When the Columbus Blue Jackets 2021-22 season started, two players were being watched with a unique eye.
Both players were coming from overseas, and both were considered old rookies. But both were being given their first real chance to see consistent NHL minutes.
One was the 28-year-old Gregory Hofmann, who scored two goals and added five assists in his 24-game tenure with the Blue Jackets. Hofmann left Columbus in January to return to his native of Switzerland — an excused absence for personal reasons — but never did return to the club.
The other was Justin Danforth, another 28-year-old (now 29) who had spent time overseas. He came to the NHL from the KHL and had spent years in the Liiga league, Finland's top professional league, prior to that.
Around the same time that Hofmann left the team, Danforth left the ice as well — with a sprained MCL that took him out of action for nearly two months. Because of that, Danforth was limited to 45 games in his rookie season with the Blue Jackets.
He made the most of those 45 games, though — and showed enough to earn a two-year extension with the team in March. When announcing the signing, general manager Jarmo Kekalainen acknowledged that Danforth's play "continued to grow throughout this season", adding that "he has become a trusted and valuable contributor on our team."
Danforth's numbers may not stand out in the raw: ten goals and four assists for a total of 14 points. That's a bit misleading though, given his limited time to make an impact. Remember, he played in just 45 games. Extrapolated to an 82-game season, and Danforth would have been on pace for 18 goals.
More than that though, he saw limited ice time — especially in the beginning of the season. Danforth averaged just 10:51 in his 13 games before the injury, but 13:16 in the 32 games after returning. In April alone, Danforth went 4-2-6 in 14 games and averaged over 15 minutes per game. His steady increase in ice time is a clear indication that the Blue Jackets coaching staff developed trust in his game as the season went on.
Get this: Danforth averaged 1.1 goals per 60 minutes. That's the same figure as Boone Jenner and Jack Roslovic had this season, and more than veterans Gustav Nyquist and Sean Kuraly (and Jakub Voracek, but scoring goals is not his M.O.), and more than fun-to-watch rookies like Cole Sillinger and Yegor Chinakhov.
Now, consider this: Danforth had minimal time to pick up points when the Blue Jackets were on the man-advantage. In fact, of players who played in at least half of Columbus' games this season, no player averaged more goals per 60 in 5-on-5 time than Danforth. Kind of wild to think about, no?
When that's taken into consideration with the fact that he played a responsible game without the puck, had a fantastic takeaway-to-giveaway ratio (15:2), and that he could more than keep up with the speed of the NHL game, it's easy to see when Danforth was given the two-year extension before the season even came to a close.
Players like Sillinger and Chinakhov will have an expanded role this coming season, rookie Kent Johnson should be with the team for the long-haul, and veterans like Jenner, Roslovic, and Patrik Laine aren't going anywhere. But Danforth proved more than enough in his rookie campaign to warrant his late-season bump in minutes, and as the club moves forward, it seems more than plausible that Danforth will be moving forward with them.