appeared to be a legitimate powerplay, he had more of an impact than I could have ever expected. With that said, however, it does give a tremendous indication of how desperately the Jackets needed a top tier defensemen on their roster, and how much of an impact one came make on both ends of the ice.
To start, lets consider his presence on the puck when he has possession leaving the defensive zone. If the puck isn't already on his stick, it will be. His teammates (and I am sure this was designed) found him with the puck to begin the breakout probably 80% of the time, especially if there was room to work. This is a tremendous decision too, considering how much poise and creativity Wisniewski shows with the puck on his stick. Not once, but a handful of times he made tricky passes to lead players sometimes only a couple feet away from him, and on one occasion a pass off the boards from two full zones away to a player waiting at the opposing blueline. These passes are what the Jackets have been missing on the breakout, and the effectiveness of them caused the Red Wings to spread out their neutral zone play.
Moving on to the powerplay, Wisniewski again looks to have the puck on his stick. Last night, the puck found him constantly with the man advantage, but much to the dismay of the casual observer (read: drunk morons) sitting behind me screaming "SHOOOOOT ITTTTT"the Wiz found open lanes to make crisp passes, creating scoring chances down low, as well as spreading out the Wings penalty kill and giving his forwards more room to work with the puck. During previous games, the Jackets defensemen playing against the opposing teams best penalty killers seemed hesitant and rushed with the puck, allowing the other team to collapse on the players down low without any real concern of point possession.
In last nights game, it was clear the respect was given to Wiz, and he made them pay on a number of tremendous opportunities, one slapshot of which just barely hit the top of Conklin's pad (who had no idea where the puck was) and shot up in the air. On several other occasions, Wiz took extremely hard, low shots that just barely missed the net. These are the shots that he should probably spend some time teaching Tyutin how to do in practice, as Fedor seems to get a kick out of the term 'high and wide' when shooting.
The final point I want to touch on, is how valuable Wisniewski is as a top line defensemen. Quite honestly, I am not under the impression that the Jackets have more than one top line defenseman (although Tyutin played a very strong game), so bringing in a player to allow some of the current lineup to shift downwards is hugely beneficial for all involved. Couple that with the fact that a healthy lineup takes out a guy like Johnson (who is AHL inclined) and then allows some flexibility for Arniel to swap between Savard and Moore. Suddenly, the Jackets have options.
If it was a spark the Jackets needed to finally get this season off the ground, Wisniewski provided. His calm demeanor with the puck and extremely creative passing and decision making provide the backbone this team so badly needed on the rush. Wizmas was hopefully only the start to many great nights of hockey left in this season.
Carry the Flag!