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?
Did reading that feel like déjà vu? Not surprising! Those are the opening words from last season’s preview of the Columbus Blue Jackets defenders heading into training camp. We’ll look at the contenders for the #6 and #7 spots followed by a few thoughts on the pairings.
Big Money Scott is fresh off a career best season in which he played 73 games, was a regular fixture on the penalty kill, and put up a 2-15-17 line on the third pairing. This was enough for the Jackets to throw money his way to the tune of 3 years and an AAV of $1.633M per season. It’s a bit of a head-scratcher, but we know Jarmo Kekäläinen isn’t one to just throw money at players after career seasons.
Kukan enters this season after making the most of his appearances at the end of last season. In a surprising turn of events, he meshed rather well with Adam McQuaid until an injury broke up the pairing. Kukan continued to play decently enough afterwards and stepped in after Nuti was knocked out of the playoffs. I thought he had done more than enough to warrant a legit spot in the competition for the 6th spot, but the Harrington deal may relegate him to the 7th spot. He’s in the last year of his contract.
Everything that can be said about Gavrikov is included in this Top 25 Under 25 entry. Vladislav had a good season, generally, and made an appearance for the Jackets in the playoffs. He didn’t look out of place, but it was also far too small a sample size. Still, he should be part of the 3-way fight for the 6th spot though I currently think he’s more likely to start the season in Cleveland.
Clendening primarily played in Cleveland last season but did have 4 regular season appearances with the CBJ and was pressed into duty during the playoffs. He’s part of the glut of defenders along that 6th-7th defenseman entry on the roster.
This off-season, we learned that Andrew Peeke is ready for professional hockey. It will likely just be in Cleveland. Peeke signed his entry-level contract after his collegiate season ended and was included on the playoff roster, though he did not play. His first professional season will be one of acclimatization.
Carlsson has been called up to the big dance before, so there’s always a chance that it will happen again. However, he seems to be frozen on the depth chart with new players sliding in front of him.
These defensemen made appearances on the Traverse City roster, but they are likely only factors for Cleveland at best. Michael Prapavessis, Tim Berni, Eric Hjorth, and Jacob Paquette.
The Possible Pairings
While the offense has had personnel change with Panarin departing and the goaltending is a clean slate, there’s a chance that a change in philosophy could make the blueline the most different part of this team when it comes to performance, even if none of the names on the ice are new. John Tortorella has stated the the team’s style will have to change given the changes in personnel. What does that mean? ‘Safe is Death’ is dead.
During my series on Elite Team units, I was unpleasantly surprised to see that team defensive metrics weren’t exactly stellar in recent years. However, I wasn’t able to dig into specific players. Others have. In the Athletic, Dom Luszczyszyn’s preview of Columbus includes this gem about Jones and Werenski last season:
For both, it’s a matter of defense, which is a different story…It was the first time in the last three years that the team was better defensively without its top pair on the ice, and it led to the duo posting an expected goals percentage that was below break-even, meaning even their excellent offense wasn’t enough to offset their defensive issues. It translated on the scoresheet too….it seems that Werenski might be the problem here as he’s struggled to handle the vigor of playing tougher minutes with Jones. As his usage has ramped up, his results have suffered and it’s his defensive numbers that balloon away from Jones, not the other way around.
This is where a reconfiguration of the team’s top four could provide a boost.
In past seasons, we’ve discussed splitting Jones and Z as a way of spreading the riches. It might be that splitting them up is a key to letting Werenski improve his defensive game. Perhaps being on the 2nd pair will allow him to be slightly protected by not taking on the big guns all the time – a role that anyone playing besides Jones will have to nail. Doing this might improve defensive performance for the team which might simply be necessary to keep as much pressure off of Korpilikins as possible.
So here are the possible pairings:
Jones – Murray
When healthy, Murray has been strong against all comers. He’s healthy now…so I’ll pencil him in. Jones is arguably a Top 5 defenseman in the league. How much better can he look if he’s not having to help out his defensive partner as much?
Savard – Werenski
Z will get strong support from Savard. Flop-defense aside, I think Savard can mesh with Werenski’s strengths. As a pairing, they should still play plenty of minutes but won’t draw the toughest assignments all the time.
Nutivaara – Harrington/Gavrikov
I see Kukan as the odd man out. Harrington had a bad knack for trying too hard to join offensive rushes which often left him way out of position. A change in philosophy might help him cut down on that kind of mistake and Nutivaara is a dependable babysitter. I’d rather see Gavrikov here, but I think he will ride the pine to start the season.
Should Jones and Werenski be split?
This poll is closed
No, you don’t split a top pairing up.
Yes, give Z a little breathing room.
Only if this results in a Jones-Wennberg pairing