Welcome to the first of three installments breaking down the Columbus Blue Jackets' defensive depth chart. In case you missed it, we just completed a similar exercise for all four forward lines, culminating earlier this week with the first line.
Like the forward group, there are still a ton of unanswered questions about the defense corps. A season ago, the team bled goals. But that was (mostly) without star Zach Werenski and before the additions of Damon Severson and Ivan Provorov, to say nothing of new head coach Mike Babcock. Suffice it to say, changes are on the horizon. Let's work backwards starting today with the third pair.
Erik Gudranson, Andrew Peeke, Jake Bean, Nick Blankenburg
Gudrbanson was an easy target for criticism last season. Yes, he underperformed, but the truth is that the 31-year-old was regularly playing too high in the lineup due to injuries. In a more sheltered role where he plays limited minutes and is active on the penalty kill, Gudbranson is better-suited. Most of that also applies to Peeke. But I'd be surprised to see Babcock elect to go with two right-shot defenders on the third pair if he can avoid it. That is especially true given the duo's struggles together last year. According to NaturalStatTrick, at 5v5, the Gudbranson-Peeke pair had a CF% of just 29.06% (77/265) and a GF% of just 20% (3/15). That is, in a word, brutal.
That Blankenburg is a righty works against him, and so, too, does the fact that he's waivers exempt. That combination could put him in the press box or in Cleveland regularly. But there's part of me that sees Blankenburg as the type of player that Babcock will come to love. This is an important season for the 25-year-old, who is a pending RFA after this season.
It's really too bad that Bean played just 14 games last season because it would have been a great opportunity for the left-shot defenseman to showcase himself in different roles. There's no doubt Bean has talent. He's one of the better skaters and more creative offensive defensemen on the team. Time may have run out on the 25-year-old, but I don't think we've seen the last of Bean quite yet.
David Jiricek, Adam Boqvist
Jiricek is a major wildcard in the piecing together of this roster. Is he ready to play in the NHL? If so, will the coaching staff ease him in, or throw him in the deep end alongside Werenski or Provorov? That he's a big, right-shot defenseman with a high ceiling is certainly appealing to the coaching staff. But his long-term development should take priority over any short-term bandaids. If it's deemed that he is ready, I could see a scenario where he plays alongside Gudbranson/Peeke in a limited role. It would undoubtedly beat him sitting in the press box.
Like Bean, Boqvist is a hard man to place. He has the offensive chops to run a power play and certainly has top-four potential because of his skating ability and offensive prowess. But his defensive game is lacking, and one can't help but wonder if playing him in a shutdown role on the third pair would just exacerbate that issue.
Jake Christiansen, Marcus Bjork, Samuel Knazko, Stanislav Svozil, Billy Sweezey, Corson Ceulemans, Tim Berni
Berni is unsigned, but the others are slated to start the season in AHL Cleveland. A new head coach could theoretically allow one or more of these players to get a longer look, but I would imagine that any of these players playing in the NHL would be either due to injury or because of a well-earned midseason promotion.
The Last Word
If one of Peeke or Gudbranson were left-handed, I would feel semi-confident saying that is the third pair. But since they're both righty (and so too is Blankenburg), it's a bit muddier. Plus, let's not forget that they struggled together mightily last year. Bean could get a shot, offering a different element to round out the roster. In the end, there is no perfect solution. The third pairing is a microcosm for the rest of the roster- an imperfect collection of players in the progress of becoming what they will eventually become.