Help Wanted: The Columbus Blue Jackets Will Need To Upgrade Their Defense This Offseason

By Ed Francis on April 27, 2021 at 10:15 am
The Columbus Blue Jackets need to upgrade their defense this offseason.
Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports

From 3rd to 26th.

It sounds like the before and after position of a racecar at the Indianapolis 500 after a huge wreck.

But in reality, it's the position of the Columbus Blue Jackets goals allowed per game when comparing last season to this season.

At least the wreck part was right. 

One season after allowing just 2.61 goals per game ahead of a fourth straight Stanley Cup Playoff appearance, the Blue Jackets are allowing 3.34 goals per game this season, and are already eliminated from playoff contention. 

Here's a little perspective on the worst defensive teams in franchise history, at least when it comes to goals allowed (which is a pretty important thing to be good at in hockey): 

Rank GAA Season
Worst 3.37 2005-06
2nd Worst 3.34 2020-21
3rd Worst 3.21 2002-03
4th Worst 3.13 2011-13
5th Worst 3.11 2001-02

Not only are the Blue Jackets having one of their worst seasons, period, but they're also giving up more goals per game than any team in franchise history, outside of the 2005-06 Blue Jackets. It's a razor-thin margin, so good news, team led by Adam Foote, Bryan Berard, and Duvie Westcott on the blue line: your record could soon be surpassed. 

There is no shortage on the excuses reasons why. A downright weird offseason, the trades of Markus Nutivarra and Ryan Murray for pennies on the dollar in the event an offer sheet was made on Pierre-Luc Dubois (cue upside down smiling emoji) cost the Blue Jackets depth. 

Vladislav Gavrikov has struggled, but he's been paired up and down the lineup with whoever out-going coach John Tortorella hit on the dartboard of defensemen. If consistency is key, Gavrikov's keys were thrown into the drain.

Andrew Peeke and Gabriel Carlsson have not blossomed, at least thus far, into the players that general manager Jarmo Kekalainen and company thought they would be by now. The jury is still out on Peeke, who just turned 22 last month. But Carlsson, who will be 25 in the first half of the upcoming season, does not appear to have top-four defensive stuff in his game. 

There's also the matter of poor play, plain and simple. The Blue Jackets love giving up goals (they've allowed three or more goals in 12 of 13 games this month), and they love to give up goals in bunches - a la giving up four in about six minutes in a recent game against the Dallas Stars.

Poor play, of course, leads to poor statistics. At a frostbite-inducing -17, Seth Jones is having his worst season on the plus/minus since his rookie season in Nashville, nearly a decade ago. Just four seasons after he was a +33, the jettisoned David Savard was having a career worst -19. Zach Werenski was spared a career-worst in the category due to a season-ending surgery; his -9 through 35 games was certainly going to end up worse than his 82-game season -12 in the 2018-19 campaign.

The rest of the defense - Michael Del Zotto, Scott Harrington, Gavin Bayreuther, Mikko Lehtonen - are healthy scratches on elite defenses, as Harrington was last year with the Blue Jackets. On this roster, they're seeing top minutes. Dean Kukan, who will likely be exposed to in the upcoming NHL Expansion Draft, has fallen out of favor with Tortorella and is more likely to be with the Seattle Kraken next season than with his current employer.

The good news is, Columbus still has the building blocks of a solid defense. Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, who should be ready to go by training camp, are still top-to-elite defensemen in the league. Gavrikov is a competent player, and Peeke should get a crack at regular playing time come 2021-22. 

But they'll need more, and whether or not the answer is to add a defenseman via trade or go after a free agent, Columbus needs to acquire a new partner for Gavrikov on the second pairing and find some degree of consistency on the third pairing by the time next season starts. 

If they don't, the Blue Jackets may lose control of the wheel - again.