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Jackets' search for a defenseman streches into free agency

by Rob Mixer / Columbus Blue Jackets

SUNRISE, Fla. – Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen has made it known: he’s on the hunt for a defenseman, one that can immediately upgrade his blue line at the NHL level.

Though he would not get into specifics (and not that anyone expected him to), it’s believed that the Blue Jackets were involved in several different scenarios at the NHL Draft. Reports had them linked to now-Calgary Flames defenseman Dougie Hamilton and also to Noah Hanifin, who was eventually selected No. 5 overall by the Carolina Hurricanes.

They did, however, select a defenseman ranked near the top of their list in Zach Werenski, the 17-year-old freshman standout from the University of Michigan. Kekalainen and the Blue Jackets’ hockey operations staff believe Werenski will be a top-pairing NHL defenseman in due time, but they’re in a position now where they don’t have to force anything.

Another option is free agency, which unofficially began with a “courting period” at the draft. Kekalainen said he checked in with the agents for a few of the pending free agent defensemen, and it’s something they will monitor as noon ET approaches on July 1.

“I’ve said all along, if we want to try to get a defenseman that will make our defense better, let’s get the right guy,” Kekalainen said. “Let’s not try to force something and get a body just because we feel that we have to do something. Our team was pretty good at the end of last year for the last 15-16 games.

"We had Cody Goloubef playing very well, we had Kevin Connauton playing very well. Those guys were a solid part of our group last year, and going into the next year, that’s part of our group.”

Another (significant) part of their group on the back end is 21-year-old Ryan Murray, who has battled a multitude of injuries in the past year. He played in only 12 games for the Blue Jackets in 2014-15, a year removed from a terrific rookie campaign in which he secured and put a stranglehold on a spot in the team’s top four.

The good news is that Murray is on the mend from a knee injury that bothered him all season, and Kekalainen said his progress has been encouraging. If Murray can bounce back with a healthy season, it’s the best acquisition the Blue Jackets could hope for.

“I don’t think anybody can do much better in any market in the offseason if (Murray) comes in and plays 82 games next year,” Kekalainen said. “He’s healthy now and he’s getting stronger. He feels really good about it. He’s excited and obviously we are, too.

“He’s as good of a young defenseman as there is in this league, in my opinion.”

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