In David Jiricek, the Columbus Blue Jackets have the rare prototypical, top-of-the-lineup, right-shot defense prospect.
The sixth overall pick in the 2022 NHL Draft, who turns 20 in November, is also one of the organization's crown jewels, right alongside top prospect Adam Fantilli. But whereas Fantilli looks like a surefire lock to play serious minutes for the Blue Jackets this season, it's a little bit less clear what the immediate future holds for Jiricek.
Conventional wisdom is that defensemen take longer to develop than forwards. But Jiricek showed last year that he was more than capable at the AHL level, being named to its inaugural Top Prospects Team while being the second-youngest player to ever partake in the AHL All-Star Game. He could play this season in the AHL, as he is waivers exempt, and continue to develop. After all, there is little downside to 'over ripening' in one of the best professional leagues in the world, on a team that happens to be ~2 hours up the road.
That reality, coupled with the fact that the Blue Jackets added two (likely) top-four defensemen this offseason in Damon Severson and Ivan Provorov, to say nothing of Zach Werenski's recovery, and it's not difficult to reason why a player in Jiricek that only played four NHL games a season ago would have a slot on a theoretically much more crowded blueline this season.
That may be where the caution against Jiricek's NHL momentum ends. The team is in desperate need of one of its many right-shot defensemen to grab a top-four role. Severson is almost surely one of those defensemen. Erik Gudbranson is almost certainly the right side of the third pair. That leaves Jiricek, Adam Boqvist, Andrew Peeke, and Nick Blankenburg, to say nothing of left-shot Jake Bean. Assuming Werenski and Provorov are the top two on the left side, that means that three playing spots are 'up for grabs'.
|Pairing||Left Side||Right Side|
Jiricek may be green, but stylistically he could be exactly what the Blue Jackets need. This team was decimated on zone entries, constantly absorbing the play and retreating instead of defending the blue line. Jiricek may even be overly confident in his ability to break up plays at the blue line given his average skating, where a mistake could mean any easy odd-man rush. Still, it's easy to see how his defensive play can directly translate to offensive success.
Jiricek with a beautiful pass breakup leading to a goal by Owen Sillinger! 2-2! pic.twitter.com/SNvcREXOyd— The CBJ Center (@CBJcenter) September 24, 2023
Other options exist but are flawed. Someone like Boqvist could get some run in the top four, but at this point, he's much more capable on the power play and has been exposed against better competition for the entirety of his career. Peeke has been a good soldier, but I'm not sure how anyone can confidently say that he's a top-pairing defenseman right now. Blankenburg is a nice depth piece, but that may be swimming in the deep end for him, too.
Jiricek playing in the top four would likely come with some miscues, but as long as he continues to develop correctly, it makes sense. It would bump one of Peeke/Boqvist/Blankenburg/Bean to the third pair, but that's probably for the best. If it doesn't work out, he can always be sent down to the AHL with no waiver exposure.
Jiricek slotting into a top-four role would appropriately slot other players while giving the Blue Jackets handedness balance in its top four. It's no small feat for a young defenseman to play that high in the lineup, but Jiricek may already have what it takes to succeed at this level. And that would go a long way in fortifying a defense corps that is in desperate need of reinforcements.