The Columbus Blue Jackets head into the 2021-22 regular season with a staggering lack of experience on the blueline.
It wasn't long ago that the Blue Jackets had one of the most experienced defense corps in the NHL, boasting veteran players like Seth Jones, David Savard, Ryan Murray, and Markus Nutivaara. But due to a plethora of trades and other roster tinkering, the team has a laundry list of question marks on the blue line.
As it stands today, we're not sure who will start the year on the top pair alongside Zach Werenski, and similar questions remain regarding who will pair with Vladislav Gavrikov on the second pair. That being said, it's possible the club plays those two together, but that would leave a huge hole on the second pair. Based on what we've seen so far, it's fair to expect Jake Bean and Adam Boqvist to get a crack on the top two pairs, respectively, but don't write it in sharpie.
Dean Kukan and Scott Harrington are both 28-year olds who can play on the third pair, but it's also possible that someone younger, like a Gabriel Carlsson or Andrew Peeke, could see those minutes. Then there's Mikko Lehtonen, and it's really anyone's guess where he starts the season.
But regardless of how the coaching staff chooses to put together the jigsaw puzzle that is the 2021-22 defense corps, one issue stands out: the lack of NHL game experience. Only Werenski has eclipsed 300 regular-season games, a far cry from a season ago, where he was a distant third behind Jones and Savard on a veteran blue line. In fact, the nine defensemen left in training camp have, as a unit, played just 990 NHL regular-season games.
That's a staggering number, but it makes sense given where this team is today and where they're trying to go tomorrow. There's no sense in bringing in veteran help to fortify a team that is clearly looking to the future and its younger players. The hope is that at least a few of Boqvist, Peeke, Bean, Carlsson, etc. take a big step this season. This lack of experience is also evident when reviewing the club's finances. Per CapFriendly, only the New York Islanders are spending fewer dollars ($14.57M) than the Blue Jackets ($15.21) on their team's defense, and even that is misleading when considering the Islanders page doesn't yet have Zdeno Chara's salary factored into their total spending.
It's more than a little bit possible that this team will have genuine struggles defensively. Between the lack of experience on the blue line, the lack of center depth, and the fact that many of their wingers, like Patrik Laine, Max Domi, and Jakub Voracek, are clearly offensive-first players, the Blue Jackets are fighting an uphill battle. More defensively responsible players, like Oliver Bjorkstrand, Boone Jenner, and Sean Kuraly will be tasked with doing their best to cover up inevitable warts.
But, again, this approach makes sense for where this team is in its lifecycle. And as any recent college graduate would argue, the best way to gain experience is through on-the-job experience. And this blue line is about to be thrown into the proverbial fire.