Like many small-market teams across professional sports leagues, the Columbus Blue Jackets don’t have some of the built-in advantages of certain franchises in the NHL. While located in a growing city, they don’t play in a major free-agent destination, and they’re often overlooked on the leaguewide stage.
So, they’re focused on inward development.
“Growing from within is going to be a key for us,” general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said last week.
It’s a proven strategy to both build a winning team and then sustain success in various leagues. It has worked in the NBA with the Milwaukee Bucks, in the NFL with the Kansas City Chiefs and in the MLB with the Cleveland Indians.
Columbus is aiming for something similar.
“That's the next step we have to take,” coach John Tortorella said. That's why I'm sick of the questions about all the good things and the experiences and stuff like that. That, to me, is players growing and playing at a different level and handling some of the mental obstacles that come with it. We've just got to continue to try to get better.”
One of the players Tortorella will be relying on to take the Blue Jackets to the next level?
A 24-year-old defenseman from Russia, he just completed his first full NHL season years after Columbus originally selected him in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. For a while, it was unclear when Gavrikov would ever suit up for the Blue Jackets. He was picked in the sixth round at No. 159 overall but didn’t leave his native country for the United States immediately.
Instead, Gavrikov spent two years playing for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl in the KHL. Then, despite Columbus’ best efforts to bring him to the NHL, he opted for a two-year contract to remain in the KHL, this time playing for SKA Saint Petersburg.
“Here, I have a great opportunity to play and grow as a hockey player,” Gavrikov said at the time. I have a great desire to play in the team, to prove (myself) at the club under the direction of Oleg Znarok (and) get the chance to perform at the (2018) Olympic Games.”
Kekalainen finally secured Gavrikov’s commitment to leave Russia and join the Blue Jackets in 2019, adding him in time to suit up for two playoff games last year.
“I think if he can step into the playoff games and play like that, he probably could have played for us all year and be a big part of it,” Kekalainen said last year. “I'm excited about his potential and really happy that he's on our team next year.”
Not until the 2019-20 slate, however, did Gavrikov play an entire season with Columbus. Consistently, he showcased why the Blue Jackets remained so interested in having him join them in the NHL.
Gavrikov, who began the leadup to the season in the same conversation as Scott Harrington and Dean Kukan for the final spot for defensemen in the lineup, secured a role alongside David Savard as one of Columbus’ top-four blueliners. They became a steady yet sometimes overlooked duo.
“I think our whole team appreciates what they do for us in terms of blocking shots, being heavy down low, just how they play the game, how they shut other teams' top lines down,” Zach Werenski said earlier this month. “They might not be as talked about as a guy like Seth Jones, but they do so much for our team. We really appreciate them and everything they do for us, especially on the penalty kill late in games when we're up one or two and they have a goalie pulled. Those guys will stand in front of any puck and block any shot.”
In the shortened regular season, Gavrikov recorded 18 points – five goals and 13 assists – to go along with 92 blocks and 79 assists in 18:59 minutes on the ice per game. By putting him together with Savard to create a physical second pairing that minimized the dropoff in defense behind the Jones-Werenski duo, Columbus was able to thrive with them, helping create the team’s identity while ranking tied for third in the NHL with 2.61 goals against per game.
With only one year of experience as a 24-year-old defenseman, Gavrikov has plenty of room to grow, and Tortorella and Kekalainen will be relying heavily on him over the next few years. He’s a restricted free agent who’s expected to be brought back as one of the Blue Jackets’ top four defensemen next season and for the foreseeable future.
Columbus had to stay patient. Gavrikov’s desire to spend four years in his home country of Russia after the Blue Jackets drafted him in 2015 required them to do so.
Now that he’s in the NHL, though, Gavrikov is someone who made a difference during the 2019-20 season and will continue to serve in an impactful role going forward as the Blue Jackets look to take the next step as a team.