While Jarmo and the front office spent the bulk of the off-season tinkering with the forwards (primarily flipping Umberger for Hartnell and adding more two-way contracts on the 4th line), the defensive corps remained largely untouched. The defense should look very familiar to fans to start the season.
At the trade deadline last season, Kekalainen sent a 5th-round pick to Edmonton to pick up veteran Nick Schultz for the stretch run into the playoffs. Schultz ended up notching one assist in nine games for the CBJ and appeared in two playoff games. There was no attempt to re-sign him after the season and he signed a one-year deal with the Philadelphia Flyers with an AAV of just $1.25 million.
That same 5th-round pick came back to Columbus leading up to the draft when Edmonton sent it back in exchange for Nikita Nikitin. He ended up signing a 2 year, $9 million deal with the Oilers and leaves Columbus after appearing in 158 regular season games for the Blue Jackets.
Other than re-signing their RFAs (David Savard, Tim Erixon, Dalton Prout, and Cody Goloubef) to modest deals, the front office chose to keep the blueline intact and did not add players via free agency or any other trades.
Jack Johnson started off 2013-2014 rather poorly, but a surprise Olympic snub seemed to kick his game into gear. He finished with 33 points (5 G, 28A) while playing in all 82 regular season games. But he turned into "beast mode" for the playoffs - logging 3 goals and 4 assists in the six-game series against Pittsburgh. He also drew tough defensive assignments against Crosby and Malkin and held his own.
The Advanced Stats crowd seems to loathe Jack Johnson, but he's been a leader in the past for Team USA and dons an "A' currently in Columbus. He'll throw his weight around for some big hits and is known for puck-carrying and offensive abilities. He'll likely draw in against the opposing team's top lines playing on the top pairing and will probably anchor the first power play unit once again. It is clear Todd Richards trusts #7 and will utilize him in any and every situation on the ice.
Fedor Tyutin was Johnson's most frequent partner on the top pair, though an ankle injury at the Olympics slowed him down for the remainder of last season and he appeared in just four playoff games. Fedor has been with the CBJ since 2008 and has been a staple on the top pair for the last few years. There are a few factors working against him now, though - he's 31, coming off an injury last season, and there is plenty of young talent pushing for ice time.
If the coaching staff opts to go back to a lefty and righty on each pair, Tyutin could slot down with a younger right-handed partner on the 2nd or 3rd pair. The counter to that is that he has been pretty effective with Johnson as his partner and they've played well together. Tyutin put up 22 points (4G, 18A) in lockout-season of 48 games, but managed just 26 (4G, 22A) in 69 contests last year. Based on prior years it would appear the 0.45 points per game pace from a couple season ago is an outlier. Assuming he's fully recovered, the Russian should provide a strong two-way game and should see the ice in all situations.
Ryan Murray emerged as a steady force on the blue line in his rookie season after being forced to miss all of the lockout-shortened season due to a shoulder injury. The #2 overall pick from the 2012 Draft came to Columbus and displayed the poise of a long-time veteran. Murray played almost exclusively with James Wisniewski, making a rather unique pair but it worked for them. Wisniewski is much more boisterous, both with his play and in talk. Murray is just the opposite - calm, cool, even quiet. His even-keeled play allowed Wisniewski to take more offensive risks and realize he had a capable partner of covering for him on the back end.
Murray was thought to be lost for the season after sustaining a knee injury in March, but he battled back at the end of the season. He appeared in five playoff games, despite a foot injury, after he put up 4-17-21 in 66 regular season games. For stretches last year, one might have thought Murray was the most well-rounded Jackets defenseman. After an errant pass to set up a Calgary goal in the season opener, Murray rarely made the "big mistake," opting instead for the simple play most times. His minutes should increase this season as he'll likely see time on the 2nd PP unit and PK.
James Wisniewski made up the other half of the 2nd pairing last year as I mentioned, and was able to finally put together his first full season (75 games) since signing his big deal with Columbus in the summer of 2011. He struggled in the playoffs due to injury, but the front office and fans had to be pleased with his offensive production during the regular season, as he posted 7 goals and 44 assists, a franchise record for points by a defenseman. He was able to utilize his mammoth slap shot on the power play effectively and having Murray alongside him at even strength seemed to help him out as well.
Wiz should figure to be a fixture on the power play again and he'll look to top 50 points again. As it always seems to be, Wisniewski's health will be a major factor. The 75 games he played last season tied for the most games he's played in an NHL season, a feat he matched one other time (2010-2011 between the Islanders and Canadiens). Wiz has seemed to tone down some of his aggressiveness in "controversial" hits and has avoided suspension since he was suspended for his hit on the "defenseless" Cal Clutterbuck in the preseason of 2011-2012.
The Safe Bets
David Savard took his exit interview evaluation very seriously going into the summer of 2013, and showed up at camp in fantastic shape. He surprised some folks by earning a spot last season and he never looked back. Savvy registered four assists in his six postseason games and was moved around quite a bit due to all of the injuries, often drawing the top assignment alongside Jack Johnson. He's a borderline "lock" - he could be the odd man out if both Tim Erixon and Dalton Prout come in and outplay him or if David takes a step back in his conditioning. Savard notched 5-10-15 in his first full regular season in the NHL over 70 games played. He was a very pleasant surprise for the team last year and could very well increase his offensive production in the coming season.
Dalton Prout burst onto the scene in the lockout season of 2013 due to injuries - literally walking into the United Center partway through the game because his flight that day was delayed. He provided no-nonsense, stay-at-home defense for the CBJ that year, but came into camp this past season recovering from abdominal surgery. He never seemed to quite get back to his form from the year prior, and was battling Savard, Murray, and Nikitin for playing time when all were healthy. He's never going to put up offensive numbers, but that certainly doesn't mean his value from the red line back does not go unnoticed. He should either start on the 3rd pair or will be the 7th D depending on how camp goes. At times in the past he has played up on the top pair with Jack Johnson, but Savard may be the first guy moved up now.
The Jackets will almost certainly carry 7 D this year (heck, they had 8 D at points late last year), but the ordering of these last three is yet to be determined. Tim Erixon should be in the mix for that 3rd pairing after he bounced between Columbus and Springfield last year. Erixon put up 37 points (5G, 32A) for the Falcons but only appeared in a couple of games for the Blue Jackets. The emergence of Savard, Prout, and a healthy Murray pushed him back down the depth chart after playing in 31 games during the shortened season the year before. Erixon has been able to show off his offensive talents in the SHL and AHL, but this has yet to translate to the NHL, where he has just 7 assists in 51 career games. If he does not up end up starting at the beginning of the season, he will be right in the mix for the seventh D-man position.
The Wild Cards
The top 7 appear to be largely set, with perhaps the main competition only being between Prout and Erixon for the 6th and final spot. That said, there is always somebody who could surprise and play their way into a roster spot. That appears less likely this season, but never say never.
Cody Goloubef would be a prime candidate to surprise. He's bounced back and forth between Springfield and Columbus for a few years now, appearing in 17 NHL games. It seems as if he's 8th on the depth chart now, but some off-season progress could move him up if he can surprise at camp. That doesn't seem all too likely as this will be his fifth year since signing his ELC. Still, he should expect to see some action for the Jackets this season given that injuries do inevitably occur.
The Other Guys
After those eight guys, there seems to be a bit of a drop off to the rest of the defensemen. Will Weber is back on a one-year deal as is AHL journeyman Frederic St. Denis. Matt Taormina, Thomas Larkin, and Austin Madaisky are also under contract, but are probably long shots to see ice time for Columbus.