The blueline for the 2013/2014 Blue Jackets will look very much like the group that almost made the playoffs last season, with six of the seven regulars returning. Adrian Aucoin departed via free agency.
Fedor Tyutin led the Jackets in defenseman scoring with 22 points, while playing in all 48 games. He provides steady play in all three zones, and is easily the team's most complete defenseman. He's also a near-lock for Team Russia at the 2014 Sochi Olympics in Russia.
Jack Johnson finished three points behind Tyutin offensively, and though he's not as adept as Tyutin in the defensive zone, he did show improvement while playing without the puck. You'll never convince those who use advanced stats as their primary resource that he is a valuable member of this team, but he is a threat offensively, will throw his weight around, and there's a very good chance he'll be named captain of the team. His leadership qualities are already evident from his letter-wearing with the Jackets and Team USA.
The second half of the self-proclaimed "Controlled Chaos" duo, along with Johnson, is James Wisniewski. Wiz is first and foremost an offensive defenseman, the shooter on the powerplay and risk-taker while playing five-on-five. Four of his five goals last season were on the powerplay.
If you talk to most Jackets fans, they'll probably tell you that Nikita Nikitin struggled last year. Two seasons ago, Nikki was acquired from the Blues and went on to lead the Jackets in points by a defenseman. He scored at a 0.59 PPG clip that year, but last season dropped to 0.24 PPG. He had some notable turnovers, and missed ten games. That said, he's still an important member of the defensive core, and is looking for a bounce-back year. He and Wisniewski have the big cannons from the point, and the expectation is that Nikki can be the shooter on the second powerplay unit, along with providing steady play five-on-five. He joined Tyutin and ten other defensemen on Russia's preliminary Olympic roster.
I think it's safe to say that we were all surprised by the emergence of Dalton Prout last season. He's a no nonsense blueliner, steady as hell in his own zone. A season-ending injury to Ryan Murray, combined with unsteady play by some of younger blueliners, not to mention injuries, opened the door for Prout to be called up to Columbus. Once he arrived, he was there to stay. He will miss the start of camp due to offseason surgery, but the team is hopeful he can be ready to take to the ice sooner, rather than later.
The Safe Bets
With five of the seven spots on defense nailed down, the remaining competition for the final starting spot and seventh defender role are up for grabs. In most seasons, the 6th and 7th defensemen don't invoke many, if any, storylines, but this year is different, thanks to one Ryan Murray.
Murray, the 2nd overall pick from two years ago-a player who the New York Islanders reportedly wanted so badly they were willing to trade their entire slew of 2012 draft picks for-is finally ready for the big time after missing a vast majority of last season due to a shoulder injury. He was touted as NHL-ready leading up to his draft day, and it's finally time to see if he truly is. The thing is, with a high-end prospect like Murray, you want him playing...a lot. If he's one of the best six defensemen in training camp, it's a no brainer- keep him. If he's outplayed by even one of the non-locks, he should be sent to Springfield, where he can soak up the minutes and pro-style game. Ryan Murray should not, under any circumstance, be the team's seventh defenseman, rotting in the press box.
The player with the best chance of unseating Murray for the final starting spot is Tim Erixon. Erixon ended up playing in 31 out of 48 games last season, and though he had his ups and downs, showed enough to be a semi-regular with the Jackets. We're all still waiting to see what he can provide offensively at the NHL level. During the lockout, he put up a line of 5-24-29 in 40 AHL games with Springfield. If he could translate those kinds of numbers to the NHL, he'd be an integral part of the starting six. At this point, early in training camp, I'm looking at Murray and Erixon as the first major battle for a roster spot. If Erixon comes out on top, Murray's in Springy. If Murray shines, I think you're looking at the Jackets starting the season with Tyutin, Johnson, Wisniewski, Nikitin, Prout, Murray and Erixon as the team's defensive corps. This of course is all based on Prout's full recovery, no injuries to any of those players, or an amazing showing from a wild card defender in camp.
The Wild Cards
Earlier this summer, the Jackets inked a total unknown from Finland to a deal. Ilari Melart is a Roster Viking special. A player who obviously made an impression on GM Jarmo Kekalainen, who prior to taking the Jackets' gig was of course GM of Jokerit in the Finnish league. Melart is as-advertised- big, mean, mean and big. He plays a shutdown role, and will drop the mitts if necessary. Melart's best chance to make the Jackets is likely if Dalton Prout isn't fully recovered in time for the season opener. He's an interesting player to keep an eye on, and if he doesn't make the Jackets, he can be unleashed on the AHL, to punish opposition forwards who linger too close to the Springfield cage.
Cody Goloubef had a cup of coffee with the Jackets last season, and left an impression on the organization and fans. He's got offensively ability, and is a very good skater. He'll either be a go-to defender for Springfield, or with a stellar camp, he could move up the ladder, forcing guys like Murray and/or Erixon to the AHL.
A player who is looking to bounce back after a tough season is David Savard. Savvy is known for his abilities with the puck, but it's his play without it that has troubled him. He is in a tight battle with Goloubef and Melart to unseat one of Murray or Erixon
The Other Guys
No matter how things shake out in camp, whether Murray can be the stud we think he is and nails down a starting spot, or if Erixon stakes claim to the NHL job he held last year, or if one of the wildcards steals the show and earns a spot outright-both the Jackets and Falcons will have very strong defensive units. Assuming for the sake of discussion that Tyutin, Johnson, Wisniewski, Nikitin, Prout, Murray and Erixon are on the Columbus roster, that would leave Melart, Goloubef and Savard as half of the starting sextet in Springy. Joining them are AHL vets Freddy St. Denis, Patrick McNeill and Blake Parlett. St. Denis and McNeill were UFA signings this summer, while Parlett was a mid-season acquisition last year who was re-signed this summer. Former second round pick Will Weber is in the mix as well, along with Joe Lavin, who is signed to an AHL-only deal. Austin Madaisky and Thomas Larkin are in-tough to earn spots, and are likely ticketed to Evansville of the ECHL, at least to start the season.