The Columbus Blue Jackets have had to spend most of the season getting by while dealing with numerous injuries. With over $30 million in cap space currently on injured reserve, they have needed someone to step up and try to fill the numerous voids.
Kevin Stenlund has done just that. His teammates agree and are raving about his early performance.
Stenlund’s New Role
Stenlund has seen time in the NHL on a few different occasions. He played in just four games in 2018-19. But this season, he is set to appear in his 24th game after being called up again due to injury.
What makes this situation different is what Stenlund is doing now. Earlier this season, Stenlund was playing the wing and seeing some power-play time. Now, coach John Tortorella has him in a top-six role as a center. That’s quite the vote of confidence. Tortorella recently said that Stenlund is a center. He even for a short time became the top center when Pierre-Luc Dubois started to struggle.
Going into Thursday night’s huge clash against the Flyers, Stenlund still finds himself at center between Gus Nyquist and Emil Bemstrom. He’s playing a huge role in the middle of a heated playoff race in the Eastern Conference.
Some of Stenlund’s teammates are not only impressed with his game, they think he belongs up with the Blue Jackets full-time. The Hockey Writers got to talk about Stenlund with both Nyquist and Oliver Bjorkstrand. They each recognize his impact on the game in different areas and is only getting better.
Nyquist & Bjorkstrand on Stenlund
“I think he’s been great,” Nyquist said of Stenlund. “He’s a guy who makes plays. He’s not scared. It’s hard sometimes coming up. He shows a lot of confidence with the puck. He’s been solid defensively. The biggest strength is his shot and on the power play he’s a really good weapon.”
The power play has long been a sore spot for the Blue Jackets. Stenlund has given them a jolt. Nyquist pointed out the kind of impact Stenlund has had on the man advantage.
“He makes plays. He’s a guy that can settle it down off an entry. He seems to find ways to get organized so he can get setup and have a little power-play time in the zone and try to do what you want to do out there.”
Bjorkstrand echoed Nyquist’s thoughts about Stenlund.
“He’s a good player,” Bjorkstrand said. “He wins the battles. He’s able to make plays. He has a good shot. His overall game is very good. I think he’s really good on the half-wall and calming things down and making the right plays. He’s able to help find the shot lanes for guys.”
For a rookie playing in a top-six center role, seeing both Nyquist and Bjorkstrand call out Stenlund’s calmness really goes to show you the kind of player he can be. For a team starving at the center position, Stenlund is at least holding it down while several Blue Jackets work their way back into the lineup.
What’s Next For Stenlund?
Where things go from here remain to be seen. For now, Stenlund will be featured in a top-six center role and might have to defend either Sean Couturier or Kevin Hayes Thursday night. Perhaps his game continues to improve where Tortorella keeps him up there the rest of the season.
If nothing else, Stenlund has shown that he has the talent for the NHL and is looking for a full-time spot. The fact that he was the one called on to spell Dubois on the top line indicates the amount of trust the team has in him. Can he continue to improve on the fly while helping the team get back to the playoffs? I would suspect Alexander Wennberg will take back his center spot upon return from injury. But don’t rule out Stenlund staying up for the foreseeable. He might not stay in the top-six when everyone is healthy, but he’s certainly earned a look the rest of the season and maybe into the playoffs.
By next season, Stenlund should be a full-time NHLer. His poise and playmaking have given some unexpected life to the Blue Jackets at a time where they need all hands on deck. It feels like the best is still yet to come for him.