It’s a phrase that the Columbus Blue Jackets locker room has gotten used to over the years – “next man up.” It didn’t take long – 34:22 to be exact – for the Blue Jackets to lose a man to injury in their home opener on Thursday. Any play that gets reviewed for a five-minute major for kneeing is brutal but even more challenging to stomach when the Blue Jacket on the other side of said play was defenseman Zach Werenski, who is no stranger to long-term injuries. While the loss to the Flyers was deflating for a team that enters the 2023-2024 season with such promise, they seemed to avoid the biggest potential loss when the team announced that Werenski’s injury, a quad contusion, would only sideline him for 1-2 weeks.
After controlling the puck behind the net and sending the play around the boards, Zach Werenski was met by what seemed to be an intentionally thrown knee courtesy of Garnet Hathaway.
Initially, Hathaway was assessed a five-minute major, which was reviewed and downgraded to a minor penalty for kneeing. Of course, the standing-room-only crowd at Nationwide Arena and those watching at home took significant exception to the hit, calling it dirty, intentional, and a plurality of other expletives. Blue Jackets alternate captain, defenseman Erik Gudbranson, did not take Hathaway’s hit on Werenski too kindly.
“It’s a ****ing dirty hit. It’s ****ing stupid.”Erik Gudbranson post-game
Many expressed disappointment that Gubranson or his teammates did not attempt to avenge Werenski’s injury, but it would never be that simple. The Blue Jackets, who found themselves working to catch up with the projected basement-dwelling Flyers, were in no position to be a man-down for a roughing or instigating penalty, especially in no position to be down two defensemen with over 20 minutes remaining. Hathaway was fined $5,000 for the hit, a check he is happy to write.
Jiricek Called Up
Though Werenski avoided the worst possible outcome of Hathaway’s hit, being sidelined for 1-2 weeks allowed the Blue Jackets to call up their top defensive prospect, David Jiricek, just days after he failed to make the 23-man roster. In fairness, it became clear that Columbus is eager to give Jiricek an opportunity to become a bonified NHL roster player after a Frank Seravelli report that Columbus may be shopping blue-liners Adam Boqvist, Jake Bean, and, to a lesser extent, Andrew Peeke. Werenski’s injury allows them to do just that while kicking the can down the road on the gluttony of depth defensemen they have in the organization.
Per Brian Hedger of the Columbus Dispatch, Jiricek left the ice after blocking a shot during Friday morning’s practice and did not return; however, as long as he is healthy, there’s no reason to believe he will be left out of the lineup on Saturday when the Jackets welcome the New York Rangers to town. Jake Bean, who scored the first goal of Columbus’ season, skated with Gubranson on Thursday, and the two were definitively the best pair on the ice for the Jackets – I’d expect them to remain in the lineup. Ivan Provorov seemed to struggle in his first game as a Blue Jacket, primarily toward the end of the game, failing to keep plays within the zone, leading to the Flyers’ empty-net goals, but one has to assume he’ll stay in the lineup. Damon Severson looked respectable enough in his debut, and it will take a lot for him to see a game from the press box. Peeke struggled tremendously in the season-opener, which could leave the door open for Adam Boqvist to make his season debut alongside Jiricek. One thing is sure – if Vincent did not intend to use Jiricek, the team would have called up a defenseman with less of a priority in developing. Being a healthy scratch at any level is a disservice to any young player’s development.
The Columbus Blue Jackets will look for their first win on Saturday against the New York Rangers, who made the Buffalo Sabres look silly on Thursday – they’ll have to shape up in a big way to avoid being embarrassed at home, and a large part of that starts and stops with the play of the Columbus defensemen.