Columbus Blue Jackets Defenseman David Jiricek Has Struggled To Develop In His Second NHL Season

By Dan Dukart on April 11, 2024 at 1:45 pm
David Jiricek skates against the Carolina Hurricanes
James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman David Jiricek, 20, has had a relatively disappointing sophomore season in the NHL.

His rookie season went mostly smoothly, as he was named to the AHL's All-Star Game and was one of the most productive underage defensemen in recent AHL memory. His four NHL games were basically gravy, a mere appetizer before his inevitable second-year entree. But this season has gone, well, not so smoothly. He was bounced between the AHL and NHL, healthy scratched for weeks at a time, was publicly frustrated with his handling, and, with rookie Adam Fantilli rightly stealing headlines, it's fair to say that some of the bloom was off the proverbial rose with the right-shot defenseman.

Tuesday's loss in Tampa Bay was a nice representation of what has ailed Jiricek all season. Playing behind an injury-riddled forward group, he slotted on the third pair alongside another right-shot defenseman, Nick Blankenburg, an unenviable spot in an unenviable lineup against an unenviable opponent. He played the fewest minutes of any defenseman, 13:00, and was largely to blame for Tampa's game-winning goal. 

The sequence unfortunately starts before the video, but the first play begins with a failed Jiricek breakout pass that kicks off a Tampa forechecker's skate and into the corner. From there, Jiricek retrieves the puck after making a nice read to help Sean Kuraly in a puck battle with Anthony Cirelli. 

After that, Kuraly immediately wants the puck back as he's beaten his check, but Jiricek retreats on his backhand behind the net, where Brandon Hagel is there to confront him. Cirelli helps Hagel, and the two trap Jiricek, regain possession, and send the puck to the point, a perfectly executed 2-1-2 forecheck. Cirelli then gets inside leverage on Jiricek, then puts home a rebound for a 3-2 lead. It's a 15-second clip that shows two Jiricek mistakes (and misses out on the third by virtue of timing).

David Jiricek Evolving-Hockey

(David Jiricek's '23-'24 player card, Evolving-Hockey)

Pascal Vincent cited Jiricek's poor gap control as a reason for Jiricek's demotion to the AHL. He's absolutely right that it needs work, and therein lies the argument. Should he work on gap control against AHL players or against NHL players? Is 13:00 TOI appropriate? Where I was initially critical of the coaching staff, I do understand the predicament. How can you justify giving a guy reps when he's struggling with a fundamental building block of defending? The counterargument, and one I've made consistently, is that you send him out to give him experience against elite competition. But that's a fine line to walk, throwing a player in the deep end and hoping they can swim eventually.

There are clear allegories on this team of similar up-and-down stories. Look no further than Cole Sillinger, who was excellent as an 18-year-old rookie, then brutal his sophomore season, and has rebounded with a very promising third season. Development is not linear. Sometimes it's hard to remember that Jiricek is still 20. Or that Damon Severson was signed to bridge the literal gap between the present and future. Or that perhaps a better team would do a better job insulating its young defensemen.  

Optimism is still very much warranted for Jiricek. He's twitchy, aggressive, and long. His instincts are solid, he's got more offense than he's shown at the NHL level, and he's still only played in 44 NHL games. In a perfect world, he'll finish the season on a long playoff run with the Cleveland Monsters, then starts next season as the club's second-pair defender.

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