Injuries are part of any sport, and one of the more difficult and frustrating aspects of being a professional athlete. Of course, some get hit harder than others, just ask the Columbus Blue Jackets. Over the course of the 2019-20 campaign, the Jackets have lost roughly 300 man-games to injury, which averages to about five skaters per-game. Luckily, thanks to strict team strategies and a solid depth-pool, Columbus has managed to stay afloat and creep into a wildcard playoff position.
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After losing All-Star and top-minute man, Seth Jones, the Jackets blue line continues to run thin. With key pieces already down, Jones is now expected to miss the next 8-10 weeks after undergoing successful ankle surgery. So, without selling future assets, how do you replace a player who eats up over 25 minutes a game, plays on the penalty kill and quarterbacks your top power play?
Well, for now the answer lies within the group. The Jackets d-core is filled with players chomping at the bit for the opportunity to step up to the plate. Here are three skaters you can expect to play elevated roles down the stretch.
While he may not post groundbreaking offensive numbers, the Finnish blueliner knows how to handle his own on the back-end and plays a solid two-way game. His responsible, mistake-free style complements the high-flying calibre of Zach Werenski on the first-pairing well. For now, expect the two to skate together.
In the two games since the Jones injury, Nutivaara has seen a season-high 19:56 and 24:00 of ice-time on the top unit. He’s also booked some time on the teams second power-play paring, albeit less than a minute per game.
The increased role in both 5-on-5 and special teams should boost his totals in the offensive department, an area that has struggled this season. After posting 23 and 21 points, respectively, in his last two campaigns, the 25-year-old has recorded just three goals and one assist through 26 games this season.
The heavy-framed Yaroslavl native has surprised many this season, quickly becoming one of the team’s backbone rear-guards. He entered his rookie season known for his grimy shutdown defending, eating up pucks and using his long reach to break up plays. However, he has since blossomed into a productive two-way player which has had great effect on his deployment.
The 24-year-old currently sits tied for fifth in goals (5) and eighth in points (13) among all rookie defenders. Do not let the offensive numbers fool you, though, he’s been no slouch in his defensive responsibilities either.
Both his 70 blocked shots, and plus-eight rating sit third on the Jackets squad. With Jones out and off the team’s penalty kill, Gavrikov could also be relied on more with the team’s special teams units. Expect his minutes to sit anywhere between the 21-23 minute zone for the un-foreseeable future.
Peeke has begun his rookie pro-season as advertised. At 21 years old, he is quickly learning how to become an offensive weapon, especially at the minor league level. You can currently find him skating on the team’s third-pairing with six-year veteran, Scott Harrington. Although his spot on the roster is by no means guaranteed, coach John Tortorella has been impressed by his game, which is a positive sign to keep him in.
In fact, his minutes continue to increase, logging a career-high 16:02 in their previous match-up against the Buffalo Sabres. With his knack for creating offence, it is not a reach to see him climb the lineup and find himself on a top-four pairing. Although it may be ambitious, with his past experience quarterbacking power plays, you could also see some injected minutes on the team’s secondary special teams unit.
Despite only suiting up in 29 games, Peeke sits third on the American Hockey League’s Cleveland Monsters in points by a defenceman, with 5 goals and 11 points.
Things Could Change
It is hockey, so we all know that things can change at the snap of a finger. Not to mention coach Tortorella is well known for putting his lines through a blender. However, these combos have meshed well together, and until they see some names return from their respective ailments, things are working.
You cannot disregard the approaching trade deadline as a major factor as well. While a transaction is not guaranteed, there is always a chance for movement, which could cause a trickle affect throughout all pairings.