The Columbus Blue Jackets had several questions to answer as their preseason schedule began. Just two games into that schedule, we have an early contender for training camp standout in an important position.
Defenseman Nick Blankenburg scored a power-play goal in Pittsburgh Sunday and played an outstanding game overall. The Blue Jackets eventually lost that game to the Penguins 3-2 in overtime. But Blankenburg was the most noticeable player throughout the game. Given his background, this comes as no surprise.
Blankenburg might be listed at just 5-foot-9, but he plays a game of someone who is closer to 6-foot-4. His aggressiveness in all areas of the game stands out. It stood out in a big way Sunday.
Whether it was playing physical or pinching in the offensive zone, Blankenburg was constantly looking for ways to stay actively involved in the game. In a training camp as highly competitive as this Blue Jackets’ camp is, he is off to the best possible kind of start in terms of making his case to make the opening-night roster.
Blankenburg has to play this way in order to be successful. In a small sample size since joining the Blue Jackets, he has done that. But questions will continue to linger given his size and consistently bigger players having their way with him physically.
That’s not stopping Blankenburg from making things happen every time he takes the ice. Considering his roster spot is not guaranteed given the number of defensemen who could make the team, he did as well as anyone could ask for on Sunday to make it known he should be one of the six defensemen who play come opening night.
Blankenburg Impressing the Team
Cleveland Monsters’ assistant coach Mark Letestu spoke to the media Sunday from Pittsburgh. He had nothing but praise for Blankenburg’s game.
“That’s the first time I had seen him play live behind the bench,” Letestu said. “You see it on TV. But you really gain an appreciation for him when you get to see it. Again it’s his stature and how hard he competes. On his first shift he had two hits and a scoring chance and just continued on from there. (He) really led for our team tonight. It was a good effort from him. I’m sure he’s pretty proud.”
Blankenburg’s game centers around his effort and taking pride in all aspects of his game. He spoke to that postgame.
“I pride myself on both ends of the ice. I want to be a good defenseman,” Blankenburg said. “I want to contribute offensively too being the forward that I was…Throughout my career I just try to really focus on the defensive side first and then let the rest fall into place. (I’m) just continuing to see what works and learn through each and every game and everyday in practice.”
If anyone is going to win a roster spot on this Blue Jackets’ team, there’s a good chance ties will go to those who showed the most compete. Every shift Blankenburg takes centers around that compete. But it’s going to take more than just one game to win everyone over.
Blankenburg must continue to play games like the one he did on Sunday. The Blue Jackets could find themselves having to make a hard decision on who the last defenseman is that makes the team. Let’s consider who the top-nine contenders are for a roster spot from the blue line. This puts the dilemma into perspective.
- Zach Werenski (lock)
- Vladislav Gavrikov (lock)
- Erik Gudbranson (lock)
- Adam Boqvist (lock)
- Andrew Peeke (lock)
If we assume these five are locks, here are the other contenders for one more spot to play and not be a scratch.
- Jake Bean
- Jake Christiansen
- David Jiricek
Something else to consider in this conversation. Blankenburg is waivers exempt. The only player not on this list of four not waivers exempt is Bean. That would likely give Bean a leg up in keeping him on the roster. Plus Gudbranson, Boqvist and Peeke are right-handed. Blankenburg is going to have to steal a job based on his play. So far he’s off to a tremendous start and could force management’s hand.
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Blankenburg will have to keep competing like he’s doing to make the 23-man roster. If he continues to play like he did Sunday, not only would he make the roster, he’d play opening night. He has set the blueprint for all other contenders to follow. He has taken the compete message to heart. It might be the thing that propels him over the top in time.
- Camp invitee Ben Harpur got in a fight Sunday and in a scary scene, was knocked to the ice by Jamie Devane. Harpur laid on the ice for a couple minutes before being helped to the locker room. He was bloodied and dazed. After the game, the Blue Jackets confirmed an upper-body injury for Harpur. He was able to travel back with the team to Columbus. There is no official word on how long he could be out.
- Both goalies Pavel Cajan and Nolan Lalonde played well despite the loss. Letestu said postgame that each has made a positive impression on many people within the team based on their camp performance to date. They aren’t making the Blue Jackets out of camp but they are setting themselves up well for the next stage. The effort of both wasn’t lost on their teammates.
- Kirill Marchenko made his debut and was noticeable. He was able to beat two defenders on a rush which created a scoring chance. He didn’t finish there but he did get an assist on Blankenburg’s power-play goal. It was a good first game for Marchenko.
- The Blue Jackets won the game in Columbus over the Penguins 5-1. Justin Danforth, Jake Voracek and Johnny Gaudreau each had three points in the game.
- The Blue Jackets next play Wednesday against the Buffalo Sabres at Nationwide Arena. Don’t be surprised if some cuts start to be made this week.
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I am a fully credentialed writer who covers the Columbus Blue Jackets, Cleveland Monsters and Erie Otters as well as the Ontario Hockey League and NHL Draft. The 2022-23 season will mark nine seasons with the Hockey Writers. I am also the site’s Credentials Manager. Please take note of the updated Twitter handle: @mark_scheig.