For Columbus Blue Jackets rookie defenseman Andrew Peeke, 2019-20 was a season full of unexpected twists and turns.
In the spring, Peeke left Notre Dame, whom he captained as a junior, to pursue professional hockey. In three seasons with the Fighting Irish, the 34th overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft showed an aptitude for shut-down defense and leadership but limited offense, scoring 4, 5, and 3 goals in each of his three seasons.
From Jeff Svoboda of the team's official website:
Defense has been Peeke's calling card throughout, as the second-round pick was always billed as someone who could be a shutdown defenseman given his physicality, size and ability to play with his stick. But the past two seasons have proved there might be some offensive upside in the Parkland, Fla., native's game as well.
In the fall of 2019, Peeke showed well for himself at the Blue Jackets training camp and was the club's final cut. He was ultimately sent to AHL Cleveland to develop his game. After a solid start to his rookie season in Cleveland and a rash of injuries to the big club (you may have heard), Peeke made his NHL debut on December 5.
The Parkland, FL, native, who turned 22 during the pause, did more than fill a hole for the team; he excelled. John Tortorella may have been careful with his deployment at first, but through his 22 games, Peeke had more defensive zone starts (42) than offensive zone starts (39), per NaturalStatTrick (5v5). His 52.38% goals for-percentage ranks fourth among Blue Jackets defensemen, trailing only Markus Nutivaara (53.13%), Seth Jones (55.13%), and Zach Werenski (56.32%). His raw offensive numbers (1-2-3) won't jump off the page at you, but he did post an impressive 5-11-16 in 29 games as a rookie in the AHL. Just as he started to really find his footing in the NHL, the season was shut down due to COVID-19.
As it stands today, he's behind Jones, Werenski, Ryan Murray, David Savard, and Vladislav Gavrikov on the depth chart, leaving one playing spot for one of him, Nutivaara, Dean Kukan, and Scott Harrington.
First NHL goal for Andrew Peeke! pic.twitter.com/U3isT1etKU— Columbus Blue Jackets (@BlueJacketsNHL) February 16, 2020
It's unlikely to say that he'll beat out Nutivaara or Kukan this year, and will likely be sent to the AHL if/when hockey resumes this season. Still, the future is bright for Peeke. He possesses the size (6'3), skating ability, and offensive instincts to play at the highest level. NHL-caliber right-handed defensemen don't grow on trees, and the Blue Jackets are fortunate to have three bonafide righties in Jones, Savard, and Peeke.
Savard, as I've suggested ad nauseam, could be an appealing trade candidate. He'll turn 30 this October with one year remaining before becoming a UFA, but has a lot of appealing qualities for a playoff contender (hence why he'd be an appealing trade candidate). But the emergence of a younger, better-skating Gavrikov has made Savard something of a luxury. For a team with a surplus on the back end, giving Peeke (and one of Kukan/Nutivaara an everyday role makes sense) a more pronounced role would make sense.
That said, the Blue Jackets don't need to rush into any decisions. Peeke is exempt from the Seattle Expansion Draft and will be an RFA after the 2020-21 season, so the club will have cost control for the foreseeable future. We can expect Peeke to be a fixture for the franchise for many years.