Help Needed: Columbus' Struggling Defense Should Turn To Cleveland For A Fresh Look

By Ed Francis on December 1, 2021 at 1:55 pm
The Columbus Blue Jackets goaltenders have suffered the brunt of a shaky defense.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time this season, the Columbus Blue Jackets have looked downright bad in back-to-back games.

The misery started Saturday in St. Louis, when the Blue Jackets 1-0 lead after the opening period turned into a 6-3 defeat.

It continued Tuesday night in Nashville, when Columbus gave up a half-dozen goals in a 6-0 rout at the hand of the Predators. Elviz Merzlikins gave up three goals, was pulled, and Joonas Korpisalo gave up three more. 

It goes beyond the 12 goals in just five periods of hockey. The Columbus Blue Jackets are giving up too many goals — an average of 3.25 per game, sixth worst in the NHL and dead last amongst teams that in (or within one point of) a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, if they were to start today.

That may be the most frustrating part of the defensive woes; this team is scoring enough to win. They're averaging the same 3.25 goals that they're giving up, good enough for 7th in the league in scoring. The power play is tied for 10th best. The offense is there, even without sniper Patrik Laine for the last month. 

There are bright spots on the blue line. Zach Werenski has done just fine as a number one defenseman. At more than 26 minutes of ice time per game, only three players in the league are on the ice more. He's third on the team with 15 points, including five goals. The deep dive on analytics and metrics show he's been stable and an above-average blueliner — the basic dive, a plus/minus of -2, would indicate otherwise. But Werenski and blue line partner Jake Bean are seeing big minutes against top six forwards, and the number (in this capacity) doesn't paint remotely close to the entire picture. 

But the weaknesses are very much there for the Columbus defense, particularly on the third line. Gavin Bayreuther, Gabriel Carlsson, and Scott Harrington have been part of a third-line tandem with a combination of Andrew Peeke and Adam Boqvist. None of them have been great, though Boqvist did miss time with unknown injuries and Peeke, largely, has been serviceable. 

So where can the Blue Jackets blue line go from here?

Dean Kukan is due back later in December from a broken wrist dating back to the first week of the season. His return will likely mean the end of the Bayreuther-Carlsson-Harrington cycle, at first. It was Kukan, though, who struggled significantly during the 2020-21 season and left many wondering whether or not he'd be back with the team this season. 

The Blue Jackets do have one other option though, who is deserving of a look in Columbus and may get that look sooner rather than later: Jake Christiansen. 

The 22-year-old Vancouver, British Columbia native has 17 points in the Monsters' first 17 games. His +8 plus/minus is even more impressive when, like Werenski, it's coming against the best scorers from the opposing teams. He's got size, speed, an ability to be a puck-moving defenseman, and now just needs the opportunity.

Columbus has been highly successful in giving young players a chance this season. Yegor Chinakhov and Cole Sillinger are going to be in the NHL for years to come. Defense is longer, tougher adjustment at the highest level, but Christiansen is proving himself worthy of the challenge.

Little harm would come of giving him a look, especially if the Blue Jackets defense continues to play the way it has been. If he's not ready — and he may not be — Christiansen would not have to clear waivers to go back to Cleveland and continue to refine his game. 

But if he is — the blue line struggles may not be so blue for so long.

View 5 Comments