Why the Blue Jackets should consider drafting David Jiricek, a big defenseman with bite

·7 min read
Columbus Blue Jackets
Columbus Blue Jackets

A pair of defensemen stand out above their peers in this draft.

One is Simon Nemec, a Slovakian puck-mover whose build and style match up with what the Blue Jackets already have within their system. The other is David Jiricek, a Czechian defender with a booming shot from the point, a nose for the puck, impressive size and an eagerness to use it.

A knee injury in January wiped out the second half of Jiricek’s season with HC Plzen of Czechia’s Extraliga, that country’s top division, so analysts didn’t get a full picture to formulate their NHL projections of his game. Regardless, most rank Jiricek and Nemec as players worthy of top-five consideration, possibly taken with back-to-back picks.

Nemec is regarded as the better of the two right now, mainly because he most resembles the NHL’s recent wave of offensive-minded defensemen. Jiricek’s potential is just as high, but his talent isn't quite as refined yet.

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Are Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen and amateur scouting director Ville Siren interested? Will they grab take Jiricek if he’s available with the sixth overall pick?

That answer will be provided at the 2022 NHL draft Thursday and Friday in Montreal, but it’s not hard to envision the tall, right-handed defender filling Seth Jones’ former role as Zach Werenski’s partner on the top pairing.

Here’s a closer look at Jiricek, who ranks fourth on NHL Central Scouting’s list of European skaters:

Position: D

Height, weight: 6-3, 189

Shoots: Right

Birthdate: Nov. 28, 2003

Birthplace: Klatovy, Czechia

Team (League): HC Skoda Plzen (Extraliga)

2021-22 point totals: Five goals, six assists and 11 points in 29 games; five goals, 10 assists and 14 points in 30 games for Czechia during international play.

What are David Jiricek's strengths?

The list begins with self confidence that Jiricek backs up with his play.

During a recent interview with TSN’s Mark Masters, Jiricek chose himself when asked whose game he’d most like to emulate in the NHL.

“I want to play like me, so I don’t know,” Jiricek said. “I want to have my own style. Of course, (Tampa Bay Lightning captain) Victor Hedman and (Colorado Avalanche star) Cale Makar, these guys are the best in the world, but I want to play like me. I have to have my own style, because my style is very good.”

What style is it? Well, it's a hodge-podge.

Jiricek isn’t exactly an intimidating force yet, like Shea Weber or Chris Pronger, but he’s got some bite and has shown a propensity for physical play. He’s also improving as a skater, showed improved offensive instincts for Czechia at the men’s world championships in May — after returning from knee surgery — and his slap shot is a jaw-dropper.

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Usually taken from a point location, Jiricek’s one-timer launched rockets that he tries to keep on target with a low trajectory for tips or deflections. It’s quite a weapon and makes defenders think twice before attempting to block his shots.

Jiricek isn’t a stay-at-home defender either.

He can skate the puck out of trouble, make exit passes to start transitions, has shown good anticipation skill to force turnovers and can swarm the net like a power forward when he pinches low in the offensive zone. The skating isn’t anywhere close to what Jones gave the Blue Jackets, but that’s a standard not many in the NHL can even meet.

Jiricek can already use his edges to close gaps defensively and avoid defenders in the offensive zone, and plans to keep improving as a skater as he adds more strength.

What are David Jiricek's weaknesses?

Jiricek needs more repetitions at whichever level he’s assigned by the NHL team that drafts him.

He missed three months after the knee injury, so he didn’t get a full season of pro hockey to become more consistent with his pass accuracy or decisions with the puck. Those are two of the biggest areas that give draft analysts pause when projecting Jiricek’s NHL ceiling.

Skating is also a concern for some evaluators, especially in lieu of his knee surgery. Jiricek isn’t a poor skater, but will likely need to improve a bit more to become a top-pairing defenseman. Adding strength and bulk to his frame, including his legs, could help his skating take a leap forward.

Jiricek also has shown a propensity for being too aggressive in physical play.

He’s been suspended for at least one hit to the head/neck and has clipped opposing players with an extended knee on multiple occasions. Regardless of intent, those are seen as cheap shots and will lead to future issues for Jiricek if they're not eliminated.

How would David Jiricek fit in the Blue Jackets' system?

The Jackets have a young defensive core group at the NHL level and have stocked up on defensive prospects the past couple years.

They’ve selected a total of nine defensemen in the past four drafts, including a crop of four last year headlined by Corson Ceulemans — a 25th overall pick (2021) who will be a sophomore for the University of Wisconsin. They’ve also added young defensemen via free agency, including Jake Christiansen out of the Western Hockey League in March 2020, Nick Blankenburg from the University of Michigan in March and Marcus Bjork in May from the Swedish Hockey League.

Including those who played in the NHL this past season, the Blue Jackets have 14 defensemen under the age of 25 and Jiricek will make it 15 if he’s taken in this draft. While much of that talent is unproven, that’s a ton of blue-line depth that could require a couple trades to sort out.

Regardless, Jiricek will enter the mix as the Jackets' top defensive prospect if he's selected.

Will David Jiricek be available for the Blue Jackets?

This is a key question with both Nemec and Jiricek.

Skilled defensemen with the potential to become top-pairing impact players are incredibly hard for NHL general managers to pass up. Each of this year’s consensus top two defensemen are tantalizing prospects, for different reasons, and there’s a decent chance both will be unavailable at sixth overall.

Most analysts consider forwards Shane Wright, Juraj Slafkovsky and Logan Cooley as the top three prospects in this draft, leaving Nemec and Jiricek to fill out the top-five.

Should those forwards go to the Montreal Canadiens, New Jersey Devils and Arizona Coyotes with the first three picks, the Seattle Kraken (fourth) and Philadelphia Flyers (fifth) will determine whether one of the draft’s top two defensemen is available for the Blue Jackets — who could also traded up to get one.

How long until David Jiricek is ready for the NHL?

There are multiple factors that go into Jiricek’s timeline.

One is the time he missed last season with the knee injury, another is his development curve following the surgery and another is that it usually takes defensemen longer to fully mature into NHL regulars. Jiricek is expected to play another season in Extraliga or spend next year refining in the WHL at the junior level.

There’s always a chance to earn an NHL roster spot at training camp, which rookie Cole Sillinger did last year with the Jackets, but Jiricek probably needs another year or longer to fully develop.

bhedger@dispatch.com

@BrianHedger

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This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Why the Columbus Blue Jackets should consider drafting David Jiricek