Since the Jackets entered the NHL, they've never once possessed what could be called a great blueline corps. Or even a good blueline corps. Each group has been "serviceable", at best. Over the past few months, however, General Manager Scott Howson has slowly built what could be a pretty good group of defensemen, and now, it seems as though the team actually has too many NHL-level blueliners on the roster.
With yesterday's trade of Jeff Carter to the Kings for Jack Johnson and a first round pick, the team now has eleven NHL caliber defensemen on the roster. Granted, one, perhaps two are out for the season with injuries. Radek Martinek is certainly out for the year, while Marc Methot is likely in the same boat with a broken jaw. It's safe to say that given his age and impending free agent status, Martinek will not be back in Columbus next season. Methot is a top-four defenseman on most NHL squads, but even he is not a lock for next year's squad. More on him in a minute.
In late June, 2011 Howson struck a deal to acquire the rights to James Wisniewski, and eventually signed him shortly before free agency opened up on July 1st. Wisniewski was coming off a solid season that saw him finish fifth in the league in blueliner scoring. He's easily the most talented of the group with the puck on his stick, and is a true powerplay quarterback with a cannon of a shot. Though this season has been shortened by a ridiculous suspension and various injuries, he is a big part of the team going forward.
Later that summer, Howson locked up the team's most complete two-way defenseman- Fedor Tyutin- to a six year extension. Tyutin is a solid second pairing guy who can contribute on the scoresheet and is reliable in the defensive zone. He's as close to a lock for the near future as any player, given his contract and capabilities.
Earlier this season a deal was struck with the St.Louis Blues that saw Kris Russell shipped to St.Louis for blueliner Nikita Nikitin. Nikitin was an immediate factor on arrival in Columbus, playing a rock-steady game, making very few mistakes and showcasing a hard, accurate shot from the point. He has looked great paired with Fedor Tyutin, and there's no reason to think that pairing won't be locked-in for years to come.
The Jackets have received contributions from two former draft picks playing in their rookie season. John Moore has been with team for most of the season and hasn't looked out of place. He's been working on his offensive game with "consultant" Al Iafrate, and at times has led the Jackets in icetime. Savard has been up and down between Columbus and Springfield of the AHL, but lately he has been a fxiture in the lineup and has a handful of points. His skating leaves something to be desired, but his ability to move the puck has been a great asset.
The three remaining defensemen on the roster are Grant Clitsome, Aaron Johnson and Brett Lebda. Clitsome was a great addition when he was called up to the Jackets on a full-time basis last season. He showcased a booming slap shot, and was able to put up some points, giving the powerplay a much needed boost. This season, however, he's been prone to mistakes and aside from having the best name in pro sports, hasn't lived up to expectations. Clitsome is signed for one more year after this season, at a very low cap hit. He seems destined for the seventh defenseman spot next season, unless of course he's dealt before then. A team needing a young puck mover may show interest in him. Johnson is an impending free agent, and though he has shown flashes of offensive ability at times this season, he has made far too many gaffes in the defensive zone. He's likely ticketed for free agency. Ditto for Brett Lebda, who was signed mid-way through the season after playing with an AHL deal in Springfield.
Assuming Martinek, Aaron Johnson and Lebda are no longer with the team at the end of the season, that leaves eight remaining blueliners. Wisniewski and Jack Johnson would make a solid first pairing, an all-american duo capable of scoring and dishing out huge hits. Both players take chances though- they can be caught out of position looking for the big hit, and the more chances you take with the puck, the more mistakes you'll make. Fans will no doubt get a chance to see these two playing together this season, so I'll reserve judgement on how the two will perform together as a pairing until we see them in action. Until then, it makes sense to have your two best defenders playing together.
The Russian duo of Tyutin and Nikitin have been the Jackets' top pairing when both were in the lineup. Next season, they should remain together, but this time on the second grouping.
The questions arise with the bottom pairing- do you let the young guys Moore and Savard develop together? Both have bright futures with the team, especially former first rounder Moore. What then, do you do with Methot? As I said earlier, he's a top-four defenseman on most NHL teams. It's been reported by Aaron Portzline that Edmonton has shown interest in him, so perhaps he gets dealt for a mid-round pick or mid-level prospect. That would allow the trio of Moore, Savard and Clitsome to rotate among the fifth, sixth and seventh defense spots.
You know me and lineup visuals, so here it goes:
Wisniewski - Johnson
Tyutin - Nikitin
Moore - Savard
Out the door: Methot, Martinek, Lebda, A.Johnson
If you ask me, that's a damned good group. Not at the same level as a New York or Nashville (at present) but a solid group nonetheless. You've got scoring, steady defensive play and some great skaters.
The team also has a pair of young defensemen in the AHL who could surprise in camp this fall- Cody Goloubef and Dalton Prout. Prout was called up for a single game earlier this season, while Goloubef- a former second round pick- has been steadily developing with the Falcons. Either of these two players could force the team to deal Clitsome, or swap places with a guy like Savard, who's still on his entry-level deal.
It will be interesting to see how things shake out on the blueline, but there is hope that the current "rebuild" is just a "reshaping" of the roster, with a solid defensive corps in place, and some talented players up front, who will likely be boosted by the addition of first overall pick Nail Yakupov.
For all the criticism that Scott Howson has received this year, I think he's done a fantastic job of building the defense into a very exciting and balanced unit.