Dean Kukan has played less than one full season of games as a member of the Columbus Blue Jackets blue line.
That may seem hard to believe, but believe it: Kooks has played only 77 regular season games with the Blue Jackets since debuting during the 2015-16 season.
After being used sporadically over the next four seasons, the 2019-20 season was supposed to give a then 26-year-old Kukan his first full NHL season. He had a solid training camp, and as injuries began to hit, Kukan was elevated from the healthy scratch category to seeing regular action on the third pairing. Things were going well; he was averaging nearly 16 minutes of ice per night, was slowly earning the trust of coach John Tortorella, and even scored his first career regular season NHL goal.
Enter 2020: The year that keeps on taking.
During the first game of the calendar year, with the Jackets red hot and Kukan a mainstay in the lineup, he suffered a medial meniscus tear and articular cartilage injury that would sideline him until play resumed in the postseason bubble.
Ready to go when play resumed in August, Kukan saw limited time in the Blue Jackets two postseason series, with the exception of a 50-shift, 31:48 night in the five-OT thriller to open the Round 1 series against Tampa Bay.
Playing in nine of the ten postseason games, Kukan picked up only one assist, but did finish with a plus/minus of +2. The stat is often deceptive, but not this time around: with high expectations, Kukan played well in Toronto.
Whenever the next NHL season begins, the expectations will be even higher for Kukan for a number of reasons:
- Ryan Murray and Markus Nutivarra are gone, donated to the New Jersey Devils and Florida Panthers in exchange for cap relief. Kukan won't start as a 7th or 8th defenseman this year; he'll start as the 5th.
- The Blue Jackets have four extremely talented blue liners in Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, David Savard, and Vladislav Gavrikov. Those two pairings will eat up a good number of minutes, but it's imperative that the Blue Jackets third pairing doesn't become a weakness or liability.
- Despite injuries, the Blue Jackets exceeded nearly everyone's expectations when they made the postseason for a 4th consecutive season. This is not a team that will catch anyone off guard again.
- For the first time in his career, the now 27-year-old Kukan will be expected to anchor a defensive pairing. He is likely to be paired with rookie Andrew Peeke, who has loads of potential but is just 22.
Can Kukan live up to the increased expectations? If he can, the Blue Jackets could go from a top five or ten defense in the league into a top three to five. For any team with Stanley Cup aspirations, that's a big difference.