What We Know: The Columbus Blue Jackets Defense Will Be Their Strength This Coming Season

By Ed Francis on October 14, 2020 at 7:20 am
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Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports

It remains to be seen exactly what the Columbus Blue Jackets will look like offensively in the coming season.

Defensively, though, the picture is starting to become clear.

With the departures of Ryan Murray to New Jersey and Markus Nutivarra to the Florida Blue Jackets Panthers, the Blue Jackets trimmed an entire line from their defensive corps prior to the start of free agency. 

The pair of trades, which saw the Blue Jackets receive only an AHL-caliber forward and a 5th round draft pick in return, freed up millions of dollars for the team. While general manager Jarmo Kekalainen says they were necessary moves to ensure that Pierre-Luc Dubois stays in Columbus, it doesn't make the should-have-been-expected sting of not getting any of the big names in free agency any less painful.

Shipping Murray and Nutivarra out of town, though, did provide one hidden benefit: clarity.

There was never any doubt that the Blue Jackets would begin their 20th season with Seth Jones and Zach Werenski as the top defensive duo. Together, the pair make up one of the best defensive tandems across the NHL today, provided they can stay healthy. Werenski & Jones together for 20 minutes a night is, perhaps, the most certain thing in recent history for the franchise. 

Where does the team go after that? Rumblings of moving David Savard this offseason to get an offensive weapon were out there, and as difficult as it may have been to bid him farewell, he was undoubtedly the best viable trade asset the Blue Jackets had for any team looking to swap offense for defense. The acquisitions of Max Domi and Mikko Koivu fill some of the holes on the forward lines, and those incoming players - along with the departures of Nutivarra and Murray - make it very likely that Savard stays in Columbus for the upcoming season.

Look for Savard to pair up with Vladislav Gavrikov on the second defensive pairing. The Savy+Gavy duo looked impressive more often than not last year, and there's no reason to think head coach John Tortorella won't keep the bearded buddies together again. 

That brings us to the third defensive pairing, which was a bit of a revolving door last season between injuries and inconsistent play. Both Nutivarra and Murray saw time on the third group, along with Dean Kukan, Andrew Peeke, Scott Harrington, Adam Clendening, and Gabriel Carlsson, amongst others. 

Kukan looks to be a safe bet to be a regular in the lineup this season, and look for Peeke to see an increase in ice time (not to mention games played) as well.

The 22-year-old rookie played sparingly with the club last year, but received good marks from Tortorella.

"He's (Peeke) been a good player," said Tortorella. "He has shown us some offensive instincts that's coming along."

High praise, really, coming from Torts.

Injuries are a part of the game, and certainly the club will need to be prepared for that. Harrington likely slots in first, with Carlsson and Clendening behind him on the depth chart. 

Don't rule out Tim Berni getting an extended look in advance of the regular season, as well. The 20-year-old signed an entry level contract with the Blue Jackets during the pandemic pause, and most recently was playing on loan with the ZSC Lions, a professional team based in Switzerland. Berni is very much a stay-at-home defenseman, something Tortorella likes. 

The best case scenario, though, is for the team that stay healthy. If they can do that, and provided that Kukan and Peeke continue to develop their game, the Blue Jackets will be in great shape on the blue line.

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