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Defensive depth puts Blue Jackets in good spot going forward

Columbus has both high-end talent and numbers in its depth chart

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider /

It's the time of year where there are questions are about to be answered for the Columbus Blue Jackets. 

With the draft and free agency nearing, the 2019-20 roster will be rounding into form in the coming weeks.  

But one question for the Blue Jackets was seemingly answered as the team went through its playoff run this past season, and that one revolves around the team's defensive depth. 

As blueliners continued to go down with injury -- first Ryan Murray, then Adam McQuaid and eventually Markus Nutivaara -- the team continued plugging in new defensemen with solid results. 

The emergence of Scott Harrington and Dean Kukan into regulars as well as the playoff infusions of Adam Clendening and Vladislav Gavrikov into the lineup showed Columbus has defensive depth that could be the envy of many across the NHL landscape. 

Add in standouts Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, both already All-Stars, the dependable Murray and Nutivaara, and the veteran savvy of Savy, David Savard, and Columbus showed it feels pretty good about its blue line going forward. 

"I think it's a special D corps for sure," Jones said. "You have Zach, who is one of the most offensively skilled defensemen I've ever seen. I've had the opportunity to play with him every night and watch him. You have Savard, who comes to the rink every day and is a true pro. He's definitely a leader in our back end. He blocks shots, he just does whatever it takes. He's one of those players.  

"Gavrikov came in in the postseason and does some great things. Big body, physical, can move his feet and skate. Then you have Kuks, Harry -- all those guys can play. They're all competitors and I think moving forward we're all going to continue to grow." 

Video: Jones meets with the media at exit day

For right now, the biggest issue involving the defensive corps will be getting everyone signed, then sorting out the depth chart from there. As an unrestricted free agent at the age of 32, McQuaid seems unlikely to return to the team, while Werenski, Murray, Harrington and Clendening are all restricted free agents and need to sign new deals. 

But the Blue Jackets already have Jones and Nutivaara locked up for the next three seasons, Savard signed for the next two, and Gavrikov and Kukan under contract for the 2019-20 season. 

"I'm excited that we're still going to have a lot of the same guys in that D corps just because I spend the most time with those guys, whether we're talking about different things between games or between shifts," Jones said. "Obviously it's special with those 7-8 guys." 

What makes it special is that the Blue Jackets have both high-end talent and depth. With Jones and Werenski, the Blue Jackets have a pairing that can match with anyone in the NHL, as Jones is a three-time All-Star who is viewed as one of the top two-way defenders in the league and a perennial Norris Trophy candidate. Werenski, meanwhile, has been an offensive wunderkind since arriving from the University of Michigan but was tasked with improving defensively a year ago, a process that paid off at the end of the season. 

By the end of the year, the 21-year-old Werenski was playing some of the best hockey of his career, while Jones appeared to reach another level come playoff time at age 24. Combined, the two were leaned on by head coach John Tortorella in the postseason while going up against some of the top offensive talents in the game possessed by Boston and Tampa Bay. 

"I thought Zach was excellent in the most important games in the regular season that sort of decided or clinched our spot in the playoffs, and in the playoffs as well," general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. "And Seth is a three-time All-Star in a row in the league. You've come to expect that from him every night now, but it's really exciting to have a D pair like that leading your D corps." 

Kekalained added those two are "just getting started" and will continue to improve, while the depth continues on from there. Savard is coming off his eighth season with the Jackets and is a combined plus-54 the past two seasons, and he seemed to play some of his best hockey at the end of the 2018-19 season. Nutivaara, meanwhile, can push play with his excellent breakout passes and has been a solid defenseman when it comes to possession for much of his career. 

But it's at the back end where the Jackets had to be happy at the end of the campaign. Harrington was a spare part the past two seasons, playing in a combined 54 games, but became a mainstay this past season, playing in 73 games with a career-best 17 points. 

Kukan, meanwhile, went from a little-used seventh defenseman for much of the campaign to a key player down the stretch, as he showed a fearlessness on the puck, an improved battle level in the defensive end and a sneaky good shot to become a second-pairing defenseman in the postseason. 

Clendening spent most of the season in the AHL with Cleveland, averaging nearly a point per game, and Kekalainen said it was clear throughout the year he was good enough to be an NHL defenseman. He got that chance in the postseason with Nutivaara injured and performed admirably in seven games. 

"Our success in the playoffs, we are missing Nutivaara and Murray and McQuaid, and a lot of people would say that if you're missing three out of your top six, you have no chance," Kekalainen said. "But Kukan stepped right in and played great, Harrington took on a bigger role and played great, and Adam Clendening was very good for the limited role that he played in." 

Then there's two players who could very well be a part of the mix for years to come. Murray was in the midst of the best season of his Blue Jackets career through 56 games, posting a career-high 29 points and a plus-20 rating, but he suffered an injury in late February and could not return the rest of the season. 

Gavrikov also figures to be a key piece of the equation after coming over from Russia during the playoffs and looking solid in the final two games. A steady defensive defenseman with international experience, the 2015 draft pick was described by Kekalainen as someone who was good enough to be in the team's top six all season had he been in North America. 

Add it all up and the defense is solid and deep, which is key as the Blue Jackets will enter the upcoming season with some new looks up front and likely in net.  

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