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Training Camp Battles: Defense

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What will the Blue Jackets Blue Line look like this year?

Minnesota Wild v Columbus Blue Jackets Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

Already this week, we’ve looked at training camp battles for the centers and the wings. Today, as training camp officially opens, we finish our series by looking at the Columbus defense.

Five of the six spots are already spoken for: Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, Markus Nutivaara, David Savard, and Ryan Murray. Who will be the sixth everyday defenseman?

Dean Kukan

Top 25 Under 25: #14
2017-18 Player Review

At this point, Kukan would be my choice for the last spot. He impressed in his 11 games last season (4 assists, 56.3 CF%), and also stood out in the World Championships for his native Switzerland as they won the silver medal (1 goal and 2 assists in 10 games).

He signed a new two year contract in March. It’s a one way deal and he’s no longer waiver exempt, so he should at least make the roster. Here’s hoping he earns playing time and not just a pass for the press box.

Scott Harrington

Top 25 Under 25: #23
2017-18 Player Review

Speaking of the press box...if Harrington even makes the roster, he will likely serve the same role as last year, as the spare defenseman most nights. When he did get the chance to play last season he did not impress. If the team chooses to go in a different direction, his $675,00 cap hit could easily be stashed in Cleveland if he cleared waivers.

Gabriel Carlsson

Top 25 Under 25: #17

Carlsson surprised many of us by making the team out of camp last season, ahead of Nutivaara. He lasted four games before being sent back to Cleveland. Injuries marred his seasons in both locations as he only managed 14 games in Columbus and 33 with the Monsters. Is he ready now, or does he need one more full season in the AHL?

He is not known for his offense, and one wonders how much room there is for a stay-at home defender on this roster. Savard and Murray already fill that role, and next year Vladislav Gavrikov could arrive from Russia and surpass Carlsson on the depth chart.

He’s got one fan, at least, in John Tortorella. In a recent interview with The Athletic, Torts singled out Carlsson when talking about the defense:

Don’t forget about Carlsson. I called him this summer. He had a bad back that wrecked his season. But remember when he first came in here (in 2017), he did some good things.

Others

Tommy Cross, Adam Clendening, and Dillon Simpson were signed to two-way deals on the first day of free agency. Returning Monsters include Ryan Collins, Doyle Somerby, Blake Siebenaler, Brady Austin, and Garrett Cockerill. Michael Prapavessis, Jordan Sambrook, and Justin Wade are camp invites who were part of the Traverse City championship team this past weekend.

The Pairings

With departures of Jack Johnson and Ian Cole, and the rise of Markus Nutivaara, the defensive pairings are going to look different this year.

The first pairing of Jones and Werenski will remain untouched...for now. In that same interview, Torts acknowledged the possibility of splitting them up:

Q: There are some question marks back there now. Do you know what your second pair is heading into camp?

No, I don’t, but I know you, and you’re gonna get to your Jones and Werenski thing, as far as do we split them up? It certainly makes me think about it, and I have thought about it this summer. I’m going to let it play out. Right now I’m going into the season with ‘Z’ and Jonesy together, and we’ll see what comes of that second pair. I think (Markus) Nutivaara has improved tremendously. I think Murr (Ryan Murray) looked different to me in the playoffs. He can’t even grow a beard yet, he’s just got this stuff all over his face, but he looked different to me. He had more of a game face than I’ve seen since I coached him. He was really good in the playoffs. Can he take those minutes? I know he wants to. I know he’s pissed at me that I don’t give him enough time at certain times, but hopefully, he stays healthy and plays with an attitude. I thought he played with an attitude in the playoffs.

If Nutivaara is getting second pair minutes, do you keep him with Ryan Murray, his most frequent partner? Or do you pair him with David Savard, an incumbent second pair defenseman and the current dean of the Jackets blue line?

Torts may have tipped his hand with the pairings included in the player groups at camp. Nuti and Savard are both in Group 1. Carlsson and Murray are in Group 4. Kukan and Harrington are in Group 3. With Murray a lock to make the roster, does this suggest that Carlsson has a leg up in the competition?

Another fun wrinkle is the recovery of Werenski from his shoulder injury. He is expected to be ready for the start of the regular season, but will likely skip many of the early preseason games. That creates more minutes for everyone else.