Blue Jackets’ Peeke Extension Will Force Tough Defense Decisions

The Columbus Blue Jackets made an important transaction on Wednesday morning by giving a contract extension to Andrew Peeke. The extension carries a three-year term at an average annual value (AAV) of $2.75 million. He became a reliable force for the Blue Jackets’ defense through last year for a variety of reasons and it’s not a huge financial commitment for someone who brings so much to the table.

“Andrew is a smart, versatile defenseman who moves the puck well, added an element of physicality to his game last season and showed that he can play effectively in all situations,” Columbus general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said in the announcement of the deal. “He arguably was our most improved player a year ago and we are excited to see what the future holds for him as he continues to develop and progress as a player.”

However, the term and already existing talent pool on the back end does make for some difficult decisions coming down the pipeline. Let’s look at the deal and how it affects the long-term picture in Columbus.

Peeke is a Valuable Piece to the Puzzle

Let’s start by getting this out of the way: re-signing Peeke was a necessary piece to the Blue Jackets’ puzzle.

Andrew Peeke Blue Jackets
Andrew Peeke, Blue Jackets (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Size and grit were main criticisms of the Blue Jackets’ blue line as they were pushed around a little too often in their own zone. Peeke was the one player who brought physicality on a night-to-night basis, leading the defensive unit in hits and blocked shots. In fact, he bested Erik Gudbranson in both of those stats, who was the player brought in through free agency to be a physical presence.

As one of two players on the roster to dress for all 82 games last season, Peeke has shown the ability to handle the rigors of an NHL season. It was his first full season, which he spent learning to stay afloat. His sophomore year should be one where he learns to swim. At only 24 years old, he is just entering the prime window for the average defenseman and this extension keeps him under contract until he is 28. All of those years will be at a very reasonable cap hit for someone who can play the role that he can.

According to Kekalainen, what we saw from Peeke last season could be just the beginning.

“I’ve seen Andrew Peeke [in the locker room] and he looks bigger and stronger,” said Kekalainen in his media day press conference. “He had a very strong season last year and we expect him to be better.”

Kekalainen went on to add how Peeke’s 6-foot-3 frame has added about 15 pounds, now weighing around 210 pounds, adds “some pretty good size back there.” That size adds another level to his game, making him more indispensable to the team.

“I’m definitely excited to keep growing. I’ve put in a really good summer’s worth of work and here through training camp trying to keep showing what I’m building on in my game and keep improving my tools. That’s the exciting part for me is being able to do what I did last year and gain that confidence and be able to grow on it from there.”

Andrew Peeke looking forward after signing his new extension.

What he did last season was spend a lot of time on the top pairing with Zach Werenski. It’s a position that he is ambitious to hold again this season amid a flurry of competition on the right side.

“I feel like I can slot in anywhere, pretty much, but obviously you strive to play as many minutes,” said Peeke. “Everyone wants to play that top pair, everyone strives for that. That’s the competitor inside you. But, obviously, you want to win games so whatever happens happens, and you keep working to help the team win games and play your role as best as you can.”

Andrew Peeke Columbus Blue Jackets
Andrew Peeke, Columbus Blue Jackets (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

While coach Brad Larsen said he was planning on experimenting a little with who plays in that slot this season, he also said he’s been afforded the opportunity because he knows Peeke can play there.

“Nothing is set in stone yet. We know that they’ve played together and have some experience, so that helps,” said Larsen. “It maybe gives us a little bit of leeway to try something else and see what it looks like.”

Blue Jackets’ Defense Now and Later

So, while it does add some value, the Peeke contract does add to a growing logjam within the Blue Jackets’ defense corps. The problem is not unique to the blue line, as young players are clamoring to get into the lineup at every position heading into this new campaign.

It’s different than last year. There’s lots of capable guys right now that are going to be scratching and clawing for ice time to get into the lineup. They don’t get to take a practice off or a preseason game off.

Brad Larsen on the Blue Jackets logjam at all positions

While, yes, competition is a good thing, the lack of players set in stone does raise a lot of questions for the team. Defensively the only thing that can be chiseled into the opening-night lineup as a guarantee is Werenski on the top-pair left side. Everything else is up in the air.

