The Columbus Blue Jackets will have a new-look defense corps when the 2020-21 season begins, thanks to the offseason departures of Ryan Murray and Markus Nutivaara.
Murray, who has had an injury-plagued career, was long the source of trade rumors. On October 8th, he was dealt to the New Jersey Devils for a fifth-round pick, a stunning fall from grace for a former second-overall pick who is a top tier defenseman when he could stay healthy. Nutivaara was acquired by the Florida Panthers in exchange for Cliff Pu, a 22-year old minor-league forward.
And while the argument for losing both players can be explained - dumping salary while feeling comfortable with the organizational depth at the position - it's worth discussing the future of the Blue Jackets defense corps. On the one hand, not a ton has changed: Seth Jones-Zach Werenski and David Savard-Vladislav Gavrikov are still intact as the club's top two pairs. The Blue Jackets should be satisfied playing these four players for upwards of 45-50 minutes per game, just as they did a season ago, where Jones (25:17), Werenski (23:59), Savard (20:41), and Gavrikov (18:59) all logged heavy minutes.
On the other hand, the Blue Jackets had a tremendous luxury with Murray patrolling their bottom-pairing. Murray was something of a Swiss Army Knife, able to play effectively on both the PP/PK as well as anchoring his own pair. In his absence, Columbus will have no choice but to lean on a trio of defenseman to fill that void.
Kukan, 27, finally has an opportunity to play regular minutes. The Swiss defenseman has played 77 NHL regular-season games, increasing his total from 8 to 11 to 25 to 33 a season ago. Kukan played in nine (of 10) playoff games in the bubble, and is clearly in the club's plans for the upcoming season. He's probably never going to be much of a point-producer, but he's showed a propensity for offense when put in advantageous situations.
The 22-year old Peeke got his first taste of the NHL in 2019-20, exceeding expectations in 22 regular-season games. He was inserted into the lineup due to injuries throughout the lineup, and never played in the playoffs as the club returned to full health. Peeke has a bright future as a fluid-skating, 6'3 right-handed shot defenseman. At the beginning of the off-season, I suggested that the Blue Jackets could/should look to trade Savard with Peeke being the natural replacement. And while I understand why that trade never happened, it seems inevitable that Peeke will eventually backfill Savard as the club's second-pairing defenseman on the right side.
Harrington has had an interesting perspective of NHL life over the past several seasons. He's clearly held in high regard by the organization, and the Blue Jackets have been careful to not expose him on waivers and send him to the AHL, convinced he would be claimed. For that reason, Harrington has spent a lot (and we mean A LOT) of time in the press box as a healthy scratch. In his four seasons since he was acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs, Harrington has exceeded 40 games just once (22, 32, 73, 39). He's been a good soldier and has stayed in John Tortorella's good graces as a true professional. The 27-year old is one of those classic AAAA players, too good for the AHL but not an asset at the NHL level.
If/when injuries/sickness plagues the team, the club has a nice couple of insurance policies at the AHL level in Gabriel Carlsson and Adam Clendening. Both have NHL experience, and it's wild to think that they were the organization's number 10-11 defensemen during the playoffs.
The Blue Jackets should feel comfortable with the state of the blue line, even after the offseason departures. All three of the defensemen profiled in this article can expect regular playing time, and the club is familiar with what they can expect from each of them. While it's not true to suggest that the blueline as a whole is better than it was with Murray (in particular) in tow, the third pairing should provide ample quality minutes to keep the Blue Jackets in a contending role in the upcoming season.