The Columbus Blue Jackets will be entering training camp this year with a new-look defensive core that they hope will lead them into a new era under new head coach Brad Larsen.
Gone is long time mainstay and former number one workhorse defenseman Seth Jones, traded to the Chicago Blackhawks at the NHL Draft for Adam Boqvist and picks. In addition to bringing in Boqvist, the Jackets added Jake Bean from the Carolina Hurricanes and extended Andrew Peeke this offseason. Finally, the Blue Jackets made waves by extending Zach Werenski with the richest annual average deal in team history, keeping the former eighth overall pick in town for the next seven years.
Several familiar faces remain on the roster and in training camp as well - Vladislav Gavrikov is entering the second year of a three year contract extension. Dean Kukan and Scott Harrington are entering the final years of their contact extensions. Mikko Lehtonen, acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs last season, was brought back on a one year contract extension. Gavin Bayreuther, drafted by the Seattle Kraken but not signed, was brought back.
As the team heads to training camp, a clear pecking order seems to be set - the real battle will be around where the players slot into the lineup and how roles are defined. With that in mind, let’s dive in to see where these players may fall and who could earn minutes in the NHL this season.
Before diving in, a full rundown of the defensemen the team will be hosting in training camp this season:
Now, with 22 defensemen among three groups in camp, obviously most of these players will not make the NHL roster. Locks for the roster include: Zach Werenski, Vladislav Gavrikov, Adam Boqvist, Jake Bean, and Andrew Peeke. Likely roster players are Mikko Lehtonen, Scott Harrington, and Dean Kukan. Wild cards for the roster include Gavin Bayreuther, who impressed the previous coaching staff in limited minutes last year, and longtime AHL tweener Gabriel Carlsson.
Most Blue Jackets fans will spend their defensive focus picking out how the pairs shape up throughout camp. In a Q&A with The Athletic, Brad Larsen noted that he had some ideas for where players would line up (but declined to share them, obviously):
You have to be able to defend or you’re never going to get in the offensive zone. So those pairings are getting sorted out, just like the forward lines. Look at some of our guys who have been here for a while. Scott Harrington, a penalty-kill defenseman, might get an opportunity. Gabriel Carlsson … what’s he going to look like in camp? He’s a big, rangy guy. Andrew Peeke is another guy — a right-hand shot — with a lot of potential there, even though he didn’t have his greatest year last year. The door is open here in a lot of areas, and the players are going to decide.
Even though the coach isn’t talking, we can speculate on what roster construction will look like.
Zach Werenski is unquestionably the number one defenseman on the roster. He will have every opportunity this season to prove he is one of the best defensemen in the game this year - minutes, power play time, matchups with other big time players. It is all there for the taking.
Who he pairs with, however, is a question mark. As we know, the Blue Jackets like to match right and left handed shots on their pairings. This would leave potential partners as: Andrew Peeke and Adam Boqvist among those likely to make the roster. Of the two, Peeke offers more tenure and NHL experience, but Boqvist offers the draft and talent pedigree as well as upside to learn from an established defenseman (much the way Werenski learned from Seth Jones in his early years of development).
I would expect the first pair, at least to start the season, to be Zach Werenski and Adam Boqvist.
In much the same way as the first pairing, this one is easy to figure out due to the shot of each defenseman. The mainstay on this pair will Vladislav Gavrikov. Gavrikov has been viewed as a reliable shutdown defenseman since his arrival in Columbus, and that role appears unlikely to change, especially with longtime partner David Savard now a member of the Montreal Canadians. Gavrikov had a disappointing season last year, but will be looking to bounce back in a big way this season.
If the Blue Jackets continue their past history of matching right and left handed defensemen, expect to see Andrew Peeke on the second pairing. Peeke was a disappointment last season, appearing in just 11 games with three points and was frequently a healthy scratch. Even so, he earned a two year contract extension from the club and will certainly get a chance to prove himself this year.
As one of two right-shot defensemen on the roster, expect him to get ample opportunity to showcase his talent and development this season.
One would expect Jake Bean to debut on the third pairing for the Blue Jackets. Bean, most recently a Carolina Hurricane and a power play quarterback for the Central Division winners, posted 1-11-12 in 42 games. Bean, acquired for a second round pick that the Blue Jackets acquired in exchange for Seth Jones, is a former first round pick who signed a three year, $7 million extension upon his arrival in Columbus. Contract status plus cost of acquisition nearly assures that he will be on the roster on opening night. The expectation will be that Jake Bean can step into a larger and more consistent role this season for a team that needs his potential offensive capabilities and playmaking on the rush.
That leaves the sixth spot up for grabs. With no other right shot defensemen, the team will have to find a good match for Bean on the pairing. Options include longtime roster mainstays Scott Harrington (a frequent healthy scratch last season, with just 12 appearances), Dean Kukan (35 appearances last season), and Mikko Lehtonen (17 appearances post-trade for Columbus). I expect rotation between Kukan and Lehtonen here, but with Lehtonen as the veteran who was re-signed this summer, I would not be surprised to see him start the season on the third pairing.
As mentioned, Scott Harrington and Dean Kukan have often been healthy scratches for the club in the past, spare defensemen in case of illness or injuries, and they will likely be the same this year. Both are in the final year of their respective contracts, and for a team that has long carried a minimum of eight defensemen on the 23 man roster, they are a cheap option that can be reliable in third pairing minutes in a last-minute pinch.
Tim Berni and Stanislav Svozil are intriguing call-up candidates, though. Both are coming to North America for the first time, and will likely start in the AHL for their development. But, if either of these young players pan out, could they earn a call-up? Time will tell.
What are you most looking forward to in training camp from the defensemen?