After finishing 28th in the league defensively for the 2021-22 season, the biggest question for the Blue Jackets this summer was on defense. While we all expected changes to be made defensively, the team returns basically the same corps from last season. After losing Dean Kukan, who returned home to play in Europe; and adding Erik Gudbranson via free agency, the biggest question mark for the club remains: can they keep pucks out of their own net?
The pairings will likely be debated right up until the season opener – and likely beyond – but it’s easy to pencil in the names that will be on the team (at least when healthy). Zach Werenski will return as the team’s minute-munching #1 defenseman. Joining him are newcomer Gudbranson, and returnees Vladislav Gavrikov, Adam Boqvist, Andrew Peeke, Jake Bean, Nick Blankenburg, and Gavin Bayreuther.
With so much depth up front, I have a hard time seeing the team keeping eight defensemen around. Which means the real battle for the team is: who will be the seventh defenseman? That likely comes down to Blankenburg and Bayreuther. While Bayreuther has more experience, Blankenburg was highly impressive in his brief 7-game stint with the club, and likely has the inside edge.
The answer to the question on defense might be another question … is returning basically the same defense corps, the right decision? That will depend on the development of their young players, and likely the offseason work they put in.
We know what we have in four of these players, and what we can expect. Werenski is a high end offensive defenseman, who can struggle defensively … especially if the shifts get too long. Gavrikov is probably the best all-around defenseman on the team, finishing second behind Werenski in scoring, while also facing top opposition nightly and holding his own defensively. Peeke plays a simple, but effective physical style, and looks every bit the part of a middle pairing, shutdown type defender. Newcomer Gudbranson was brought in to add toughness and a veteran presence. I expect him to solidify the bottom pairing and give the team some consistency there.
The real question marks lie in the development of two players: Jake Bean and Adam Boqvist. Both showed flashes of high-end offensive potential in their first seasons in Columbus. Unfortunately, both also ran into injury troubles, and struggled with defensive zone play. If the Blue Jackets are truly going to have a better showing defensively this season, both of these players need to come back stronger, and ready to put in the work on both sides of the puck.
At some point, I do think the club will have to decide which one of these players fits better into their long-term plans. With two highly touted defensemen taken in the first round of this summer’s draft – and a handful of other NHL caliber prospects – the Blue Jackets are in pretty good shape long-term.
At early glance, Boqvist looks like a potential star player in the NHL. At times he looked like a fourth forward on the ice, joining the rush and leading the play up the ice. Had he stayed healthy for the full season, I think his production would have brought him a bigger contract than the three-year deal he earned as an RFA this summer.
Bean started the season well, but struggled with consistency and often looked physically outmatched. I think pairing him with Gudbranson could pay off nicely for the team, and allow him to do what he does best: move the puck … but without being checked through the end boards every time he touches it.
If one or both of these guys come back better conditioned, and able to hold up to the 82-game schedule, the team should see improvement. It will be interesting to see if that improvement is enough to thrust this team into playoff contention. I think the goaltending is good enough, and they should score plenty. Either way, they will be fun to watch!