Ohio

David Jiricek can play big role for Columbus Blue Jackets in Zach Werenski’s absence

As if the Columbus Blue Jackets needed more injury risk.

The club – currently bottom in the NHL with four wins in 13 games – find themselves in injury hell. Zach Werenski, currently in the first season of a six-year, $9.583 million contract, is expected to miss the remainder of 2022-23 with a shoulder injury after just 13 games. Add to that the injuries to Nick Blankenberg, Adam Boqvist and Erik Gudbranson — essentially the team’s top four — and forward Jakub Voracek, and the Blue Jackets are currently in disaster territory.

Now it’s David Jiricek’s turn.

The team’s exhausted blueline means Jiricek – who was recalled to Columbus on Friday – will have an opportunity handed to him on a golden platter. He’s one of the top talents in the game and has quite a few NHL games under his belt – but this is his first real chance to prove what he’s capable of.

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The Blue Jackets selected Jiricek as the sixth overall pick in 2022, immediately making him one of the team’s key players going forward. There was a season-long debate between him and Slovakian blueliner Simon Nemec over who would take first place – Nemec eventually finished second behind the Devils.

Jiricek had already played full-time at HC Plzen in the Czech top division for the last two training sessions and played a significant role with the national team at the World Cup. He suffered a leg injury during the truncated World Junior Championships in December, but he fought back and earned his spot at the top of the draft class. Jiricek started the year with the Cleveland Monsters of the AHL, scoring five points in six games. The Blue Jackets didn’t need to rush him, but he was a home club injury away from receiving a full-time call-up.

That time is now – but it could not have come for a worse reason.

With Werenski, Boqvist and Blankenberg in IR and Gudbranson still playing day in and day out, we’re looking at a top defensive pair in Columbus from… Vladislav Gavrikov and Andrew Peeke. This is, uh, ugly. So with Jiricek in the near future, this is a perfect opportunity for the young defender to cement himself in the lineup and never play another game in Cleveland. He averaged 15:30 in his first two games and should see a boost in the Ice Age. Jiricek was previously degradable as he doesn’t need waivers and is quite young, but due to the nightly lineup he earned a spot from day 1.

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At 6-foot-3, Jiricek has the frame teams crave at the NHL level. He’s got a cannon of shot that he uses a lot, and his two-way game is already pretty sophisticated for his age. He’s strong, sturdy, and can make life around the fold miserable for you if you let him.

The Blue Jackets aren’t exactly short of size — Peeke, Gavrikov and new draftee Marcus Bjork are 6-foot-3. Gudbranson is 6-foot-5. But nobody is as agile, quick and effective with the puck as Jiricek. He showed all of that in spurts in his stint with the club last month. He’s not an intimidating player by any means, but he can give you a false sense of security when he’s playing 1v1 – he gives you space and then quickly closes in and takes it all away.

Jiricek has a completely clean slate here. The Blue Jackets don’t have any other real game changers on the blueline, but Jiricek can do just that. If he can’t, it doesn’t really matter. Expectations in Ohio are low across the board. It’s not like a few bad games will change anything. With less competition, Jiricek will have a longer leash to try things, make mistakes and continue to develop at the big club.

The key here — no matter how long Jiricek stays with the Blue Jackets — is making sure he’s comfortable. It’s something of a perfect storm for a young candidate: He’ll be around NHLers, the team isn’t at a point where they have to rely on him, and he’ll have every chance to put on a meaningful time to get the ice.

Let’s see what he does with it.

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