The Columbus Blue Jackets have not been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, but it has been known for a while that they wouldn’t be in the running for hockey in May. Add in several key injuries over the last month, including captain Boone Jenner, as well as a seven-game losing streak from the end of March into the beginning of April, and it seemed like there wasn’t much excitement among fans for the remainder of the season. All of that changed in an instant when the organization announced the signings of top prospect Kent Johnson, as well as defenseman Nick Blankenburg after the University of Michigan was eliminated from the Frozen Four by the NCAA’s leading scorer Bobby Brink and the University of Denver.
The Road to the NHL
There had been an expectation that Johnson would be making his way to Columbus following his collegiate season for many months. However, the addition of Blankenburg was a pleasant surprise. Both of them reached this point in their careers in very different ways. First, you have the fifth overall pick and the organization’s top prospect in Johnson. He’s a player that management expects to be a core piece of the team for many years to come. He’s a highly-skilled player who truly has the potential to be the most productive player in his draft class. He makes incredibly difficult plays look easy and controls the game in almost every way imaginable in the offensive zone.
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Blankenburg, an undrafted defenseman who has never received much of a spotlight likely in part due to his small frame. Teams typically put a lot of stock into quality right-handed defensemen as they’re one of the most difficult assets to find at the professional level. In this case, however, his size was simply a major factor against him as many teams struggle to take a chance on a 5-foot-9 forward, let alone a defenseman with the same height. He’s never had an easy road to success, considering he was a walk-on at the University of Michigan who became a key component of the team and eventually their captain. Although he’ll make his NHL debut at a much younger age, his story is reminiscent of Justin Danforth’s journey as both players had to overcome incredible amounts of adversity to reach this point in their careers.
Johnson & Blankenburg Bring Excitement Factor
As previously mentioned, the Blue Jackets have gone through a very rough patch over the last month. This uncharacteristic downturn after realistic playoff elimination has made it difficult at times for the fans to stay excited compared to most years, as they’ll historically go on their best run of the season in these circumstances. The addition of two young players can certainly counteract that. There’s a buzz around the team now and that excitement almost certainly goes farther than just among the fans.
This is also an exciting time for the coaching staff and management as they’ll be able to evaluate a key piece of their future at the highest level while also potentially adding a major asset to the “reset” if Blankenburg is able to perform at the NHL level. Although the players have experienced quite a few debuts this season, this one is very different. The most similar would likely be Cole Sillinger’s on opening night, but this is even bigger than that. Sillinger was a surprise who wasn’t truly expected to be ready for the NHL right after the Entry Draft; Johnson had the aura of an immediate NHL player around him from the start and if he had chosen to do so, he likely could’ve been on the opening night roster as well.
Johnson is the most-hyped prospect in recent memory for the Blue Jackets, seemingly even more so than former third-overall draft pick Pierre-Luc Dubois. He’s certainly the most important prospect for the rebuild at this point and as a result, there will be a lot of pressure on the 19-year-old and taking the number of a beloved former Blue Jacket, Cam Atkinson, will only add to the pressure he’ll face over the coming years. Blankenburg has much less pressure externally to succeed, but as an undrafted 23-year-old defenseman, he’s putting an equal amount of pressure on himself to make the most of this opportunity.
Blue Jackets fans have been through quite a few changes over the past few seasons and seeing the numbers 13 and 77 back on the ice without Atkinson and Josh Anderson will certainly be difficult for some at first. However, it would be very apropos for the new guard to be able to accomplish what the previous era was unable to while wearing the same numbers that were held in such high regard. For the first time in weeks, there’s reason to be excited about the Blue Jackets, and although there aren’t many games left in the season, the remaining few will certainly be fun for the organization and fans alike.
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.