The Blue Jackets' Rookies Are Stepping Up And Making The Most Of The Opportunities Given To Develop

By Dan Greene on January 11, 2023 at 11:22 am
Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Marcus Bjork and right wing Kirill Marchenko and center Kent Johnson talk before a face-off against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the third period.
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

To say this season has been a disappointment for the Columbus Blue Jackets would be an understatement. This was the year that many in the organization and fanbase had high hopes that the team would make it back to the playoffs. It became quickly evident that a postseason berth was unlikely, as the club went 3-9-0 through the first month of the season. Then a rash of injuries hit, which further sunk their chances as well as their position in the standings. They now own the second-worst record in the NHL and many amongst the fifth line are now pulling for them to tank in order to better their chances at getting a generational talent such as Connor Bedard.

Though the present is bleak, the future looks like it could be very bright, especially if the CBJ picks up a top-end talent in the upcoming NHL draft. However, even though the Blue Jackets have quite the collection of promising young players, many have questioned how coach Brad Larsen is using, or sometimes not using them.

The purpose of this article is not to defend the coach's philosophies with the young players, but rather to point out the success that several of the rookies are having, whether that is in spite of or because of Larsen's strategies on how to use them. The Blue Jackets have had over ten players from the opening night roster lose time due to injuries this season, creating quite a few opportunities for other players to see the ice and grow their game.

There are currently five first-year players on the gameday roster, from afterthoughts such as Marcus Bjork to high-profile rookies such as Kirill Marchenko, Columbus has been counting on its young guns to step up, and that they have done.

Two defenders that made their debuts with the Jackets this season and have played in several games are the aforementioned Bjork and the Swiss native, Tim Berni. They are 25 and 22 (almost 23) respectively and most have not heard of them until this year. However, that has not stopped them from being some of the best and most efficient defenders on the team.

Bjork has been quite the revelation on the offensive side as well, posting three goals, eight assists, and 11 total points in 26 games, which would be a stat line of 10-25-35 over the course of 82 games. He is also shooting an impressive 10.3% (first among defenders), and he is doing some good work on the power play, with one of his goals and five of his assists coming on the pp. Berni has been much quieter in the offensive zone. He does have 25 shots on goal, but he has just one goal and no assists in 17 games. 

As previously mentioned, both Bjork and Berni have played solid defense. Berni has 21 blocked shots and 46 hits in his 17 games, while Bjork has 42 blocked shots and 35 hits in his 26 games. Bjork also leads the team in goal differential amongst players who have played at least 250 minutes, something that is rare for a defenseman. And Berni ranks third in goal differential amongst current defenders. Bjork is also fourth on the team in shots blocked per 60 minutes.

While the two defenders were under-the-radar, these two forwards are quite high-profile prospects, who are living up to their potential so far. Kent Johnson was the fifth overall pick in the 2021 NHL draft. He did see a few games at the end of last season, but not enough to take away his rookie status for the current campaign. And Marchenko was selected by the Blue Jackets in the second round of the 2018 NHL draft. He spent a few years in the KHL and the first part of this season with the Jackets' AHL affiliate Cleveland Monsters. Both players are at the top of the club's prospect pool.

Marchenko has quite simply been a goal-scorer extraordinaire. He has yet to record an assist, but that doesn't matter when you are scoring goals at the rate he is. He has nine goals in 17 games which puts him on track to record 31 goals this season, as long as he plays in each of the remaining games. This pace would net him 43 goals in a full 82-game season, which would be a franchise record. However, that is not even the most impressive thing about his goal-scoring. The most impressive aspect is how many goals he is getting in relatively little playing time. His ATOI (average time on ice) is just 12:34, this puts him at 2.53 goals per 60 minutes, the best mark in the entire NHL. That's right, he is scoring goals more often than the likes of Tage Thompson, David Pastrnak, and Connor McDavid.

While Kent Johnson is in a bit of a slump, recording just two points (both assists) in his last eight contests, he is still having quite a year. His stat line is 8-10-18, putting him on pace to top 40 points this season. He is also mixing it up on the defensive end with 15 blocked shots, sixth amongst the forwards on the team.

This year may not be what we wanted, but players such as these rookies give us hope for the future.