Welcome to the second of three installments projecting the defensive pairs for the Columbus Blue Jackets. In part one, which focused on the third pair, there was plenty of internal consternation. Where does one draw the line?
But like with the forward group, the higher in the lineup, the paradoxically easier it becomes to project who may play, and with whom. So today, a look at who could be in the mix for the team's second pairing.
Ivan Provorov, Adam Boqvist, David Jiricek, Andrew Peeke
Ivan Provorov is one of the easier players to place on the entire roster. As a left-handed shot who has played some very good and also some very not-good hockey in the past several years, it makes total sense that he'll slot in as the secondary left-shot defender behind Zach Werenski. While there is a log jam of right-shot defenders, the same cannot be said on the left side. The 26-year-old will almost certainly get the start on the second pair.
Finding someone to play opposite Provorov is going to a fascinating challenge for this coaching staff. One could argue that Provorov played too high in the Philadelphia Flyers' lineup, and that's probably true, it's also true that the Flyers were unable to provide him with a competent defense partner once Matt Niskanen retired. Finding a 'rock' for Provorov to play with could be challenging. As mentioned in the third pairing article, elevating Erik Gudbranson proved disastrous last year. Andrew Peeke could get a shot, but I wonder if the organization has cooled on his potential after years of basically underwhelming play.
Adam Boqvist is talented enough to play in the top-four but doesn't resemble a rock in any way. What he brings in offensive prowess he lacks in defensive fortification. While this pair could be magic with the puck, I worry about its theoretical play without it. Someone like David Jiricek could easily find himself in this role (or higher in the lineup) in time, but again, it feels like a bit of a stretch to ask a rookie defenseman to become a rock for a veteran player with 500+ regular-season games to his name. On the other hand, he may be the best of the Boqvist/Peeke/Jiricek trio, and if so, I could see management and the coaching staff aligning on this usage.
Damon Severson is likely to head into the season as the club's top right-handed shot defenseman. That would naturally slot him on the top unit alongside Werenski. But again, there is a universe where Provorov would benefit more from playing alongside a veteran like Severson, and the club would have to determine if the risk-reward is there for Werenski to play alongside, for example, Boqvist or Jiricek.
I don't see this as a likely scenario, but on a contending team, I think Severson is probably a 3-4-5 defenseman, not a 2. That, by definition, would put him on the second (or third) pair, as he played in New Jersey.
Nick Blankenburg, Jake Bean
Both Nick Blankenburg and Jake Bean have the ominous plight of trying to figure out how to crack the any of the nightly six skaters, much less play in the top-four. But there is a route for each of them, however dubious.
Largely speaking, it would require some combination of an incredible offseason/training camp and an injury or two. One thing that paradoxically could help either of them is that, assuming Gudbranson is entrenched as one-half of the shutdown third pair, head coach Mike Babcock may prefer a defensive stalwart to fortify that pair. Neither Blankenburg nor Bean is that stalwart. So it's possible that one is elevated, but I wouldn't count on it.
The Last Word
This pair could be a work in progress all season. Whereas Provorov feels embedded, his partner is a major question mark heading into the season. As it stands now, it could be a fairly binary proposition. Is Jiricek ready for this spot? If so, then it should be his to lose. If not, he'll likely play in the AHL, and someone like Boqvist will probably have the first shot. Like the third pair and other spots on the roster, the club may experience pains as it grows into its more mature form.