Columbus, Ohio – A collection of observations, insights, musings, and everything I learned gathered over the course of the week and was for the Blue Jackets:
Item #1: Still fighting
Medical reports were not good news. Blue Jackets center Sean Kuraly was eliminated during practice on March 2 and fell in the end plates, resulting in an oblique strain. These can be painful, and tend to last for weeks.
“We got a report the next day that he might be gone for the season,” said Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen. And Coralie said, “No way. I’ll come back. I will be back.’ It’s definitely ahead of schedule. It’s great to be back. I love him.”
Coralie is back road ahead of time. In a Blue Jackets losing cause season since mid-November, he returned to the lineup on Friday with 12 games remaining in the season.
It’s easy to look at the NHL standings — or Saturday’s 8-2 loss in Montreal — and assume the Blue Jackets mail it in the rest of the way.
Who could forget, in the early days of the franchise, several Detroit Red Wings mimicking golf swings in front of the Blue Jackets bench at the end of another hopeless, non-playoff season in Columbus?
But the view from the Blue Jackets’ dressing room, at least this season, isn’t that of a Tanks team. Corralli, who had two more years on his contract, was determined to play again this season; A kind of personal crusade.
“There are games on the table, and my job is to be ready when I’m healthy,” said Coralli. “It ended up being that the injury wasn’t as bad as the original caution. You’re trying to get back as fast as you can, to get back with your teammates.”
Patrick Lane working on confrontational technique this morning with Sean Coralley at the end #CBJ Morning skiing in the capital. pic.twitter.com/dK1sn1PzZZ
– Dave Metzold (DMaetzMedia) March 21, 2023
Across the dressing room from Coralie sits forward Justin Danforth, who has been out since Oct. 22 when he tore a shoulder against Pittsburgh. Danforth has been skating for weeks now, and last week friction drills were allowed.
“I definitely want to go back,” Danforth said. “It would be good for me to go into next year to play a few games and get back to that pace.”
Danforth turned 30 two weeks ago. He took a long and winding road to the NHL, and he didn’t get there until he was 28 years old. He’s surrounded by young players in the locker room who made it to the NHL in their teens and may not get his point.
“It’s different for young people,” Danforth said. “Some of these guys have 800 games left, right? Guys like me, I don’t have 800 games in the NHL. So every game I miss counts. I want to be a part of it. I’ve worked so hard to get to this point.”
During Friday’s OT victory over the New York Islanders, Blue Jackets linebacker Nick Blankenburg suffered a lower-body injury that was troubling enough to get an X-ray. Blankenburg was declared “out” for the rest of the match.
During his test drive, Blue Jackets fullback Erik Gudbranson suffered an upper body injury near the end of the second half. He, too, was left out of the game, leaving the Blue Jackets with four defensemen.
Blankenburg was still contemplating the upset when his script came back negative, but he went back to the dressing room and put his sweat-soaked clothes back on to join the line-up. This is almost unheard of during the regular season.
There is a message being sent here.
Yes, the Blue Jackets will be free to play golf in just three weeks. They will miss the playoffs for the third consecutive season, the first time in Columbus since 2013. The roster is poorly built and worn out by injuries.
But there are players who are passionate about driving this forward.
“It’s very important to have guys who don’t just cruise,” Larsen said.
Item #2: Strange move
Two questions appeared in the news last week that Patrick Lane, a winger for life, had been transferred to the center for a trial at the end of this season.
• Is this something the Blue Jackets and Laine are genuinely considering, or is this a way to spice up the end of a lost season?
• Has a noteworthy winger made a successful move to a center in the NHL?
For the first question…
No one can say whether or not this was a permanent switch to center by Laine, but the Blue Jackets and Laine are completely serious about this. When Coralie was injured earlier this month, Lane went to the coaches and pitched the move.
“We talked about it,” Larsen said. “We had a good discussion. I told him ‘this isn’t ‘no’, it’s ‘let me think about it.'” We came up with a game plan.
“We know the situation, it’s a (mid-ice) position that we’re trying to strengthen. We wanted to show him behind the scenes rather than just throw it at the wolves.”
Lin and the trainers did extensive video work in the days that followed. He would stay out after practice and work on the fights. Lin’s two games at the quarterback—a loss in Vegas and an overtime win in Washington—were a mixed bag, but there were no glaring issues.
If anything, the Blue Jackets came away from those two games more convinced that this could make sense. One frequent cause of frustration with Lin is when he becomes static in the attacking area; When he floats instead of skating.
The defensive responsibilities of the playing center will force Laine to keep his feet in motion. “It forces him to push the play,” Larsen said.
Lin is out two to four weeks now with a strained triceps injury at the end of practice Thursday when he squatted during a strength workout. He has told people around the Blue Jackets that he will play again before the season is over, and when he does he will be on the ice.
This may not be a passing fancy.
As for the second…
Attitude changes in the NHL are nothing new. The league is full of wingers who are used to playing midfield. We’ve seen young players step up as centers and start on the wing. We’ve also seen forwards switch defense: Dustin Byvoglin, Brent Burns, etc.
It’s rare to see an established NHL winger move to quarterback. Rare, but not unprecedented. Two great examples surfaced this week with a few phone calls around the league, one in the current NHL and one from the previous generation.
Buffalo Sabers center Tage Thompson played at the growth center but moved to the wing at the University of Connecticut and stayed there through his early NHL career with St. Louis and Buffalo. At the start of last season, he moved to the center…and shot off into a different stratosphere.
