The Columbus Blue Jackets have been in a certainly less than ideal situation the past couple of weeks due to injury troubles. Despite this, they were able to perform at a high level during the month of February. The last two games of the month may not be encouraging, but the rest of the month was tremendous considering the status of the roster during that period of time.
Quite a few players are on the verge of returning or have already returned in Elvis Merzlikins‘ case, so it’s time to show some appreciation to those who unexpectedly helped keep the team in playoff contention. While there have been quite a few contributions from the defensive depth, the defensive pairings have been rotating players a majority of the season regardless of injury status, so we’ll focus on the forwards and goaltenders.
Currently, the Blue Jackets have Alex Texier and Eric Robinson representing the forwards on the injured reserve. Over the course of the season, Patrik Laine and Max Domi, among others, have missed considerable time as well. Early on, this gave playing time to players like Justin Danforth and the now-departed Gregory Hofmann. Both 28-year-old NHL rookies to start the season, they contributed in multiple ways near the bottom of the lineup. Both players brought a bit of grit and could occasionally contribute on the score sheet. Danforth has continued to do so and has recently returned from injury himself, while Hofmann has returned home to Switzerland after severing ties with the Blue Jackets.
Recently, Trey Fix-Wolansky and Brendan Gaunce were recalled following the All-Star Break and have surprised everyone. Fix-Wolansky’s first stint with the Blue Jackets is over, as he was sent back to the Cleveland Monsters on Feb. 19. During his five-game stretch in Columbus, he made a considerable impact in minimal ice time. While both of his points came in his first two games, his consistent work ethic made him a presence in every game he played.
Meanwhile, Gaunce’s return to the NHL appears to have earned him a decent amount of trust with head coach Brad Larsen. He’s been an effective part of the fourth line, and his ice time continues to grow. His back-to-back performances against the Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs show his ability to contribute on the score sheet; the only issue has been his offensive consistency. With that said, he may have put himself in the fight for a full-time roster spot at the bottom of the lineup.
The Blue Jackets’ goaltending tandem to start the season was undoubtedly Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo. Over the course of the season, injuries resulted in depth goaltenders being called upon to make a difference. Early on, Daniil Tarasov had a few great outings, whether it was as the starting goaltender or he came in as relief. Through his four NHL games, he posted a .937 save percentage and a 2.40 goals-against average (GAA). Unfortunately, he sustained a season-ending injury on New Years’ Day against the Carolina Hurricanes that ended his first run at the NHL level.
With Tarasov out for the season, the Blue Jackets ran into a major roadblock when both the aforementioned Merzlikins and Korpisalo went down with injuries. They turned to a man who hadn’t played in the NHL since the 2017-18 season, Jean-Francois Berube. Berube’s return has become one of the season’s most heart-warming moments, as he’s gone 3-1-0 through his four games to date as the starting goaltender. His return to this level wasn’t important just on the ice, as for the first time, his son, Cayden, was able to see him play in the NHL. He’s currently still on the roster as the backup to Merzlikins, and once Korpisalo returns to peak health, Berube will likely be heading back to Cleveland despite his great performances.
The Blue Jackets weren’t expected to be anywhere near a playoff battle this season, and although they’re still fairly far away, they’re within striking distance. A big reason why can certainly be attributed to the performances of star players like Laine, Boone Jenner, Zach Werenski, and Jakub Voracek.
With that said, the performances of players who often fly under the radar like Gaunce, Berube, and Danforth can be just as important over the course of an 82-game season. If you don’t have NHL-caliber players who can step up when a star or two go down with an injury, the season can go downhill very quickly. Luckily for the Blue Jackets, they have had the right players to fill in when necessary.
William Espy is a graduate of California State University, Stanislaus. He has been writing about hockey since 2016 on various platforms. He currently covers the Columbus Blue Jackets but had a previous stint covering the Calgary Flames.