The decisions on defense aren’t really as difficult as the ones we had to make with the forwards. But all of that can change if one player proves he’s ready for the prime time.
Let’s start with the obvious move here. Tim Berni played 59 games for the Jackets last season, but in a perfect world, he’s about the 10th best option for this team right now. He’s still an RFA, but I expect his contract to be a two-way deal and he won’t require waivers; he’s our first cut.
This move leaves five players to compete for three jobs – the third defense pairing, and the 7th man. I do believe that Adam Boqvist is primed for a role on this team, so I have him as a top-four lock as of this moment. That’s fluid and could certainly change, but that’s how I see it right now. With that in mind, it’s really easy to work the back end out once you look at the role each player plays, their contract situation, and their shooting hand.
Jake Bean is on an NHL only contract and honestly, the left side/third pairing role is his to lose. After Berni, Zach Werenski, and Ivan Provorov, he’s the only left hand shooter that is realistically competing for a job. His shooting hand, puck moving ability and two-way game makes him the obvious choice to play on the third pairing; where sheltered minutes and a bigger, more physical partner should make him more than serviceable.
His partner will almost surely be Erik Gudbranson, whose $4m AAV means that he isn’t going anywhere, and he’ll have to play. He’ll never live up to that dollar amount, but he brings the requisite size, toughness and experience to an otherwise pretty young back end. If Erik and Jake can form any kind of chemistry, playing them 13-16 minutes a night is probably fine.
Which brings us to Andrew Peeke, who I have penciled in as the 7th man here. His three year $2.75m AAV contract kicked in this summer, and I don’t think that’s a terrible hit for a guy who can step in and out of the lineup as needed. He doesn’t bring the same kind of size or physicality that Gudbranson does; but he’s proven to be a shot blocking machine that can play up and down the lineup. That said, he’s also proven that playing him any more than third pairing minutes is a recipe for disaster – so I don’t see him beating out any of Gudbranson, Adam Boqvist, or Damon Severson for a job on the right side.
The final two cuts here are Nick Blankenburg and David Jiricek. Believe me, neither of these are easy guys to make cuts on – but, you can send both of them down and risk nothing. Blankenburg is on a two-way deal that does not require waivers. Ultimately, I think his grit, tenacity, and ability to play in all situations makes him a better guy to keep around than Peeke for that #7 role – but Peeke’s contract makes moving him to Cleveland a non-starter.
Jiricek is the wild card in all of this. If he shows up to camp and shows that he’s ready to play in the NHL full-time this year, the entire program on defense could change in a hurry. This could make a player like Boqvist redundant, which could lead to a bigger than expected trade – I don’t think they want to have either of these guys sitting in the press box for too long.
Boqvist’s value on the trade market would conceivably be pretty high; he’s a recent top-10 pick who was scoring at a terrific pace for a good chunk of last season. Which is why I have him starting the season on the top pairing. He and Werenski could give this team great transitional minutes, and provide a nice offensive spark.
So there you have it, our way-too-early roster prediction for the Blue Jackets. I don’t think this team is done making moves yet this summer, so maybe take it with a grain of salt. I think they’ll look to free up 1-2 spots up front by moving away some of their depth – and may do the same on defense, depending on their perception of who is ready to make an impact. For that reason, we’ll probably go through this again near the end of training camp. Either way, it will be fun to look back at this article in early October, to see how we did.