Thompson had 18 goals in his first 145 NHL games. As a pivot, he has 72 goals in 150 appearances since the start of the 2021-22 season, including 44 this season.
It’s an interesting example, given that Thompson (6-foot-6, 220 pounds) and Laine (6-5, 210 pounds) were similarly built. The main difference, of course, is that Lin has had great seasons as a goalscorer on the wing early in his career.
While Thompson is trying to save his career, Lane is trying to rejuvenate him. Since the start of the 2020-21 season, Lin ranks 77th in the NHL with 60 goals.
Jim Matheson of the Edmonton Journal alerted us to another example.
In 1983-84, the Oilers moved Mark Messier from wing to center with 15 games remaining in the regular season, hurling him to a much-anticipated Stanley Cup Final match-up with the superpowered New York Islanders.
Messier was not moved there to save or renew his career. He was put in there to check out the great Brian Trottier for the Islanders, and it worked. The Oilers ended the Islanders’ four-year Stanley Cup streak that year and went on to win five of the next seven cups.
Item #3: The Sillinger Inn
Larsen was away from the club due to a death in the family when Cole Selinger was sent to AHL Cleveland, but he didn’t let the sophomore center walk away without a conversation.
“I hate having a conversation like that on the phone, but I didn’t have a choice,” Larsen said. “I let him talk a lot. He’s a special kid. He handled it like a pro. He knows it’s been a tough year. He’s trying to work his way out of a lot of things that haven’t happened to him this year.”
“He has matured beyond his years as a person, but his game needs to mature, and those are two different things. He (a rookie) can still be 19 years old.”
Sillinger played two games for AHL Cleveland, and back-to-back wins over North Division-leading Toronto catapulted the Monsters to a playoff spot for the first time in as many weeks. They play in Rochester today.
So far, Sillinger has 2 passes and a plus-1 rating with the Monsters. He’s focused on Cleveland’s top line, plays on the #1 play unit, gets shootout time, et cetera.
“Just listening to him speak, I was thrilled to hear how he accepted and understood him,” said Larsen. “He knows he can be better. He wants to be better. But he wants to go out there and help this team make the playoffs and hopefully be a big part of that.”
“I really like him. This could be a really good thing, half a step back maybe three steps forward in the future. His mind is right. And for me, the body will follow if the mind is right.”
Item #4: Snacks
• When Bon Jenner scored 30 goals in 2015-2016, it would have been thought that he had just had a career season, and that the serious forward on the Blue Jackets was never more than 15 or 20 goals. How wrong we were. Jenner scored his club-best 25th goal of the season in Friday’s win over the Islanders. This marked the second consecutive season he would have hit 30 goals again if he had not been out of the lineup for nine games with a broken thumb. Last season, when he scored 23 goals, Jenner missed 23 games due to a back injury.
• Jenner will run out of time this season, with only 10 matches remaining. But at the start of next season, he will pass Rick Nash for the most games played in the Blue Jackets. Nash played 674 games for Columbus. Jenner is at 650 with 10 games left this season.
• This was not the season Johnny Goudreau envisioned when he signed a free agent contract with the Blue Jackets last summer. His 115-point season with the Flames was hard to match, but Gaudreau still produced. He’s age 18-49-67 through 70 games. With his next assist, he would become just the fourth player in franchise history to total 50 or more assists in a season. Artemy Panarin (59 in 2018-19, 55 in 2017-18), Jacob Vorask (56 in 2021-22) and Ray Whitney (52 in 2002-03) are the others.
• Liam Foddy didn’t score his first regular season goal until his 63rd NHL game, a somewhat unbelievable number for an earlier first-round game. His first 70 shots on goal were stopped by the opposing goalkeepers. But since Foudy scored on February 18 in Dallas, the goals have been pouring in regularly. He has goals in his last 17 games, trailing Jenner (nine) and Lin (seven) in that period. That’s six goals on 31 shots, with a success rate of 19.4%. “I don’t think I would have done anything different,” Foddy said after scoring Friday against the Islanders. “He’s getting in now. I try not to think about it, just ride the wave.”
• Rookie Hunter McKown has certainly done well in two games since signing with the Blue Jackets out of Colorado College last week. In two games, he had an assist and four shots on goal and a plus-1 rating. He’s also won 18 of 23 tackles, including four of five on power plays and four of four in defensive zone.
• In conversation with the athlete Shortly after signing a three-year, entry-level deal, McKown was asked an age-old question: If your NHL career had developed as you wanted it to, what current player would your game aspire to be? McKown didn’t think long. Charlie Coyle said. Cowell is a 6-2, 220-pound center for the Boston Bruins. “He’s skilful and plays in the middle, but he doesn’t shy away from difficult areas at all. He plays a really tough and complete game. He’s a big guy. I’m definitely trying to model my game after him.”
• The Blue Jackets recalled forward Trey Fix-Wolansky from AHL Cleveland after winger Mathieu Olivier suffered a lower body injury on Friday. Fix-Wolansky was 26-41-67 in just 53 games with the Monsters, which puts him among the league leaders. He also has one of the best seasons ever by a Blue Jackets minor league player. Fix-Wolansky’s 67 points tied Jonathan Marchesault (21-46-67 for Springfield in 2012-13) for third on that list. Bill Bowler had a 21-58-79 for Syracuse in 2000-01 and Brad Moran had a 26-46-72 for Syracuse in 2004-05.
(Top photo by Sean Corally: Gary A. Vazquez/USA Today)