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Blue Jackets position breakdown: Defensemen

Columbus has plenty of depth on blue line heading into training camp

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

In the realm of issues, it's a good one to have. 

Do the Blue Jackets simply have too many defensemen ready for NHL action on the roster heading into the 2019-20 season? 

It's a first-world problem, one most NHL teams would love to have. But with nine players who played key minutes for the Blue Jackets last year still in the organization, Columbus will likely have to make some difficult decisions when it comes to the bottom two pairs of defensemen.  

A year ago defense continued to be a strength of the Blue Jackets. Even while dealing with injuries on the blue line as well as ups and downs in the net, Columbus gave up 2.82 goals per game, 11th in the NHL. It wasn't quite the two previous seasons, when Columbus placed in the top 10 in the league in scoring defense, but the Blue Jackets still were a team that it wasn't easy to score against in an NHL that saw more goals than anytime in the past decade. 

While there has been turnover among the forwards and goalies, the defensive corps returns pretty much full strength for the Jackets. The only player to suit up in more than 10 games along the blue line who isn't back is Adam McQuaid, the trade deadline acquisition who saw his season end in late March because of injury. 

Breakdown: Any discussion of the blue line has to start with Seth Jones and Zach Werenski. The two are the pillars of not just the defensive unit but of the entire team, a pair of two-way defensemen who play with a pace and tempo that can make it difficult on even the league's best teams. 

Jones has matured into exactly what the Blue Jackets hoped to be getting when he was acquired in 2016 for Ryan Johansen, a shutdown defender who can eat up big minutes while also boasting the talent to excel in the offensive zone with good playmaking vision and a great slap shot. Werenski, meanwhile, burst onto the scene as an elite scoring threat from the blue line three seasons ago and, still just 21, spent last season working on adding meat to his defensive game while still performing at a high level on the score sheet. 

Video: CBJ@TBL, Gm2: Werenski scores off draw on power play

And the good news is the best is likely yet to come with each. Jones is now reaching the point where he's in perennial consideration for the Norris Trophy, and it feels like after a standout postseason that a huge campaign is in the offing. And Werenski, who still needs to sign a contract as he is currently a restricted free agent, seemed to grow immensely through both injury and inconsistency a year ago. 

And if there was a silver lining to Werenski's occasional struggles a year ago, it was that Ryan Murray got to play on the top pairing with Jones for much of the season and certainly didn't look out of place. The flip side, of course, is that Murray suffered a season-ending injury in February, the latest malady to sideline the No. 2 overall pick in the 2012 draft in his career. On the ice, he took a leap forward last year, so if he can stay healthy in 2019-20, Murray should be another high-level blueliner for the team. 

From there, there are plenty of pieces for the Blue Jackets to add to the mix, including a pair of regulars coming back in David Savard and Markus Nutivaara. Savard was one of the CBJ stars of the postseason, as he continued his late-season scoring outburst into the playoffs and scored one of the key goals vs. Tampa Bay. The bearded veteran is coming off one of his best seasons in years and provides grit below the hashmarks and the occasional offensive contribution as well. 

Nutivaara, meanwhile, fought his game through parts of the 2018-19 season but is one of the team's long-term pieces, having signed a deal that carries him through the next three seasons. The smooth, puck-moving Finn with the excellent breakout pass had 21 points a year ago.   

One guy who deserves to be called a regular after last season is Scott Harrington, as the former second-round pick played in a career-high 73 games a season ago. He can pitch in offensively as well -- teammates often rave about his shot -- with 17 points a year ago, but his biggest benefit is his battle level and penalty killing abilities in his defensive zone.  

Then there are three players whose on-ice NHL resumes are limited but who all have shown they can be pieces to the puzzle. At the top of the list is Dean Kukan, the Swiss defenseman who was the team's No. 7 blueliner for much of last year before suddenly breaking out at the end of last season. There's no panic to his game and strong offensive instincts, and his defensive ability has come along in his four seasons in the CBJ organization. 

Video: CBJ@BOS, Gm5: Kukan fires home blistering one-timer

Vladislav Gavrikov will be one of the most intriguing pieces to the puzzle after joining the team in the second round vs. Boston. The Russian has done it all in his home country -- he won an Olympic gold medal in 2018 and was a combined plus-69 in the KHL the past two seasons -- and now hopes to translate his game to North America as a stay-at-home blueliner.  

Lastly, Adam Clendening will get another shot to stick with a big club after he was deputized both at the beginning and end of last season because of injuries. He was impressive with Cleveland of the AHL, posting a 4-33-37 line in 45 games, and also was effective when he had to step into postseason play.  

Rookie Andrew Peeke, who spent last year at Notre Dame, will also add depth along with such pieces as Gabriel Carlsson and Ryan Collins, who each played most of 2018-19 at the AHL level.  

Breakout potential: If his last month of the season is any indication, it might be Kukan's time to shine. In four years with the organization, he's played in just 44 regular-season games, but he looked more impactful than ever before when he got his late-season opportunity and ran with it, combining poise on the puck with improved play in his own zone.  

Bouncing back: It would be hard to say Nutivaara needs a bounce-back season because it's not like he had a bad year, but there were times he just didn't quite appear to be himself. It even resulted in a healthy scratch at one point, and Nutivaara went from a 7-16-23 line in 61 games two years ago to 5-16-21 in 80 games last year. He projects as a solid second pair option with some offensive ability and strong possession skills whose game meshes well with both Murray's and Savard's when he's playing his best.  

Battle levels: If everyone is healthy -- an NHL rarity, of course -- the top five entering camp are almost certainly Jones, Werenski, Murray, Nutivaara and Savard, if the history of the depth chart is any indication. That leaves four names for one spot, which largely belonged to Harrington a season ago before Kukan swooped in late in the year. Add in Gavrikov and suddenly there is a crunch for playing time. How the Blue Jackets manage the depth here -- and if a move from strength will eventually be made -- will bear watching.  

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