It's a good problem to have.
The Columbus Blue Jackets have one of the deepest, if not the deepest, defensive units in the NHL, and it means that John Tortorella and company have a tough decision come season resumption time.
Who will fill the sixth spot on the blue line on the third pairing?
I ask this question because It's (fairly) safe to say that the Blue Jackets have their top-five defenseman locked in for when the season resumes. This being a group that consists of Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, Ryan Murray, Vladislav Gavrikov and David Savard.
The final spot is an important one in the postseason, especially when you're playing someone like the Toronto Maple Leafs who are second in the league in scoring. Right now, based on playing time in the regular season, it seems like the job is Markus Nutivaara's to lose, with Dean Kukan, Scott Harrington and Andrew Peeke also all in the mix.
Peeke, despite showing incredible promise this season, still has a little ways to go before he'd be ready for a call-up like this. He has three points through 22 games played with the club as a rookie, a 52.0 CF% and 25 hits all while averaging just under 14 minutes per game.
The 22-year-old encompasses a good hybrid style of play - a stout defender who has a keen eye in the offensive zone, but he's still a bit raw (and his eight giveaways in 22 games are rather high, and telling). The bottom line - he just needs time and more (regular season) experience. Peeke seems to be in for a good future with Blue Jackets, but he might need to ride the pine for these playoffs and continue to grow before he's up for a task like that.
The 27-year-old veteran has been the go-to callup in case of injury for the Blue Jackets for seemingly the last four seasons and even played in a majority of the contests in the 2018-2019 campaign. Harrington is a decent third-pair defenseman on most times, but in Columbus, he ought not be sniffing the ice, based on how deep their unit goes.
Harrington is a stay-at-home skater with fair eight points through 39 games, but his 46.8 CF% is a yellow flag as we look to who should be on the ice against the Maple Leafs. Harrington is a safe(?) choice, but if 'safe is death', he is the grim reaper.
As mentioned, Nutivaara will likely be the one to suit up alongside Murray, Gavrikov or Savard in Toronto in a few months, but should he be? After a breakout year in 2017-2018 with 7-16-23 in just 61 games as a 21-year-old, it seemed that Nutivaara was going to be a stapled second-pair defenseman in Columbus for years to come. However, his next campaign saw a setback with just 21 points in 80 games, and nearly a 5% dropoff in his Corsi (53.20 to 48.70).
Now, this season has been slightly better for Nutivaara, but still not up to par with where we felt like he could be by now. With nine points through 37 games (thanks to missing a fair amount due to an upper-body injury), Nutivaara has bumped his CF% up to 50.20. It seems that his leash has gotten shorter, though - with his ice time being down almost two minutes from last year (17:41 to 15:55). Before the season cut off, too - he was on pace to have more giveaways than the prior season and have about half as many takeaways.
I must reiterate - on any other team, this really wouldn't be a problem. Markus Nutivaara is a second or third pair player in most cities. But this isn't most cities. The demand for solid play on the blue line in Columbus is high, and Nutivaara has (unfortunately) been showing that he may not be up to the calling (at least at this time).
Now comes to Dean Kukan, who is my choice to enter the Blue Jackets lineup come August(?). And it has an exorbitant amount to do with what his presence brings and maybe a bit less about what is going to show up on the scoresheet.
Kukan has been in and out of the lineup a fair amount for the Blue Jackets this season, not due to injury necessarily, but more so the preferences of Tortorella depending on the day. Kukan has somewhat respectable numbers on the year, considering how inconsistently (which matters) he draws in, with five points in 33 games, and a 50.1 CF%.
His 16 minutes per game when he does play though speaks volumes to his trust when in the lineup, and are more than Nutivaara, Harrington and Peeke.
Here's where my main point will lay, though. Kukan's skating ability and confidence with the puck gives him the slightest of an edge of over Nutivaara, and even Peeke.
In last year's playoffs, Kukan was instrumental in moving the puck up in the play to allow his teammates to enter the zone with speed and be ready to start an offensive possession, and there is a number this year to back that up. Kukan sits with a 60.4 offensive zone start percentage, which is good for best amongst all defensemen on the Blue Jackets and is second on the entire club behind Pierre-Luc Dubois.
What this shows is that when Kukan is on the ice, he is helping move the play forward, not just dumping it out of his defensive zone.
Zach Werenski and Ryan Murray are the two other blueliners with the ability to skate the puck up well, leaving a spot on the third pairing for someone to do the same. Leaving the bottom pairing to be two stay-at-home defensemen (likely Savard and Nutivaara) would cause massive problems against an offensive juggernaut like Toronto who would be able to pressure more in the offensive zone, knowing the limited ability of Savard and Nutivaara to move the puck out on their own.
You need someone who is a threat to get a play moving, and I believe Kukan is a skater who can do that.
Ultimately, it's not up to me, and I'm glad in a lot of ways it isn't, but this is a more important decision than I believe a lot of us realize. If Tortorella wants to go with the "safe is death" approach, then nothing would be more safe than throwing Savard and Nutivaara together. Put Kukan on the ice though, and you might just have an x-factor on your hands.
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