Blue Jackets Bargaining On Defensive Upgrades (And The Return Of One) To Prove Itself In New Year

By Will Chase on August 22, 2023 at 1:45 pm
Columbus Blue Jackets' Zach Werenski moves the puck against Pittsburgh Penguins' Jake Guentzel during the third period at PPG Paints Arena
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

On Sunday, the NHL Network rolled out their rankings of the top 20 defensemen around the league right now.

The Columbus Blue Jackets did not have any players crack the list. But that's not too surprising.

  NHL Network’s Top 20 Defensemen Right Now, 1-20
1 Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche
2 Adam Fox, New York Rangers
3 Miro Heiskanen, Dallas Stars
4 Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning
5 Roman Josi, Nashville Predators
6 Charlie McAvoy, Boston Bruins
7 Rasmus Dahlin, Buffalo Sabres
8 Erik Karlsson, Pittsburgh Penguins
9 Alex Pietrangelo, Vegas Golden Knights
10 Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks
11 Josh Morrissey, Winnipeg Jets
12 Dougie Hamilton, New Jersey Devils
13 Devon Toews, Colorado Avalanche
14 Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes
15 Hampus Lindholm, Boston Bruins
16 Brent Burns, Carolina Hurricanes
17 Mikhail Sergachev, Tampa Bay Lightning
18 Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings
19 Brandon Montour, Florida Panthers
20 Shea Theodore, Vegas Golden Knights

You figure Zach Werenski is a candidate in most years and Coby Maeir made the case for why Werenski should have been on the list. 

Limited to only 13 games last season after sustaining a torn labrum and separated shoulder, Werenski is healthy and leads the revamped blue line for the upcoming season ahead for the Jackets.

Damon Severson was arguably the top defensive free agent to be before his sign-and-trade with the New Jersey Devils earlier this summer and is going to be a boost to a Columbus unit that surrendered a franchise-high 329 goals.

Though there is perhaps some risk involved by both the play of Severson and Werenski as far as their individual respective tendencies, our own Dan Dukart mentioned both as probable for the Jackets' first pairing in his roster analysis series. They seem like the top duo as of right now.

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?

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.

That said, as Dukart mentioned in his piece about second pairings, Severson could be on the second pairing, especially if the Jackets feel they're better off with particular matchups.

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.

Last season, the 29-year-old Severson scored 33 points (seven goals, 26 assists) in 81 games for the Devils. Ivan Provorov is the other defenseman to change teams within the Metropolitan Division and come over to Columbus.

Just days before the acquisition of Severson, the Jackets acquired Provorov in a three-team trade involving the Jackets, Philadelphia Flyers, and Los Angeles Kings. Provorov is still only 26 years old and scored 27 points (six goals, 21 assists) in 82 games last season.

As I wrote earlier in the off-season, general manager Jarmo Kekalainen boldly swung for the fences with the pair of blue line upgrades and then the hire of head coach Mike Babcock.

While there is no denying of potential risk involved when talking about Babcock and his prior baggage, the roster upgrades on the blue line also drew mixed reviews from those around the hockey community. But the Jackets are banking on the high reward that can come with making such deals. Particularly over the next few seasons starting with 2023-24.

Severson's contract might be a tad long based on the term, and the back end of the contract might not be team friendly—Columbus is paying top-pair defenseman money for a player that New Jersey didn't have to utilize as a top-pair defenseman last season—but he's one of the best players on that side of the puck and in Columbus in general.

Provorov's defense has left much to be desired in recent seasons but there is a prior track record and he's another veteran presence that adds offense.

Last year's injuries left the team as inexperienced as ever all around the ice. Both Provorov and Severson bring a track record of availability in addition to their respective on-ice successes.

This isn't a win-now season but the team has to be competitive with clear stepping stones for success in each season under Babcock. That includes being in the playoff conversation this year and showing clear signs of progression, all while navigating the prime windows for players including Severson, Werenski, and the core of the forward group.

As we said a few weeks ago, you can add to your team in free agency but it's cornerstone talent through the draft teams have to rely on to enhance their Stanley Cup window.

David Jiricek will be among the first of those guys through the draft to make an impact on the blue line. His status will be one to monitor over the next few seasons as aging veterans could see their roles change, softening the blow of potential contract concerns later on.

For now, Columbus has a lot of talent on that side of the puck. Stay healthy and the Jackets will reap those benefits. 

Next up on the NHL Network's rankings are the top 10 goalies right now which will be unveiled on Aug. 27.

Date Ranking Included on NHL Tonight Time (ET)
Sunday, August 27 Top 10 Goalies Right Now 6:00 p.m.
Sunday, September 10 Top 50 Players Right Now: 50-41 6:00 p.m.
Sunday, September 17 Top 50 Players Right Now: 40-31 6:00 p.m.
Sunday, September 24 Top 50 Players Right Now: 30-21 TBD
Sunday, October 1 Top 50 Players Right Now: 20-11 TBD
Sunday, October 8 Top 50 Players Right Now: 10-1 TBD