With training camp just about a month away, the Columbus Blue Jackets will have quite a few new faces making their debuts in the Union Blue. Arguably, the biggest changes for the CBJ next season will be on the back end. In a single year, the Jackets lost their longest tenured and grittiest defenseman in David Savard as well as their #1 workhorse, Seth Jones. However, with a few shrewd trades, Jarmo Kekalainen was able to reshape his defensive corps, and potentially create a solid foundation for the better part of the next decade.
There are numerous options when it comes to pairings, considering the glut of depth at the position (specifically on the third pairing). How might Brad Larsen and staff utilize all of the young talent on the blue line? I’ll break down how I could see things shaking out.
Zach Werenski - Adam Boqvist
I struggled a bit to decide who to pair up with the Blue Jackets’ new undisputed #1 defenseman. Initially, I had Vladislav Gavrikov playing on the top pairing next to Werenski, allowing Zach to return to his “rover” role where he can play an aggressive, uninhibited style. With that being said, as the new leader of the defense, Zach will need continue to develop his all-around game, in addition to being an elite offensive defenseman. It was this reason that I slotted the newly acquired, Adam Boqvist, on the top pairing.
It is quite the promotion for Boqvist who is still just 20 years old. He is entering his third season in the league and has averaged just a shade under 17 minutes per game in his short career. However, most of that time was spent playing alongside a potential future Hall of Fame player, Duncan Keith. His situation is similar to Seth Jones — the player he is replacing — when he was traded to Columbus in 2016. Obviously, there will be some growing pains along the way, but I do think Boqvist has top pair potential and he may just get the chance to prove it sooner rather than later.
The risk in this pairing is evident, but this is a high-risk, very high-reward pairing. After all, you don’t have to play much defense if you are mostly in the offensive zone.
Vladislav Gavrikov - Jake Bean
Once I had the top pairing settled in my mind, the second pair was a no-brainer. Gavrikov is my wild card when it comes to the Jackets’ defense as he’s someone who can slot in anywhere and be pretty effective. As stated above, I originally had him playing with Werenski on the top pairing, but that left a very young and inexperienced second pairing if Boqvist and Bean were together.
Jake Bean is a player who I think will THRIVE playing with someone like Vlad. Bean is the most overlooked acquisition in my eyes. It took a little longer for Bean to establish himself as a full-time NHLer, but now that he will be in an increased role, he is a prime breakout candidate. With a responsible partner like Gavrikov, Bean could be allowed to realize his full offensive potential that made him a first round pick.
Andrew Peeke - Mikko Lehtonen/Dean Kukan/Gabriel Carlsson/Gavin Bayreuther
The third pairing is where anyone’s guess is as good as mine. The Blue Jackets are not short on bottom pairing defenseman and will have lots of options when it comes to rounding out the top 6.
I do think Andrew Peeke will be a regular in the lineup this year. He was often inexplicably scratched for extended stretches last season. The only reason that potentially made sense was that the Blue Jackets wanted to see what they had in some other bottom pairing defenseman, and were confident in Peeke moving forward. I still think that was a mistake and robbed Peeke of valuable game experience.
Personally, I hope to see Mikko Lehtonen take the next step and stake his claim as an NHL player. Recently having signed a one-year extension, this is quite possibly his last shot at sticking in the league. I can’t imagine him bouncing around the league struggling to find consistent playing time, when he can return to Europe and play a large role in a league where he has already had prior success.
Dean Kukan and Gabriel Carlsson are the two others who will fight for playing time. Kukan, at 28 years old, is what he is at this point, while Carlsson still is relatively young at 24, but has yet to establish himself in the NHL. Both of these guys were available to Seattle and thought to be realistic targets. In the end, Seattle decided they didn’t want anyone from the Jackets’ roster, proven by the fact that Gavin Bayreuther is also back somewhere in the mix for the final spot.
Scott Harrington is also still on the team, but should not be considered in the running for a spot in the top 6.
Regardless of how the pairings shake out, this is going to be a very young and exciting unit. There is a lot of high-end talent that has the potential to grow and enter their primes together, which will make for some very entertaining hockey for Blue Jackets fans.