Let’s take a look at how the defense stacks up, along with how many years they have remaining on their contracts and sorted by their cap hit.

Left DefenseRight Defense
Zach Werenski x 6 years at $9.58 million*Erik Gudbranson x 4 years at $4 million
Vladislav Gavrikov x1 year at $2.8 millionAndrew Peeke x 4 years at $2.75 million*
Jake Bean x 2 years at $2.33 million*Adam Boqvist x 3 years at $2.6 million*
Jake Christiansen x 1 year at $925,000*Nick Blankenburg x 2 years at $825,000*
Gavin Bayreuther x 1 year at $750,000
*denotes player 25 or younger

While Vladislav Gavrikov looks like an easy out with only one year left on his contract, make no mistake, an extension is coming for the Russian. He was a rock as consistently their second-best defenseman over the course of the year and had a breakout offensively. He’s not going anywhere.

So, the team has Werenski and Gavrikov as locks to be in the lineup. Gudbranson’s new contract makes him a hard guy to scratch from a value perspective, so he’s in on a nightly basis. Peeke is a favourite of Larsen’s and should consistently make his way into the lineup. So, the logjam this season comes down to the bottom pair, which has five players vying for those two spots.

Related: Blue Jackets’ Pros and Cons of Signing Erik Gudbranson

There’s two tiers of players in that fight, with Jake Bean, Adam Boqvist, and Nick Blankenburg above Jake Christiansen and Gavin Bayreuther in the hierarchy. I would expect to see a rotation of those top-three players through those last two spots, with Bayreuther and Christiansen getting their opportunities when the injury bug inevitably bites. Last season, the team had eight defensemen dress for at least half of the season and it would be a reasonable expectation to see the same again.

The Blue Jackets’ Prospect Pool

In the coming years, some of those players are going to have to move out to make space for the influx of young talent with great potential waiting in the wings. The prospect pool for the back end is incredibly deep with players who have a legitimate shot at the big league. All of these players are 20 or younger and could make their way into an NHL lineup within the next few seasons.

Left DefenseRight Defense
Denton Metaychuk**David Jiricek**
Samuel KnazkoCorson Ceulemans**
Stanislav SvozilAidan Hreschuk
Ole Bjorgvik-HolmNikolay Makarov
Guillaume Richard
**Denotes first-round selection

Just in this year’s draft class alone, the team picked two defensemen in the first round who are legitimately expected to join the top four in David Jiricek and Denton Mateychuk. That’s not including Corson Ceulemans who was drafted 25th overall in 2021 and is coming off of a standout freshman season at the University of Wisconsin. He is also a serious top-four prospect.

David Jiricek Columbus Blue Jackets 2022 Draft
David Jiricek is one of several Columbus Blue Jackets’ defensemen expected to make an impact in the coming years. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Samuel Knazko and Stanislav Svozil are a couple of interesting pieces as well. Both have a lot of world experience at their young age. Knazko played all seven games en route to a bronze medal with Slovakia at the Olympic games. In season play, he had a standout first stint in North America, scoring 20 points in 27 regular-season games with the Western Hockey League’s (WHL) Seattle Thunderbirds. Following that was a deep playoff run to a loss in Game 6 of the league’s championship round. Svozil had a similarly strong first showing in North America with 41 points through 59 games on the WHL’s Regina Pats after spending two seasons in the Czech Extraliga.

With so much depth on defense, the blue line should be looked at as a position of strength when heading into the future. I would expect this season to play out as a rotation with those top-nine defensemen touching the ice at various points this season, with some decisions made at the end of the year.

Eventually, it would not surprise me to see a top defensive prospect dealt in a package to fill other needs. Be it getting another first-round pick in this year’s loaded draft, or finally acquiring the franchise player to fill that first-line center role that the Blue Jackets have desperately needed since their inception. At the end of the day, this contract extension for Peeke exacerbates an already congested logjam on defense, which is both a good and bad problem to have.