Welcome to the final installment of our line-by-line, pair-by-pair projection of the Columbus Blue Jackets roster. After discussing options for the third and second pairing, we've come to the anti-climatic finish, flushing out the few players that could realistically be in the mix for top-pairing responsibility.
Zach Werenski, Damon Severson
Zach Werenski is fully recovered and should be in sharpie marker as the club's top-pairing defenseman on the left side. In Werenski, new head coach Mike Babcock has a minute-eating, high-end defenseman that can run a power play and play against top competition.
Since coming into the NHL seven seasons ago, Werenski has averaged 23:14 TOI, and at age 26, he's in the prime of his career. Since playing with Seth Jones, Werenski has been unable to find a consistent partner that can positively influence his game. Based on past results, it's safe to say that he performs best when paired with someone that will be a safety net for the offensively-mind defenseman. Does that player exist on the Blue Jackets?
Damon Severson may be the best internal solution, at least to start, but it's almost by default. Severson lost minutes on a loaded New Jersey Devils team and was relegated to third-pairing minutes this past season. He was paid to be a top-pairing defenseman. Is he? There's a lot riding on that bet. For now, it's probably his spot to lose.
Adam Boqvist, David Jiricek
In a perfect world, Boqvist would develop into a better defensive player, and he and Werenski would create magic reading off each other. The problem is, when the Blue Jackets don't have the puck, this pairing would be a liability. Boqvist, still just 22 and with fewer than 200 NHL games under his belt, has time. But barring something unusual happening in training camp, I have a hard time imagining Babcock going with a Werenski-Boqvist top-pairing. This pair needs to stop the bleeding from last year.
Jiricek is the club's crown jewel defensive prospect. He exceeded expectations a year ago, starring in the AHL as a teenager. Now, is he ready to make the jump to the NHL? And if so, to the top pair? That may be a bit rich for the right-shot defenseman, but long term, it's not hard to imagine Werenski and Jiricek manning the top pair.
Andrew Peeke, Ivan Provorov
Werenski and Andrew Peeke don't have great historical results, but perhaps Peeke will take a step under the tutelage of Babcock. He is, in a sense, similar to the type of player that Werenski has done well with in the past, in that he's a big, right-shot who is defense-first. On the other hand, it feels like Peeke is borderline expendable. How could a player who could easily be a healthy scratch or even a potential training camp cut also be a first-pair type?
Ivan Provorov would probably love an opportunity to play alongside Werenski, but his left-handedness works against him. Most coaches prefer a left-right shot combo on the blueline, with the thought being that it's easier to get out of the zone cleaner with passes that face each other. Provorov may be best suited for the role given his other qualities, though, so consider him a dark horse.
The Last Word
In all likelihood, we'll see Werenski-Severson start the season as the club's top pairing. But over the coming months and years, don't be surprised when Jiricek forces his way into the conversation.