Sean Kuraly has come home.
Growing up in Dublin, a suburb of Columbus, Kuraly is no doubt an Ohio boy. Spending the first almost-20 years of his life in the Buckeye State, he went to college outside Cincinnati, and he even played minor hockey with the Jr. Blue Jackets.
Kuraly is just one of a list of now three Ohio natives who have recently returned home to play pro in Columbus. The first to break the ice was Kole Sherwood, who played 11 games over three seasons. He was followed by Jack Roslovic, who was shipped over from the Winnipeg Jets along with Patrik Laine in the Pierre-Luc Dubois trade.
Kuraly plays centre and brings a blue-collar edge to his game. A ‘work hard to be rewarded’ outlook, similar to that which has been a part of the Columbus Blue Jacket identity throughout franchise history. His journey has led him all over the Northeast, with a brief chance of ending up on the west coast, and now back home.
His strong play earned the eye of junior league scouts. He was drafted in the 15th round by the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), and in the fifth round by the Indiana Ice in the United States Hockey League (USHL). He wound up opting for the closer of the two options, and the one that would leave him eligible for college hockey, in Indianapolis.
Most of the next year he spent playing midget hockey in Ohio, where he matched his output from the year before in 12-less games and playing against older players. He made a couple of appearances at a higher level, playing in the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in the Czech Republic, along with five games with Indiana, and another four games with the US Under-17 NTDP.
He went full-time with the Ice the next season – his NHL draft year – where he gained his footing on a team led offensively by now-Calgary Flames forward, Blake Coleman. His first season was offensively middling, potting 29-points in 51-games, but Kuraly’s hard work in a less offensive role drew attention from NHL scouts.
Getting to the Big League
It’s been ten years since Kuraly was drafted. He wound up being picked 133rd overall, in the fifth round of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft by the San Jose Sharks. It was a bit of a surprise to him.
“I knew San Jose had some interest, I didn’t think it was as serious as some other teams. I try to play big and physical and tough but also a little bit offensive. So this year I didn’t show as much of that [offense] as I wanted. I played a little bit of a different role with some top-notch offensive guys. But I am looking forward to bringing that piece of my game back.”Sean Kuraly to USHL TV in 2011 after being drafted by the San Jose Sharks
Kuraly succeeded in bringing the offense back by dominating in one more season in Indiana, posting 32-goals and 70-points in 54 games closing out his USHL career, as he headed off to college.
He accepted a scholarship to his father Rick’s alma mater in Miami University, just outside of Cincinnati, to play Division-1 hockey. Sean had big shoes to fill, as his father is the program’s leading goal scorer. There he teamed up with former Ice teammate Coleman to lead several strong years for the Red Hawks. Kuraly went the distance at Miami, playing four full years at the college, with a major in management and leadership.
In his first season in Miami, he played 40 of 42 games, only missing action because he left to represent the U.S. in the 2013 World Junior Championship in Ufa, Russia. In Russia, Kuraly played with Murphy again, each dressing in all seven games. Kuraly’s goal and two assists helped the stacked squad bring gold back to the Red, White and Blue, just one year after the country was nearly relegated to a lower level.
The victory led to Kuraly’s first official visit to Nationwide Arena. The two Dublin natives were honoured at a Blue Jackets game and given the opportunity to drop the puck before Columbus took on the Detroit Red Wings.
Back at Miami, Kuraly remained consistent each season, potting 29-points in around 40 games each of his sophomore and junior seasons. Coming off of a league championship in his penultimate year, a lot of change was headed his way.
First, as part of a larger deal, his rights were traded from the Sharks to the Boston Bruins, along with a first-round pick, in exchange for goalie Martin Jones. Kuraly was also named captain of the squad for his final year in Miami, which added a little pressure to perform. After a slow start to the year offensively, he finished strong, scoring 17 points in his final 20 games, after just six points through the first 16. He remained a rock defensively, being named the top defensive forward in his league.
His performance was enough to gain a contract offer from the Bruins, and he signed a two-year entry-level deal with the team.
