The Columbus Blue Jackets NHL lineup is flush with one of the best defense corps in the NHL.
Even after the departures of Ryan Murray and Markus Nutivaara, the club feels comfortable going beyond their top-six, with a player like Scott Harrington available to play if an injury were to arise. But what does the next wave of defense and goalie look like? Is the cupboard well-stocked?
The last time the Blue Jackets used a first-round pick to select a defenseman was in 2015, when the organization picked both Zach Werenski (8th) and Gabriel Carlsson (29th) in the first night of the draft. Since then, the club has targeted defensemen later in the draft. In the 2018, 2019, and 2020 NHL Draft's, the club picked five defensemen in total, but none were picked in the top two rounds.
Where does that leave the franchise's prospect cupboard? A bit bare.
Let's start with the positives. Werenski, 23, and Seth Jones, 26, are the club's top pair for the next few seasons, at a minimum. This gives the team a huge advantage, tilting the ice in their favor for roughly half the game against most opponents.
Andrew Peeke looks like a solid player. Picked in the second round (34th overall) in 2016, the 22-year old looks to be a fixture on the club's blueline for the foreseeable future. Dean Kukan, 27, still flies under the radar. With Murray and Nutivarra on the outs, the Swiss defenseman should have a chance to flourish. Vladislav Gavrikov, who turns 25 in November, can be etched in permanent marker on the second-pairing alongside David Savard for next season. If/when Savard moves on after next season, is Peeke the natural replacement?
The aforementioned Carlsson lacks the ceiling that the club was hoping for when they drafted him in 2015, but at 23, still has a bit of time to become a useful player. And while he's definitely not a prospect, 27-year old Adam Clendening could play a useful role in a pinch
Tim Berni, 20, is an interesting prospect. The Swiss puck-mover had signed with AHL Cleveland in April but is on loan in Switzerland. At this point, he's likely an AHL player, but crazier things have happened. Also signed to play in the AHL this season is Gavin Bayreuther, 26, who has played sparingly in the NHL but has been a solid contributor at the AHL level. Jacob Christiansen, 21, who the Blue Jackets signed as an over-ager in the WHL in March, is ready to begin his professional career in Cleveland, as well. The club also inked fifth-year pro Thomas Schemitsch to an AHL-only contract on Wednesday.
In 2019, the club used their fourth-round pick (104th overall) to select Eric Hjorth. The Swedish import played the 2019-20 season in OHL Sarnia and had a productive season. After missing serious time in his draft year due to injury, the Blue Jackets traded up to select the 6'3 defenseman. At the 2020 NHL Draft, the Blue Jackets used three of their five picks on defensemen, selecting Slovakian, Samuel Knazko, Norweigian Ole Bjørgvik Holm, and the Swedish Samuel Johannesson.
Knazko is playing in Finland's well-known TPS system and is off to a hot start at the U20 level in 2020-21, posting 3-6-9 in 14 games. Holm played alongside Stars 2019 first-rounder Thomas Harley on the top pairing for the OHL's Mississauga Steelheads. Johannesson, who was passed over in his first draft year, is playing in his third season in the SHL with Rogle.
While none of those four players are expected to provide immediate reprieve on the back-end, the Blue Jackets are hopeful that at least one of them becomes an NHL regular. They've found success with late-round European defensemen in recent years (Nutivaara, Gavrikov), and there's reason for optimism that they'll find more.
The Blue Jackets have been methodically adding pieces to their defensive depth chart over the past six-eight months. Between the signings of Christiansen and Bayreuther and the addition of three new players at the 2020 NHL Draft, the club clearly recognizes the need to build out the back-end of their system.
And while it's a step in the right direction, the club currently lacks an impact player on the blueline in their organization prospect pool. According to The Athletic's Corey Pronman, none of the Blue Jackets defense prospects - including Peeke - have anything more than "NHL potential."
And while I'd push back on that point a little, his overall point is true. The club needs a defenseman that they can point to with confidence as a future NHL blueliner. At this point, Columbus may have to wait to add that piece until the 2021 NHL Draft. Luckily for them, early indications are that the 2021 Draft is chock-full of high-end NHL blueliners. If the club's draft list allows them to pounce on a highly-touted defense prospect, it would be prudent to add that player to a prospect pool that is in need of a top-flight defenseman.