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Prospect Report: CBJ defense pool grew amid a solid season

Blue Jackets blueliners gained experience all over the globe

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider /

For the past few years, the biggest ding on the Blue Jackets prospect pool has been on the defensive side. Simply put, the relative paucity of draft picks in recent seasons had left the group of potential CBJ defensemen rather shallow. 

The Blue Jackets haven't necessarily been hurt because of that -- the depth at the NHL level has been solid all along -- and have gone about fixing that issue in the past year or so. Three defensemen were chosen in the 2020 NHL draft, the Jackets added Jake Christiansen in the free agent market, and some other depth has been added along the way. 

A look at the highlights from the season from the CBJ prospect pool at the defenseman position follows. 

In and Out with Columbus 

It was an interesting year in that while the Blue Jackets had an established blue line for the most part led by Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, the offseason trades of Markus Nutivaara and Ryan Murray and the eventual move of David Savard led to opportunity on the CBJ defensive corps at times. 

There wasn't a ton of consistency, and there were some new faces who got chances. But the fact that none of those defensemen grabbed a job and ran with it means figuring out the blue line going into next year might be an interesting endeavor. 

Four players -- older defensemen Mikko Lehtonen and Gavin Bayreuther as well as youngsters Andrew Peeke and Gabriel Carlsson -- could qualify as prospects if we use a broad definition (Lehtonen and Bayreuther entered the year with 19 combined NHL games between them), and all saw time with the CBJ as the year went on. 

Lehtonen is the oldest of the bunch, with the 27-year-old standing out in the KHL in 2019-20 -- the Finnish defenseman had 17 goals and 49 points with Jokerit that season -- before choosing to come to North America this year with Toronto. He never quite found a spot on the Maple Leafs' blue line with zero goals and three points in nine games before being traded to Columbus, where he notched three assists in 17 games. Lehtonen is an unrestricted free agent but could return, as he was lauded for his professional nature with the CBJ and clearly has some offensive abilities overseas that could yet be untapped at the NHL level. 

Bayreuther, meanwhile, also is 27, so like Lehtonen he's pushing the definition of the word prospect. The New Hampshire native has yet to establish himself at the NHL level, but he looked impressive at times in his nine-game CBJ cameo with a goal and some generally solid play including a positive expected goals margin at 5-on-5. Bayreuther was also a solid piece in Cleveland, notching a 3-9-12 line in 14 games. Having just completed his fourth pro season, Bayreuther is a UFA but also could come back if the Jackets decide they like his versatility. 

Carlsson still could have an NHL future ahead of him as he's still just 24, even though it seems he's been right on the borderline between the Jackets and Monsters forever (it's really been since he arrived in 2017). The 2015 first-round draft pick (29th overall) played 14 games with Columbus this year and notched a 1-3-4 line, though he also was minus-6 and had an xG percentage at 5-on-5 of 45.6 percent. One year remains on his contract so he'll have perhaps his best chance ever to crack the lineup consistently in 2021-22.  

Peeke had perhaps the toughest go of any CBJ defenseman, as after a very strong rookie year in which he looked like an NHL regular for years to come, the 2016 second-round pick struggled at the NHL level in 2021. The Notre Dame product finished with a 0-3-3 line and minus-4 mark in 11 games and couldn't find consistent playing time, even being sent to Cleveland where he had four assists in seven games. Peeke's future remains extremely bright as a dependable two-way, right-hand shot defenseman, and the hope is he will improve from the lessons taken from this year's ups and downs.  

Down on the Farm 

While some of those names above also saw time with Cleveland, two prospects spent much of the season with the Monsters and gained valuable pro experience. 

Christiansen was a high-profile free agent signing by the Blue Jackets in March 2020 as the left-shot defenseman tore up the WHL with 22 goals amid his 50 points in 38 games that season. His transition to pro hockey didn't include quite as much offense, but the 21-year-old finished with three goals and 15 points while playing in 28 games with Cleveland. It's fair to expect more offense to bloom as he gets his feet under him at the pro level, and Christiansen is signed for two more seasons. 

He was joined on the Monsters blue line by Ole Bjorgvik-Holm, a 2020 fifth-round pick who began the year in his home country of Norway before signing with Cleveland halfway through the campaign. Also a member of Norway's World Championships squad, Bjorgvik-Holm thrived in a difficult year, as the 19-year-old had 10 points in 22 games with Manglerud in Norway before posting a 1-4-5 line in 16 games with the Monsters. Considering his youth, it was an impressive season, and it will be interesting to see where he ends up next season as he's now played in the OHL, in the pros overseas and in the AHL. 

Over in Europe 

Tim Berni is the most experienced CBJ prospect who played overseas, as the pandemic forced the 21-year-old to return to his native Switzerland for the year rather than make his Monsters debut. He was again solid with the ZSC Lions with a 4-3-7 line in 52 games and a plus-4 rating, and as he's under contract for the next two seasons, it seems likely he'll play for Cleveland next season. The biggest problem remaining for Berni will be finding a skill at which he excels; while he's solid in each zone, it remains to be seen if he has the high-end talent to stand out in any realm at the NHL level.  

Two players drafted in the 2020 draft also had promising seasons in third-round pick Samuel Knazko and sixth-rounder Samuel Johannesson. Knazko played on Slovakia's World Juniors and World Championships teams plus showed his offensive skill in Finland's U-20 league, as the 18-year-old had a 5-10-15 line in 23 games with TPS and figures to potentially join the big club next year. The 20-year-old Johannesson spent most of the year gaining experience in Sweden's top league, notching a goal and three assists with a minus-1 rating in 45 games with Rogle BK.  

The pandemic also wreaked havoc on the season of Eric Hjorth, a 2019 fourth-round pick who showed offensive promise with Sarnia of the OHL in 2019-20. With the OHL out of commission this year, the 20-year-old Swede kicked around with Frolunda's U-20 team, then went to Finland where he played at the U-20 level and in that country's second tier. He finished with a 4-6-10 line in 27 games between the three stops, but next year he should get his chance with KalPa of the top-level Liiga after signing there this season. 

College Hockey 

Columbus had just one prospect suiting up at the college level, as 2017 seventh-round pick Robbie Stucker was a junior at the University of Minnesota. The 22-year-old had five assists in 22 games on a crowded blue line at the U, and he has transferred to Vermont after posting a 2-14-16 line and plus-1 rating in three seasons (79 games) with the Golden Gophers. 

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