The Big League
Kuraly did not make the opening night roster in 2016-17, and was sent to Providence, the Bruins’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate. He had a couple of call-ups but spent a majority of the year with the farm squad.
He managed to stick with the big roster heading into the 2017 playoffs, and chipped in his first two career goals against the Ottawa Senators, who knocked them out in six games during the first round of action.
Kuraly’s next four years were spent exclusively in the black-and-yellow, where he earned a plethora of experience playing mostly in the bottom-six on a successful squad. While being defensively strong, he hadn’t yet been in a role to be leaned upon in an offensive role, posting his career-high of 23-points in 2019-20. Although he wasn’t an offensive force, he did earn himself a reputation as a clutch goal scorer by rising to the occasion when needed.
Some key notes from his time in Massachusetts include playing in 57 playoff games through five seasons, highlighted by his four-goal, ten-point effort in Boston’s run to the Stanley Cup final in 2019. That postseason saw the Bruins top Columbus in a six-game series, during which Kuraly scored his first goal at Nationwide Arena in game four and had a goal overturned in the series-clinching effort.
After five seasons in Boston, Kuraly had the shot to test the waters of free agency and he took the opportunity to make a return to Ohio. The now 28-year-old centre signed a four-year pact with the Blue Jackets with an Average Annual Value (AAV) of $2.5-million, and a no-trade clause, to boot. He says Columbus is a place he had circled as the place he wanted to be.
“I don’t know the Blue Jackets grounds here yet, but every other inch of this rink I know,” Kuraly told reporters in his introductory press conference. “Feels like it has come full-circle, so I’m just excited to get going.”
His transition shouldn’t be too hard, having spent his offseasons training in Columbus, he was already pretty familiar with a lot of the players that he now calls teammates.
“I’ve obviously looked at the roster and I’d say there’s a good percentage of them that I’m familiar with, but looking forward to getting to know the ones that I don’t… I’ve heard nothing but great things from top to bottom about all of them, and there’s a few I know how they play and I don’t like playing against so it’ll be fun to play with them. That goes into the decision, you want to be somewhere where it wasn’t fun to play against.”Sean Kuraly told Blue Jackets TV
Columbus has had a dearth for capable NHL centres in recent seasons. Kuraly at the very least brings an NHL-level talent to fill a hole, and the versatility to play up and down the lineup. But his on-ice talent isn’t the only factor that made Blue Jackets brass interested in his services.
General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen says they are always looking to add players who are key contributors to the locker room environment and contribute just as much leadership off the ice as on it. Kekalainen thinks Kuraly fits that mold.
“Sean Kuraly will definitely bring that. He will lead by example not only on the ice, but off the ice, in the gym, and the way he goes about his business. That’s the best way to lead, I’m sure he’ll get a voice in [the locker room] too. He’s an experienced guy in the league right now. He gets a lot of respect in our room immediately for what he’s done and how successful he’s been in the league.”Jarmo Kekalainen, Columbus Blue Jackets General Manager in a free agency recap availability
Kuraly’s 57 playoff games are second-most on the team, only trailing Gustav Nyquist, who has played in 65. Next closest is Jakub Voracek who has 49 games of postseason action, despite having been in the league almost a decade longer.
After signing, player comparables for the Dublin native came flooding in and the Blue Jackets’ own Boone Jenner was at the top of the list. A hard-working, defensively dominant forward who is not bereft of skill and can chip in offensively. Which should make him an instant fit with the organization.
“He plays the game like Boone Jenner and who doesn’t want a Boone Jenner on their team?” says Columbus defenseman Zach Werenski on Kuraly to Blue Jackets TV. “It’s the right way to play. It’s hard-working every single shift. It’s doing all the little things right in order to win a hockey game and to have a guy who’s from Columbus, knows what it’s about… he embraces it [and] to come back home and be a part of this thing, I think it’s awesome.”
Writer covering Columbus Blue Jackets.
Also a radio personality and reporter currently based on Vancouver Island.