With the NHL Draft and the start of free agency in the rearview window, the Columbus Blue Jackets organization is nearly a finished product heading into the 2022-23 season.
It's a good time to take stock of the organizational depth of the prospect pool, both from a top-down (NHL-AHL) and positional (forwards vs. defensemen vs. goalies) standpoint. Today is part two of a three-part segment where we'll examine the state of the franchise's stable of young players. Next up, the defensemen.
First, a bit of housekeeping. Any player that is over 23 (i.e., Nick Blankenburg, 24), or has already fully established himself as a full-time NHL player (i.e., Jake Bean), will be omitted. Lastly, this isn't a ranking, more so a holistic look at the pool as a whole.
From 2017 to 2021, the Blue Jackets didn't use one first or second-round pick on defensemen. In those five years, they relied on a steady dose of current NHLers to keep their roster afloat. But with mainstays from yesteryear, like Seth Jones, David Savard, Ryan Murray, etc. moved on, the Blue Jackets knew it was only a matter of time before they would need to flip the blue line over.
As was true with the forwards, trades changed the future of the franchise. The club acquired Adam Boqvist (directly) and Bean (indirectly) in the Jones trade, then used the first-round pick they acquired in the Nick Foligno trade to acquire Corson Ceulemans. Ceulemans, 19, should be among the best defenders in the NCAA this year as a sophomore with the University of Wisconsin. The right-handed defenseman was the no-doubt best defensive prospect in the system even a month ago, but then the Blue Jackets made a splash at the 2022 NHL Draft, drafting two defensemen with their first two picks, sixth and 12th overall.
The two picks became David Jiricek, a physically gifted athlete that has a rare combination of size, skating, and hockey IQ, and Denton Mateychuk, arguably the top defender in the CHL. All three are among the best defensive prospects in the game, though all will follow different paths - Ceulemans in the NCAA, Jiricek in either the Czech league or North American pro, and Mateychuk in the WHL - to get to the NHL.
David Jiek scores another goal, this time against Austria. He definitely wants to go to the World Championship...These are incredible performances he's been putting in lately.#2022NHLDraft pic.twitter.com/r5l0uqW6eQ— Marek Novotny (@MarekNovotny96) May 1, 2022
Denton Mateychuk out there chucking darts.— /Cam Robinson/ (@Hockey_Robinson) April 17, 2022
Make it 13 goals and 64 points in 65 WHL games - good for a share of the lead among draft-eligible defenders pic.twitter.com/UxmhVCcTh7
Jacob Christiansen, 22, led the AHL Cleveland Monsters in points last season, tallying 13-32-45 in 62 games. He played in eight games with the Blue Jackets last season and could find himself in the NHL again this year.
NHL Video Highlight - Jacob Christiansen scores against the New Jersey Devils to make it 1-1. pic.twitter.com/ZSor3Zfq7N— Blue Jackets Game Bot (@CBJGameBot) March 2, 2022
In Samuel Knazko and Stanislav Svozil, the Blue Jackets boast two 19-year-old WHL imports (Knazko-Slovakia; Svoizil-Czechia) who are regarded as solid prospects. Knazko has been a captain for Slovakia in his age group and has played in three IIHF World Junior Championships. Svozil will join Jiricek (as well as depth forward prospect Martin Rysavy) at next week's WJC in Edmonton.
Aidan Hreschuk, 19, was the return in the Max Domi trade. A former third-round pick, he was just okay in his freshman season at Boston College. The American has some upside and could be an under-the-radar player now that the Blue Jackets have flushed out the top end of their prospect pool.
Ole Julian Bjørgvik Holm played 16 games with the Monsters during the OHL-canceled 2020-21 season but played in Mississauga last season. The 20-year-old is expected to start the year in Cleveland. Tim Berni, 22, played the full 2021-22 season in Cleveland and should be a contributor again this season.
Guillaume Richard, 19, is a solid contributor at Providence College (NCAA). He tallied 3-11-14 in 36 games played as a freshman and should be a key player in the upcoming season.
Eric Hjorth missed severe time in his draft year due to injury, but the Blue Jackets traded up to select the 6'3 defenseman. After bumping around the past few years, the 21-year-old is set to play with HC Vita Hästen in Sweden's second-tier pro league, HockeyAllsvenskan.
Samuel Johannesson, 21, already has three full SHL seasons under his belt. It's unliekly he has a future in the NHL but could be a depth organizational piece. The same can probably be said for Nikolai Makarov. The 19-year-old is a 6'4", 234 lb project. He's played seven career games in the KHL but is listed as an MHL/VHL player per EliteProspects, meaning he's got some rungs to climb.
The Blue Jackets made big strides organizationally in fixing their defensive pipeline over the past several drafts. While adding players like Knazko, Svozil, Richard, and Makarov in the 2021 NHL Draft helped, the most meaningful change came from the premium picks used to take Ceulemans, Jiricek, and Mateychuk, with three first-round picks.
If there is a downside, it's that the Blue Jackets' current defense corps has plenty of non-prospect but flawed (for different reasons) young players, like Bean, Boqvist, and Nick Blankenburg. Columbus finished 28th in the NHL in goals against in 2021-22 and is bringing back basically the same cast of characters (with the addition of Erik Gudbranson). Sure, we can expect some internal growth, but by the time the Blue Jackets expect to compete at the highest level, it's probably because some of the players mentioned early in this article have taken big steps.