One day remains until the Columbus Blue Jackets get to face another team in Toronto, and four days are left before their five-game series with the Maple Leafs begins.
It’s almost here.
With game action nearing, John Tortorella, Columbus’ head coach, and a couple of his players spent some time addressing the media after Tuesday’s practice. Here are three things to know.
One Of The Vets
Speed, speed, speed.
Tortorella simply hasn’t stopped talking about the necessity of playing fast against Toronto, which he considers one of the faster teams in the NHL. Much of the time, that means he wants speedy skaters on the ice who will be able to play as quickly as he knows his team will have to in order to win. But he also thinks his team needs to think quickly.
That’s where Ryan Murray enters the picture. A seven-year veteran with an injury-filled career, he’s able to process the game quickly, Tortorella says. He specifically noted his ability to know what he’s doing with the puck before it reaches him in transition.
“Murr is just a really good player,” Tortorella said. “His vision, the transition he brings to us. I think he's one of our better players in understanding position, where he needs to be in the defensive zone as people are coming through him. He doesn't chase the game. He lets the game come to him. He's an important guy.”
Murray will be in the lineup, likely in the third pairing with either Dean Kukan or Markus Nutivaara. He’ll be part of a defense that Columbus needs to come through versus a high-scoring Toronto offensive attack.
“It's been very frustrating for him and the organization as far as how many games he has missed because he's that good,” Tortorella said. “He's practiced very well. He just brings a quiet leadership, as far as how he plays the game and how steady he can be. Very important for us, especially with such a young team that we have.”
Fighting For A Spot
Maybe we’ll get a hint in Thursday’s exhibition with the Boston Bruins. Maybe we won’t. Maybe both Kukan and Nutivaara will get an equal shot and Tortorella doesn’t give anything away.
Either way, we know they’re battling for the final spot in the lineup as defensemen who could potentially pair up with Murray. In lines released by the Blue Jackets’ public relations staff, Kukan was with Murray on the third line of defensemen for practices on both Monday and Tuesday, seeming to have momentum.
“(Kukan is) in a battle with Nuti, I think, for that sixth spot,” Tortorella said. “He's really come on. Two or three years ago, it wasn't a name we talked a lot about, but he has really grown as a player. I do think that it's just the way mistakes don't bother him. He just goes out and plays. He has done a really good job with our transition game.”
Kukan entered the NHL undrafted, signing an entry-level deal with Columbus in the summer of 2015. He was an off-and-on player until last season when he came on late in the year, carrying to momentum into the 2019-20 season where he appeared in a career-high 33 games despite the mid-March stoppage in play.
Now as the Blue Jackets enter the postseason, he appears to be on the verge of locking down a spot in the lineup.
“He's got some balls, as far as just holding onto the puck, not being afraid to make a mistake, picks his way through,” Tortorella said. “I just think he's fearless as far as how he plays.”
Sounds like the epitome of a Tortorella player.
In The Middle
By this point, Boone Jenner feels comfortable at center. He knows what to expect, what he’s doing on the ice and how Tortorella and the other coaches want him to play.
It took some time to acclimate, though.
“It's a different position from the wing, for sure,” Jenner said. “You've got a little bit more responsibility, I'd say, in the D-zone. That was the biggest adjustment from wing, I think, is knowing the positioning down low in your zone and when to switch off with the D and things like that. Taking a lot more faceoffs, stuff like that that I just keep trying to work on and get better.
“I've played center before, but this is definitely probably the longest stretch I have. It's good to be in the middle, and it takes some getting used to, but I just want to continue to get better and work at it.”
As someone who’s able to play both center and on the wing, Tortorella termed Jenner a “glue guy” for the Blue Jackets.
The coach has consistently said he doesn’t know what the lines will look like, repeating that when talking about Jenner. But the 27-year-old Canadian has lined up at center with the second line for both practices in Toronto this week. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him in the middle of a line with Gus Nyquist and Cam Atkinson once the series with Toronto opens.
“It's not so much growing. It's what he brings to the team every night as far as how he plays,” Tortorella said. “He's been a really good faceoff guy for us. I think in one area, not as far as a position, but as far as a penalty killer he has really grown there...He played wing a lot, but he's a center iceman. He's one of our center iceman.”