Two down, three to go.
The Columbus Blue Jackets are nearly halfway through their opening week of training camp ahead of their Saturday off day. A five-game series with the Toronto Maple Leafs looms less than three weeks away.
Here are three of the most important things head coach John Tortorella and his players spoke about in the aftermath of Tuesday’s practice.
An Unexpected Opportunity
When it happened, it felt as though it couldn’t have come at a worse time.
Oliver Bjorkstrand’s fractured ankle, which required an estimated 8-10-week recovery period, threatened to keep him out of action for the remainder of the season as the Blue Jackets jockeyed for postseason position.
The 25-year-old forward’s season appeared as though it might be over.
“It always sucks when the season ends like that and you're injured and you can't play,” Bjorkstrand said Tuesday. “It's hard to watch. I was playing some good hockey.”
Any other year, he would have been right. The former third-rounder and budding star resigned himself to the worst.
But because of the unexpected four-month break stemming from the coronavirus pandemic, Bjorkstrand had surgery and went through the recovery period with fellow star Seth Jones, putting him on pace to get back for the Stanley Cup Qualifiers that’ll begin on Aug. 2. He has participated in the first two practices and will on the first line in a few weeks.
“For me, I'm lucky enough that I can play now, I guess,” Bjorkstrand said. “I'm just ready to play. I obviously didn't expect to come back and be able to play playoff hockey this season. So for me, it's just exciting right now that I have an opportunity to help the team and hopefully make a playoff push here. I'm super excited and just ready to go.”
“Tomorrow's a big day for us”
After the first day of practice, Tortorella harped on the need to listen to the players more than usual during this unconventional training camp. He wants to rely on their thoughts and feelings rather than just doing what the coaches think is best.
Following Tuesday’s practice, Tortorella doubled down on that idea.
“I talked to Nick (Foligno) prior to practice just to judge on how yesterday's practice was, gauging on where we could go today,” Tortorella said. “A lot of guys haven't skated two days in a row since the break. So this is two hard skates that they've had two days in a row. Anxious to see where we go tomorrow and see where we go with it.”
Tortorella already has scrimmages planned on Thursday and Friday, so he knows it’ll get ramped up. But he also wants to keep everybody fresh and healthy with the Stanley Cup Qualifiers on the horizon.
“I think it's important pushing yourself in these practices,” Bjorkstrand said. “I think we all expected to have to come in and have to do some skating. So when you're out there, you've just got to try to push as hard as you can, and I think it's going to help you in the coming weeks just feeling good and ready to go.”
Riding The Youngsters
Take a look down Columbus’ roster, and the youth stands out.
Nobody’s born in the new millennium, but Alexandre Texier is 20 years old, Emil Bemstrom is 21 years old, Pierre-Luc Dubois turned 22 years old less than a month ago and Zach Werenski turns 23 years old in less than a week. Both goaltenders – Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo – are 26 years old, and neither has ever played a playoff game.
The Blue Jackets are tied with the New York Rangers as having the youngest roster in the NHL, per Hockey Reference. Their players’ average age is 26.2 years old.
“The league has gotten younger, but we've been a young team for a number of years now, and I like some of the youth that have been brought in here,” Tortorella said. “I think our scouts have done a tremendous job, and some of the people that have come through.”
Now, he’ll ride the youth movement into the playoffs.
For some coaches, that would be uncomfortable. But the way Tortorella sees it, the “young and stupid” players who haven’t been in big-time postseason situations can be better than a “grizzled veteran” because he likes how unafraid the younger players often are – even though it’s sometimes out of ignorance.
“I'll (go) with the youth,” Tortorella said. “I like guys that just go out and play and make some mistakes, but they don't worry about it. Sometimes, they don't even realize they made the mistake. It's a double-edged sword there as we talk about those two situations.”
The veterans know they’ll have to step up as leaders, too.
“It's a different situation where we're jumping right into the playoffs,” Boone Jenner said. “We know that. For guys that might now have any playoff experience, trying to get them excited about how it ramps up and how much a different game it is in the playoffs.”