2022-23: An Early Glance At Which Defensemen Are Likely To Return Next Season — And Which Ones Are Not

By Ed Francis on May 7, 2022 at 9:50 am
In his third season with the Columbus Blue Jackets, Vladislav Gavrikov logged career highs in almost every category.
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Three hundred.

That's the number of goals the Columbus Blue Jackets allowed this season, a franchise-worst mark by 21 goals over the 2005-06 team that gave up 279 in a season that, like this one, saw the team finish well outside of playoff contention.

It's always up for debate whether or not the goals allowed is a result of poor defense or poor goaltending. The answer is typically that its somewhere in between, and that's likely the answer here too. 

Elvis Merzlikins acknowledged in end-of-the-season interviews that he struggled, and his .907 save percentage and 3.22 goals against average would tend to agree. Both numbers were career lows, as was his 48.2% quality start percentage (previous seasons were 54.8% and 60.9%, respectively). While those numbers were below-average, the advanced stats show that an average goaltender between the pipes for the Blue Jackets would have had numbers of .906 and 3.29 this season. In that sense, Merzlikins — who played 67.4% of the minutes given to Columbus netminders this season — should maybe give himself a little more credit than he did when he shouldered much of the blame.

The defense in front of him had flashes of brilliance, but ultimately put Merzlikins (as well as Joonas Korpisalo, J-F Berube, and Daniil Tarasov) in too many tough positions and hung out to dry too many times. It's a young defense, and one that started the season with only two defenders (Zach Werenski and Vladislav Gavrikov) with more than one full season of NHL experience.

Here's a look at what the Blue Jackets defense could look like for the 2022-23 season:


2021-22 Stats: 68 GP, 11 G, 37 A, 47 P, 25:40 TOI
There's no doubt that the Blue Jackets defensive leader will return to the top line of the Columbus defense next season. Despite missing 14 games, Werenski led the defense in just about every category on both sides of the puck. His game also made strides in the Blue Jackets own zone, and his ability with the puck means he doesn't always get the respect he deserves as a solid defensive player. His salary will nearly double next season as he begins a six-year, $57.5 million contract that he signed last summer. Werenski is the unquestioned leader of the Columbus defense, plain and simple. 

2021-22 Stats: 82 GP, 2 G, 13 A, 15 P, 21:29 TOI
Peeke wasn't a perfect player in his first full NHL season, but he was one of the most impressive defenders with his willingness to get in front of pucks and play a physical game that wasn't previously part of his skill set. Spending almost the entire season on the top pairing wasn't anticipated, but given his age (23 now, but 22 for most of the season), he excelled. Intangibles are very real with NHL defensemen, and Peeke seems to have "it" — whatever "it" is. Looking forward to seeing what he brings to the table in the fall.

2021-22 Stats: 52 GP, 11 G, 11 A, 22 P, 17:03 TOI
Injuries prevented Boqvist from anything close to a full season, but the 11 goals he scored was tied for the team lead on blueliners and he did so in 16 fewer games than Werenski, who he was tied with. Boqvist was a key part of the Seth Jones trade, and it was easy to see why the Blackhawks were anxious to part with him. Like Peeke, Boqvist still has a lot to learn and entered the season with less than one full season of NHL experience, but showed enough potential this season to be excited for the future. 


2021-22 Stats: 80 GP, 5 G, 28 A, 33 P, 22:17 TOI
I personally love Gavrikov's game and on-ice demeanor and the reality is, he's almost definitely going to be back. But if the Blue Jackets do decide to move one of the larger pieces of their blue line (as part of a larger trade, for example), Gavrikov would make the most sense. He's 26 and is entering the final year of his contract before he hits unrestricted free agency after next season. He's established himself as a second-pair NHL defender, and there's value in that. There's always a surprising move or two that comes from general manager Jarmo Kekalainen in the offseason, and if the right player could come back to Columbus in return, moving Gavrikov could be worth it. 

2021-22 Stats: 67 GP, 7 G, 18 A, 25 P, 20:34 TOI
Bean was fine with the puck, but left something to be desired in his primary role as a defender. Here's a funky stat: Of the 12 games he saw the most time on ice (23:00+), 11 of them came in his first 27 games. Of the 12 games he saw the least time on ice (18:00-), all of them were in the second half of his season. It's a clear indication that the more that head coach Brad Larsen and the Blue Jackets coaching staff saw of Bean, the less action he saw. Like so many other Columbus defensemen, Bean is young and still needs to grow into the position. He'll probably be back, but this season does make one wonder if the Hurricanes — who run an outstanding ship with their defense — knew what they were doing when they traded Bean to the Blue Jackets in the summer of 2021. 


2021-22 Stats: 41 GP, 3 G, 8 A, 11 P, 16:18 TOI
Kukan fell out of favor with former coach John Tortorella, but when healthy, was pretty consistently in the lineup under Larsen. Kukan will never be a top four defenseman, but there is some depth value in him and if he's signed to be a part of the third pairing or a 7th defenseman for next season, it would be fine.

2021-22 Stats: 7 GP, 1 G, 2 A, 3 P, 17:34TOI
Blankenburg captured the hearts of the 5th Line in his seven-game stint at the end of the season. That stretch was essentially an extended, well-paid tryout with the team — and the Blue Jackets probably got more than they were expecting from Blankenburg. It would make sense, and seems likely, that he'll be back in the fold next season to see if it was a hot streak and nothing more, or if Kekalainen and company caught lightning in a bottle.

2021-22 Stats: 8 GP, 1 G, 0 A, 1 P, 9:46 TOI
Christiansen got a quick sniff of the NHL, and in a very limited role, seemed to hold his own. He's just 22 and doesn't seem to have the potential that equally-aged defenders such as Bean and Peeke have, but between his time in the AHL with the Cleveland Monsters and the eight-game stretch with the Blue Jackets, it seems like Christiansen has something to offer the organization.


2021-22 Stats: 43 GP, 0 G, 8 A, 8 P, 13:03 TOI

2021-22 Stats: 38 GP, 2 G, 7 A, 9 P, 12:16 TOI

2021-22 Stats: 7 GP, 0 G, 1 A, 1 P, 14:28 TOI

There just doesn't seem to be a place on the roster for these three moving forward. Bayreuther was brought back after going to Seattle in the expansion draft for about an hour and a half, but it was in a depth role. The story was the same with Harrington. There are players higher on this list (Blankenburg and Christiansen) with more potential, who are younger, and will take these spots, and other players (Corson Cuelemans, amongst others) who may not be far off. It's a bit of a bummer on Carlsson, a former first-round pick by the Blue Jackets (29th overall in 2015) who just never materialized into the player he could have been. 

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