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Diving into the Depth Chart - The defense looks to improve

The youth are coming, but when will they be ready?

Columbus Blue Jackets v Carolina Hurricanes Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images

While we wait out the rest of summer, watching anxiously to see what the next move will be for the Columbus Blue Jackets, we at the Cannon figured it’d be a great time to examine the team’s depth chart. Yesterday, Josh covered the Wings; today we’ll be looking at the Defense.

Unlike the Wings, the defensive end is a position of weakness for the Blue Jackets. All Star Zach Werenski and shutdown player Vladislav Gavrikov are the only two certain of their role - the top two spots on the left side - but the other four spots are mostly a crapshoot. And with last year’s team giving up the most goals in franchise history, at 297 or 3.62 per game, someone needs to step up.

We’ll do this by what I think will be the pairings we see on opening night, although all of this is subject to change as the team looks to clear cap space for a Laine signing.

Top Pair - Zach Werenski and Andrew Peeke

Werenski is the leader of the defensive unit, and easily the best player. The 25-year-old put up 11 goals and 48 points in 68 games last year, or a 58-point pace. He’s arguably the face of the franchise, is the most reliable defenseman on the roster, and eats a ton of minutes, averaging almost 26 minutes a night last season. He’s awesome and I love him and I’ll cry if he ever leaves.

Andrew Peeke spent the most time of anyone alongside Werenski, and I don’t see that changing this year. He plays more defensively, seeing a lot of penalty kill usage and blocking 169 shots last year, good enough for 5th in the NHL. He was also one of two Blue Jackets to play in all 82 games last year. He only got 15 points, but as mentioned, that’s not really his role.

Second Pair - Vladislav Gavrikov and Adam Boqvist

As mentioned, Gavrikov is the other lock on defense for the CBJ. He was second on the team in scoring last season with 33 points, but is also completely able to hold his own in the defensive end, and wasn’t afraid to throw around his body as the biggest guy on the team last year.

Acquired in the Seth Jones trade last year, Adam Boqvist has seemingly been in a lot of trade rumors this season, and to be honest, I don’t really get it. The kid is will barely be 22 when the season starts, is under team control for through 2026, and tied Werenski with 11 goals, despite playing only 56 games. He was on pace for 32 points last year at age 21. You have to let a guy like that continue to grow, and he’ll get his chance next to Gavvy.

Third Pair - Jake Bean/Nick Blankenburg and Erik Gudbransson

Erik Gudbransson was signed to a four-year, 16-million-dollar contract last week because he’s big, and hopefully decent enough at hockey. He’s alright offensively and trash defensively. I just wrote about the signing last week, so check that article out if you want more details. Spoiler: it ain’t pretty.

Jake Bean is also in the Seth Jones trade tree, and may be part of another trade by the time the season starts. The Jackets need to clear cap space to sign Patrik Laine, and after Gus Nyquist, Jake Bean is the next most obvious choice. The kid put up seven goals and 25 points last year, and still has room to grow, but it may be a case the most obvious move being the right move.

Should Bean be traded, look for Nick Blankenburg to take the sixth spot on defense. The rookie out of Michigan looked fantastic at the end of last season, putting up three points in seven games and stealing the show from classmate Kent Johnson. He’s only 5’9” and 175 pounds, but in his brief sample last season, he played like he was seven inches taller and 50 pounds heavier, instantly winning the hearts of a large portion of the fanbase. He also served as a Michigan’s captain last season, so he has those leadership intangibles coaches rave about, too.

The Prospects

Jake Christansen was the other defenseman still under contract to see NHL ice last year, looking decisively alright. Nothing too crazy. And as a borderline-NHL defenseman, that’s exactly what you want. Expect him to fill a similar role as the seventh or eighth defenseman, filling in when there’s injuries.

David Jiricek was drafted sixth overall in this year’s draft, and is more of a longshot to make the opening roster. He’ll probably start with Cleveland, but don’t be surprised if he gets a game or two when the injury bug hits. Expect him in the NHL next season.

Corson Ceulemans is also a recent draftee, going 25th overall in 2021. He put up 7 goals and 22 points in 34 games with the University of Wisconsin last year, and, like Jiricek, will likely start in Cleveland but get a few games.

Denton Mateychuk was also drafted this year, 12th overall. He’ll likely return to the Moose Jaw Warriors of the WHL this year. I’d expect him in 2024, maybe next year if he develops quickly.

In the system

Tim Berni
Marcus Bjork
Samuel Knazko
Stanislav Svozil
Ole Bjorgvik-Holm
Aidan Hreschuk
Billy Sweezey

While there’s still question marks, it’s important to note that, aside from Gudbransson, Gavrikov is the oldest defenseman on the roster. Also, the Blue Jackets dealt with a last-minute change to the defense coach last season, leading to a mad scramble to get a system together. Those two factors, combined with added competition from the new additions, makes it entirely possible that the defense improves considerably with just small tweaks. This is the last “building year” for this D core; let’s see how they do.