Though General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen is hesitant to call this year what it is: a rebuilding year; the Columbus Blue Jackets came into the season with a very young defense corps, with many players slotting into roles they haven’t been asked to play thus far in their careers. With only two full-time regulars returning from the 2020-21 CBJ, and with the departure of stalwart Seth Jones, the Jackets were hopeful that newly acquired defenders Adam Boqvist and Jake Bean would be able to jump into the top-4. Forgotten by many in this situation? Former second round pick Andrew Peeke, who has seemingly burst onto the scene from nowhere to play top pairing minutes.
Selected with pick #34 of the 2016 NHL Draft, Peeke took the long road to the big league, spending three seasons with the University of Notre Dame, acting as captain in his final year with the team (2018-19), before turning pro. Peeke would split time between Columbus and Cleveland (AHL) in his first season, struggling to earn ice time on a deep Blue Jackets team, but showing his potential with the Monsters, posting 5 goals and 16 points in just 29 games. Peeke suffered through the COVID shortened 2020-21 season, spending most of the year relegated to the CBJ taxi squad, skating in just 18 games between the NHL and the AHL.
Five years after his draft, with very little achieved in the NHL, it would have been easy to write Peeke off coming into this season. He entered the season eyeing a spot on the team’s bottom defense pair, as new acquisitions Bean and Boqvist were given spots on the top-two pairings, alongside mainstays Zach Werenski and Vladislav Gavrikov. To say that Andrew Peeke has taken advantage of his opportunity, would be an understatement.
Through the first 13 games of the season, Peeke averaged just over 16 minutes TOI per game, basically third pairing minutes with some time on the PK sprinkled in. Over the next 23 games, his ice time jumped to just short of 20 minutes per game, as he spent time in a shutdown role alongside Gavrikov on the second pair. And on January 20th? Peeke was united with Zach Werenski on the top pair, a role in which he has flourished, seeing his ice time jump to over 25 minutes per game, and giving the team strong, physical minutes.
Though his statistics might not jump off the page (Peeke had just 1 goal, 11 points and a -13 rating this season), what makes him the perfect partner for Werenski, is his physical edge and defensive coverage (Peeke has been credited with 136 hits this season, good for 30th in the NHL). When you watch him play, there isn’t one specific thing that stands out about him. You don’t see him running around, putting people onto stretchers. Obviously, he isn’t scoring goals, though his shot is big and heavy. His skating is only “okay” – in fact, sometimes you don’t notice him much at all. And for a guy who has been placed into a defense first role, that’s honestly a big compliment.
Peeke will have the occasional glaring mistake, which is common with young defensemen. But the complete, full season assessment watching him play, will illustrate that he’s filled a dire need for the Jackets: that of a physical, defense-first player. So it’s no surprise that head coach Brad Larsen has thrust him into a top pairing role and trusted him in the most important game situation, often against the opposition’s top players. In a year where the team searches for silver linings, they may look back and see that they struck gold in the second round of the 2016 NHL Draft.