Going into this shortened season, the Columbus Blue Jackets will have a new look blue line for the first time in several seasons. While there are some familiar faces that will be returning, the team will be without Ryan Murray, the former number two overall pick, and Markus Nutivaara, a former seventh round gem.
Murray was traded to the New Jersey Devils in the offseason for a 2021 fifth round pick.
Nutivaara was traded to the Florida Panthers for AHL/ECHL tweener Cliff Pu.
With those space clearing moves, the Jackets head into camp with the following lines and defensive pairings:
#CBJ opening lines, from up top, as I squinted.— Jeff Svoboda (@JacketsInsider) January 4, 2021
Korpisalo and Merzlikins in net with Group 1
With this practice group in mind, let’s take a look at the battle among the defensemen to be one of the six in the lineup when the season opens in Nashville next week.
The Top Pairing
Seth Jones and Zach Werenski.
Among the best pairings in the NHL, and consistently rated as two of the top 15 defensemen in the league, Jones and Werenski will be asked to carry the brunt of the load for the team on defense and, at the same time, shoulder a significant amount of the offensive burden. Werenski led the NHL goals last season, and Jones has chipped in offense at critical times for the franchise.
If you can ask that a pairing that does so much already to do more, the Blue Jackets will do exactly that. Jones, 6-24-30 with a 49.3% CF% last season, will be looking to regain his Norris-caliber form following a season cut short by his broken foot before the pause. Werenski, 20-21-41 with a 49.9% CF%, will look to build on a season where he finished eighth in the Norris Trophy voting.
It goes without saying: the first pairing is the engine of the team, and the Blue Jackets will only go as far as the top pairing can take them.
The Steady Middle
Despite getting caved in against the Lightning (remember, they were on ice for 10 of the 13 5v5 goals the Bolts scored), David Savard and Vladislav Gavrikov formed a steady if unspectacular pairing that could eat minutes during the regular season. Savard finished with 11 assists and averaged 20:41 per night with a 46.5% CF% while Gavrikov played 18:59 per night, notched 5-13-18, and sported a 49% CF%.
Savard is another year older, and not getting any faster, and Gavrikov is entering just his second season for Columbus, which should see him improve. If those minute levels were to be switched to compensate for Savard’s age and lack of footspeed, the pairing could continue to be productive.
It must be noted, however, the concerns that surfaced during the playoffs against the Lightning. This pairing was absolutely annihilated at even strength by the champions, so that is a concern to monitor heading into the new season.
The Fight for the Bottom Pairing
The Blue Jackets training group right now features four players fighting for the final two spots in the lineup, and according to Coach Tortorella, it’s been a close battle:
Torts says there's a major battle for the 5-6 spots on the defensive corps. So far it's been Kukan, Peeke, Harrington and Del Zotto working with group one battling for those spots. #CBJ— Jeff Svoboda (@JacketsInsider) January 5, 2021
Last season, Dean Kukan played 33 regular season games for the Blue Jackets, post 1-4-5 in 15:58 per night with a 50.7% CF%. He established himself a constant in the lineup in the postseason, playing in all but one game in the bubble for the Jackets.
Scott Harrington played 39 games for the Jackets, notching 1-7-8 in 13:47 per night with a 46.5% CF%. He was healthy scratched for nine of the ten bubble games, playing 18:44 in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs (game four, in which the Leafs scored three straight goals in four minutes to end the game and then win in overtime).
Andrew Peeke appeared in 22 games for the Blue Jackets last season, playing 13:51 per night. He registered 1-2-3 with a 50.9% CF%. Peeke did not play in the bubble for the Blue Jackets.
Michael Del Zotto, signed on a PTO, appeared in 49 games with the Anaheim Ducks last season. He scored 2-13-15 in 18:43 with a 46.3% CF%. Del Zotto, 30 years old, has played in 657 career games over his NHL career, spending time with the New York Rangers, Nashville Predators, Philadelphia Flyers, Vancouver Canucks, St. Louis Blues, and Anaheim Ducks.
Given his role in the postseason for the Blue Jackets, it is reasonable to assume that, with a good performance in training camp, Dean Kukan will get the start on the third pairing, leaving open a battle for the final spot. If Del Zotto makes the team, he could get a look, but Andrew Peeke will likely start opposite Kukan. Fans and the front office have seen what Scott Harrington offers the team, while Andrew Peeke can grow into a better player with time and experience.
Last season, the Blue Jackets often carried eight defensemen. It is entirely possible that all eight of these defensemen are kept around in case of injuries, COVID-positive tests, or general wear and tear of a truncated season.
Who do you want to see in the top six on opening night?