Previewing The Defensive Pairings For The Columbus Blue Jackets In 2022-23

By Ed Francis on July 18, 2022 at 2:45 pm
Zach Werenski enters his sophomore season as the leader of the Columbus Blue Jackets' defense.
Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports

Just hours before word broke that Johnny Gaudreau was coming the club, the Columbus Blue Jackets had announced the signing of another now-former Calgary Flame.

Eric Gudbranson, who general manager Jarmo Kekalainen called his number one target in free agency, signed a four-year contract on the day the market opened

The signing was met with at least some confusion as to how Gudbranson, 30, managed to get four years and $16 million from the Blue Jackets. His previous contract was for just $1.4 million — and while he had a steady season, it's a big pay raise and a long term for an aging blueliner who has never consistently had time on the top defensive pairing for a team and is regarding as a third-pairing guy.

Despite that, the case could be easily made that — at least for the first half of the deal — the signing filled a big hole, both literally and figuratively. At 6-5", 225lbs, Gudbranson is immediately the biggest player on the team, and will play the primary role of muscle for a young Columbus team that was bullied too often last season. He also brings veteran leadership and can eat minutes that will allow youngsters like Nick Blankenburg and Jake Bean to develop at a better pace. 

So, how will the defensemen pair together in the coming season? There only appears to be only one absolute certainty: Zach Werenski will anchor the top line. He averaged nearly 26 minutes per game last season, his first in the leading role on the Columbus blue line.

Another near-certainty is that Vladislav Gavrikov will return to his usual spot on the second pairing. Gavrikov is a solid, blue-collar defender who can be trusted from any spot on the ice. 

But what about the other four spots? There's Adam Boqvist, Andrew Peeke, Jake Bean, Nick Blankenburg, Gavin Bayreuther, and Gudbranson. Three of them — Boqvist, Peeke, and Gudbranson — will be mainstays in the lineup. Peeke really developed last season, and a big reason why has to be getting that top-line experience and playing with an elite defender in Werenski.

Boqvist was impressive too, but missed 30 games with various injuries and wasn't able to carve out a consistent spot in the lineup. Still, his 11 goals was tied with Werenski for the team lead in goals by defensemen — and he did it in 16 less games (and far fewer minutes per game) than Werenski. 

It's a toss-up, but what seems like the most logical course of action at this point in the summer is for Peeke to return opposite of Werenski on the top pairing. The 23-year-old Florida native got better and better as the season went on, and with no clear-cut option ahead of him, it feels like it's Peeke's spot to lose. 

The second question is where to put Gudbranson. One option would be to create a big, strong, second pairing of Gavrikov and Gudbranson. They wouldn't be much of a threat offensively, but that's fine — the 6'3", 215lb Gavrikov would be the smaller of the two and would seem to give pause to teams trying to crash the net. 

The other is to put him on the third pairing, which would result in Gavrikov being paired with Boqvist. They had enough time together last season (246 minutes of shared ice time) for it be known to work, with the two hitting an expected goals against average of 2.90 — an average that was on par with other big-minute pairings.

That's the combination I'll take to start the season. Boqvist earned his minutes last season and at 22, still has plenty of room to grow. Splitting Gavrikov and Gudbranson would also allow for the Blue Jackets to have a physical presence on the ice more often, rather than the two of them sharing the rink.

For the other three, training camp and the preseason are likely to dictate the sixth and final spot. Bean had a very pedestrian first season with the Blue Jackets and lost ice time as the season went on, but still seems the most likely candidate to be on the third pairing. 

Blankenburg's seven-game trial run was a success, and the team announced last week he would be back on a two-year deal. Still, there's plenty of work to do for the rookie before getting a regular spot in the lineup. The same is true of Bayreuther, who seems like the second of two odd-men out at this point in the summer. 

The preseason kicks off September 25th — the date in which the answers to these questions will slowly get their answers.

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