As Young Blue Jackets Adjust To Life And Rigors Of NHL, So Too, Must They Embrace The Challenges That Come With It

By Will Chase on January 20, 2023 at 1:45 pm
Columbus Blue Jackets' Cole Sillinger skates against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second period at Nationwide Arena.
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Not even at the All-Star Break yet, the Columbus Blue Jackets are playing out the string of the 2022-23 regular season.

That's basically been the case since just after the season began.

The sweep at the hands of the Colorado Avalanche in Finland felt like the proverbial nail in the coffin. The team was 3-9-0 and rumblings from around the fan base were sounding off on head coach Brad Larsen.

As we approach February, the team is dead-last in the NHL standings and Larsen is still behind the bench as he and the Jackets try to shake the almost daily losing skid that follows this team.

Another popular sentiment from the fan base as it pertains to Larsen is the method by which he deploys his players. The who, what, when, and why?

It's obvious to suggest young skilled players like Kirill Marchenko, on pace for 16 goals in just 40 games, should play more. And higher in the lineup. Especially when down a goal late in a game. That situation played itself out in Thursday's loss when he was swapped with Patrik Laine and inserted onto the top line in the third period.

Same for Kent Johnson, who played the second-fewest minutes (9:46) of any player not named Emil Bemstrom during the 2-1 loss at the Nashville Predators on Thursday at Bridgestone Arena. A building where the Blue Jackets are 9-35-1-6 in 51 all-time tries, dating back to the franchise's existence. And remember, the two teams were Central Division combatants from the inaugural season in 2000 through the 2012-13 season and then in the COVID-shortened season of 2020-21.

And Johnson was on the bench in the second half of Tuesday's third period as the club searched for the equalizer.

Cole Sillinger has struggled mightily this season but rebounded on Tuesday following healthy scratches in the two games leading up to that. He just missed out on the tying goal late against Nashville. How big would that have felt for the 19-year-old?

Whether Sillinger should be in the AHL and playing regularly or fighting through it at the NHL level is anyone's best-educated guess. But as Dan Dukart said, Sillinger needs to be playing, somewhere, consistently.

The constant theme of player ice time extends beyond the young players, as just last week we talked about Johnny Gaudreau’s ice time dipping. What we do know about Gaudreau is he’s a superstar. There are no concerns about his game. Even if he isn’t scoring as regularly.

With the young guys, you want to see them more and it feels like every other team around the league relies on the young skill more and more. It’s where the game has evolved.

During Larsen's weekly radio segment with Hockey & Hounds with Rothman & Ice, Larsen broached the subject of young players and managing respective ice time and, specifically at 9:00 of the full 12:24 interview, how young players must manage the daily grind of the NHL:

I asked (Johnson) yesterday, 'How many games did you play in college?' he said 35. We're at game 43. So he's past that.

And I said, 'Well this is when the NHL really starts.' Now you're starting. And it's day on day off. And you've got four in six (games), and you've got five in eight. And you're traveling to the west coast and time change.

'Now the grind is starting. And this is where you've got to manage your game. This is where you've got to find energy. This is where you've got to take care of yourself, get your rest, making sure you're eating properly.' Because your mind can go. If you're low on energy and then your mind goes, now you open yourself up to really struggle.

These are things they have to go through. And we can talk about them. We're going to help them through it. But they have to go through it. And there's going to be a lot of guys that are going to go through this year in the next probably 20-30 games.

The interview also included Tuesday's performance against the Predators, Laine's hat trick against the Detroit Red Wings, and Sillinger's bounceback game including what to do with him as he fights the sophomore slump.

One of the youngest teams in the entire league, Larsen and the organization certainly have to tread carefully.

You don’t want to ruin a player’s confidence like Sillinger when they struggle. Is it better to play young guys in Cleveland where they get top minutes every night but you can risk a player losing more confidence by being demoted?

Everyone and every situation are different. Some might be better for playing through it at the NHL level, even with shelved minutes.

One thing that feels evident to point out is when a player is playing well, it seems it would be wise to unleash them a little bit more. Protecting players from specific situations is probably a valid strategy at times, and maybe stands to reason for not rushing a player into doing more when they do show a spark of offense. Looking at you, Marchenko.

But players have to go through it and learn all types of game situations, and what better time than during a fairly meaningless game in January when the standings don't mean as much outside of draft positioning?

Who knows what the right way is to navigate a young roster through maturity and development, all while figuring your way through a rebuild, and still trying to win games at the same time?

It's definitely easier to play Monday morning quarterback and magnify everything that feels like it could be counterproductive in the short term while those tactics might simultaneously help the long-term macro outlook.

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