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2022 Training Camp Battles: Defense

The teams’ success will be defined by the improvement of the defense

NHL: FEB 15 Blue Jackets at Flames Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As the Blue Jackets hit the ice for the first time this year, we’re taking a look at some of the major storylines of training camp. Yesterday, we took a look at the forwards, and today we’ll discuss the major questions facing the Columbus Blue Jackets defensive corps.

While the offense was setting records for most goals scored in a season last year, the defense was, unfortunately, setting their own record for the most goals allowed in a season.

There are a bunch of questions facing the Blue Jackets’ defense, so let’s take a look at a few of them.

Pairings

First, the elephant in the room: Who’s playing with who?

I think we can pretty much all agree that heading into training camp the defensive unit looks as such:

Werenski - xxxxx
Gavrikov - xxxxx
Gudbranson - xxxxx

Now who slots in those three other spots is anybody’s guess. Adam Boqvist, Jake Bean, Andrew Peeke, Nick Blankenburg and possibly even recent #6 overall draft pick David Jiricek.

If I was creating the pairings, I’d probably stick Peeke back on the top pairing almost out of necessity in order to balance it out in terms of offense and defense. Same goes for the second pairing, where I’d slot in Adam Boqvist to add the offensive punch while Vlad handles the stay-at-home duties. The final spot on the third pairing will belong to whoever comes out on top of the battle royale between Jake Bean, Nick Blankenburg, and David Jiricek. I’m not including Gavin Bayreuther in that mix, since he should AT BEST be considered the 7th defenseman, similar to Scott Harrington.

I’d love to see Jiricek playing next to the grizzled vet in Erik Gudbranson, but I just don’t think he’s ready yet. His time will come, but his youth was on display a bit in Traverse City against prospects, and I’m not sure how much good it would do him to be tossed directly into the NHL. Once he is ready though, I think Gudbranson would be a great first partner to acclimate to the NHL with.

Toughness

All throughout last year, it was painfully obvious the defense was lacking toughness both mentally and physically. Did the Jackets do enough to address this shortcoming?

As for the physicality of the defense, they relied on Andrew Peeke, a player in his first full season, who never really played that type of game. All things considered, Peeke performed admirably but it was a bit unfair for that role to fall on his shoulders. Peeke took it upon himself to improve his own performance in this aspect of his game, adding 10-12 lbs of muscle to handle the rigors of the heavy game he has been asked to play. As long as he didn’t lose a step with the extra weight, this should only help his chances to play big minutes, perhaps even on the top pairing.

Jarmo Kekalainen also addressed this issue by signing Erik Gudbranson to a 4-year-deal to really anchor the back end and provide the element of toughness the team was so sorely lacking. He will absolutely make opponents think twice before going into those dirty areas in front of the net that the Jackets so often left open last year. Gudbranson is more than a big body though, and by all accounts is a strong voice and beloved figure in the locker room wherever he has been. He’s also the type of guy the team needed in order to drag others into the fight. He’s the type of character player that should help this team get back on track in the fundamentals of playing defense, such as shot blocking, positioning, and most importantly keeping the puck out of your own net.

The team’s mental toughness was called into question on a few occasions last year with loads of self-inflicted errors and being unable to close out games, not to mention allowing almost 300 goals.

Larsen and staff have committed to improving the defense this year, getting the team to understand that trying to win high scoring games isn’t a recipe for success. Two major areas of focus are to eliminate the success teams had against the Jackets with cross crease passes, and to get back to their roots and be a better shot blocking team. If not for Andrew Peeke and Vladislav Gavrikov, this team would have most likely ranked dead last in that department after having been a top-5 team under John Tortorella.

Next Level

If the Jackets want to have any realistic shot of making some noise and potentially returning to the playoffs, they will need at least one player to take the next step in their development. Who will be the player to reach that elusive “next level”?

Adam Boqvist is the first name that comes to mind for pretty much everybody. Boqvist’s draft pedigree alone (#8 overall in 2018 NHL Draft) implies he should be the next player to breakout on the defense. The offensive part of his game is already high-end, but the actual defensive skillset needs refining. Boqvist has historically been soft on the puck and in need of more muscle to withstand the forechecking and physicality of opposing teams. Early in his career, he has also been prone to injury, missing large chunks of games every year he has been in the NHL. Bulking up and adding muscle should go a long way in rounding out the rest of his game and really locking him into the top-4 role the Jackets imagined he’d fill out when they traded Seth Jones for him. As long as he remains healthy, I do believe he will really cement his role in the lineup, ideally alongside Vladislav Gavrikov on the second pairing.

I’m also curious to see how Nick Blankenburg holds up in his first full year of professional hockey. He was practically unknown at the time he was signed last season and was an immediate impact player, passing a few lineup regulars on the depth chart in no time at all. As an undersized defenseman, I am very curious to see if he can keep up his level of play and remain in the lineup throughout the marathon of an 82 game season. Management must believe so, since he was given a one-way contract extension this summer. We’ll see if his success was the real deal or if it was a flash in the pan.

Lastly and unsurprisingly, Jake Bean is the other candidate here. It feels like Bean’s name has been largely overlooked and considered somewhat of an afterthought. Bean was another highly regarded young player who just hasn’t put it together yet in the NHL. He was a 1st round pick and was the best defenseman in the AHL prior to making the jump to the big leagues, but has yet to really find his role. He had his moments last year, but the Jackets will definitely need to see more from him this year if he wants to stick in a very competitive defensive unit. Like Boqvist, Bean’s biggest liability was his lack of toughness and size, topping out around 175lbs. Another 15lbs would go a long way in his development, and management and coaching were surely not shy to let him know that headed into the offseason. We will see if he took their words to heart and see what kind of shape he showed up to camp in.

What big storylines are you watching heading into the season?