Zach Werenski returns unchallenged as the team’s #1 defenseman. He will play in every offensive situation, and while his defensive game often leaves more to be desired, he’s still a good option on the penalty kill also. Expect Zach to play 20-25 minutes nightly. Joining him to start the year is his primary partner from last season, Andrew Peeke. Like Jenner on the top line, Peeke is probably best suited lower in the lineup – but is currently the most clear option to offset Werenski on the top pair. Peeke was very good last year; his game is built around blocking shots, throwing hits, and playing defense first hockey. This year, they need him to be even better.
The anchor of the second defense pair, Vladislav Gavrikov, may be one of the most critical players to this team’s success this season. He’s the best natural defender on the team, and while his 33 points last season was a nice addition, they need him to emerge as a dominant shutdown option. He’ll most likely be joined by Adam Boqvist, who brings high end skill and an offensive mind to the team. Boqvist likely plays on the second power play, and by season’s end I wouldn’t be surprised to see him and Peeke swap roles. But before that can happen, Boqvist needs to prove that he can defend at the NHL level.
Erik Gudbranson signed a big contract with the Blue Jackets this summer, and that comes with big expectations – especially for a guy likely slated in a depth role. It’s possible that he could play on the second pairing with Gavrikov and give the team a shutdown tandem, but I think he’s best suited as a physical, third pair defenseman in the NHL. Jake Bean was a bit of an up and down player last season. At times, he looked like he belonged in the top-four … but at other times, he was only visible for bad reasons. That’s not a good evaluation for a young defenseman, and he needs to show that he can play consistently enough at both ends of the ice, if he’s going to earn that role in the future.
Seventh man: Nick Blankenburg
Just six months ago, Nick Blankenburg wasn’t even on our radar. But, after signing a contract and joining the team alongside University of Michigan teammate Kent Johnson, Blankenburg was just solid for the Blue Jackets. He was a force on both sides of the puck and emerged as a young leader on the back end. Not bad for a guy who only played in seven games. Had the team not signed Gudbranson, he almost surely makes the opening night lineup. I expect him to be the first player inserted in, should someone struggle or get injured.
Missing the cut: Jake Christiansen, Gavin Bayreuther, David Jiricek, Denton Mateychuk, Marcus Bjork