Defensive Depth Will Lead to More Internal Competition at Blue Jackets Training Camp

By Rob Mixer on August 22, 2017 at 9:28 am
Ryan Murray
Brad Rempel - USA TODAY Sports

Much like a season ago, the Blue Jackets appear to be going into training camp with some unsettled business on their blueline.

The good news: it’s great news. For the first time in their history, the Blue Jackets have a legitimate, play-driving top defensive pairing in Zach Werenski (20 years old) and Seth Jones (23 years old). Werenski, a Calder Trophy finalist, teased the 50-point mark in a scintillating rookie season and Jones came into his own as a minutes-eating horse on the back end.

Jones can score, too.

Not only do they enjoy playing together, but their production gives John Tortorella no reason to consider a change. They’ll be together when the season starts and will likely quarterback the first and second power play units, respectively.

Jack Johnson and David Savard are expected to reprise their roles on the second pairing, again forming a duo that can play in offensive zone situations but also thrives against tough assignments, late in games, and so on.

The uncertainty rests on the third pairing, where a host of players rotated in and out of the mix during the 2016-17 season.

Ryan Murray was part of Team North America’s defense at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey and saw time with Jones. He had an inconsistent season with the Blue Jackets and has been bandied around in trade rumors (most consistently linked in a potential package for Colorado’s Matt Duchene), but the team protected him in the expansion draft and, assuming no deal gets done with the Avalanche, he will be part of the defense this fall.

Murray is a good player – he hasn’t yet become the player many thought he could be when Columbus drafted him second overall in 2012, but he’s shown glimpses through several bouts with injury – and we should expect the Blue Jackets to give him every opportunity to bounce back.

Markus Nutivaara was a pleasant surprise in Traverse City and right on through training camp and the preseason last year, earning himself a spot on the opening night roster and playing more than 60 games. A hip injury suffered in January hindered him the rest of the way, but undoubtedly showed enough in his rookie season to be considered one of the frontrunners to start the year as a third-pairing lock.

A year ago, the Blue Jackets broke camp with eight defensemen on their roster. They traded Cody Goloubef and Dalton Prout, let Kyle Quincey depart in free agency and signed Scott Harrington a new two-year contract.

“Harry is just a competitive guy and has grown on us as the year has gone on,” Tortorella said during the playoffs.

This year, they have Gabriel Carlsson in the mix after he caught Tortorella’s attention late in the season (and consequently earned a spot on the postseason roster). They are expecting Nutivaara to be healthy and ready to go after offseason hip surgery, and Harrington is fighting to stay in the NHL despite having a new contract in his hands.

Could they carry eight to open the season? Sure, but they also don’t want to get caught with only one extra forward, a road they’ve gone down before.

Every coach wants a competitive camp. Every coach wants to see a player or player(s) seize opportunity and force them into tough decisions, but sometimes numbers play a larger factor in those decisions. The Blue Jackets have four players – Murray, Nutivaara, Harrington and Carlsson – vying for two regular spots, which is a natural math problem that equals healthy competition.

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