The Blue Jackets are a young team, for sure. And, as is the case with every new season, there are guys just kicking off their NHL careers. For Ryan Murray, this wasn't all that unexpected. For Boone Jenner, well, perhaps he was one of the few people imagining he'd be starting tonight with the Jackets as opposed to being in Springfield.
For Murray, the last year has been rough. We documented his long journey back from the shoulder injury that cost him a big chunk of his season, when he was expected by many to play for Columbus before the lockout sent him back to the WHL, and the injury put him on the shelf. After having gone through all of that, he's understandably chomping at the bit.
"I'm just really excited," Murray said. "I'm really looking forward to it. It's been a long pre-season, so I'm looking forward to playing some games that mean something."
For Jenner, this may seem like an "ahead of schedule" arrival. The 20-year-old is largely skipping the AHL, something many Jackets fans have bemoaned of previous young prospects. But, the club doesn't seem to be "rushing" Jenner before he's ready. He came to training camp with a definite mindset of making the club, and his play did the talking; there's no question that he earned his spot, whereas in the past some young guys may have been given a spot before they were ready.
"This was my third training camp, so I was super excited for this one," Jenner told me. "The last two taught me a lot in terms of what to expect. I thought I had a good summer, and a good year of hockey last year. I think, coming in, I was more ready. [Making the team] was my goal, obviously. I wanted to earn a roster spot. I worked as hard as I could. I wanted to play my game, and I thought I had a good preseason. It was rewarding."
One common theme for both players is that they'll be surrounded by a calming veteran presence. For Murray, he'll play with James Wisniewski on the team's second defensive pairing. The two clicked in the pre-season almost from the outset, and for Murray it means he'll be playing above where many might have expected for a rookie.
"He's such an easy guy to play with," Murray said of Wisniewski. "You can give him the puck and have faith that he's going to make a good play with it every time. In the offensive zone, he's always a shooter. He's always getting pucks to the net. I'm kind of a pass-first guy, so I'll just try to get him the puck as much as I can."
Likewise for Jenner, he developed instant chemistry with two linemates in particular: Brandon Dubinsky and sniper Marian Gaborik. While some might argue that those two perhaps skewed Jenner's performance, Boone himself points out that, while they've made it easier for him to adjust, he still has to play his game to be successful.
"It was pretty special [playing with them]," Jenner noted. "They're both elite players in this league, and established veterans. They can teach me a lot. They're being pretty nice to me, so I just have to keep working hard for them."
There's also the notion of pressure or of trying to do too much because of his line mates. That doesn't seem to be a concern of Jenner's. "Everyone in this room's pretty skilled," he said. "Whoever I'm playing with, I just want to keep playing the game that I bring. I'm just going to work as hard as I can."
As with any team, there are many young players. In talking to a few Jackets players not all that far removed from making their own NHL debuts, there seems to be one common theme: it's still hockey, it should be FUN, and you just have to play your game.
"It's kind of funny how the NHL works," Matt Calvert told me. "You're the youngest guy, and then you kind of move up a level. For those guys, they need to have fun with it. It's all going to come at you fast in the first few shifts, and it will slow down after the first period. Have fun, keep it simple, and let the rest take care of itself."
In talking to defenseman Dalton Prout about his blueline mate Murray, he echoed those sentiments. "I'm not sure if there's anything you can say to him," Prout said. "He's a good player, he's a smart kid. If you tell him to calm down or to settle down, I think it's a little bit cliched, and then you start thinking more. When he makes a good play, you pat him on the back. When he has a forgettable shift, tell him to forget about it. Hockey's a game of mistakes. You live and you learn."
Center Ryan Johansen has had similar experiences to Jenner, making the club as a 19-year-old two years ago. "All I'll say really is to have fun, and play your game," Johansen said. "They're two great players, and they've played a lot of hockey in their careers. Really, all they have to do is go out there and do their thing, play hard, and have fun. These are days and games that they'll remember for the rest of their lives. All I would say is to just enjoy it. They're going to do a lot of great things for this team."
Indeed they will. And, thankfully for both rookies, they'll have some friendly faces to share the night with. Murray noted that his parents and his brother would be at the game tonight, and for Jenner, a fairly large group will be making the journey down from Dorchester, Ontario (located in the "bull's head" portion of Ontario charging at Michigan, the trip isn't much more than five hours by car).
With everything going on, it's probably impossible to block all of the emotions and nerves out. But, Murray is trying. "I think you have to approach it like any other game," he said. "You can't get too high on it or think too much about it. You have to just go out there and play the way that you can. I've played hockey for a long time. If I prepare like I usually do, then I think I'll be fine."
For Murray, it's not about the destination of simply arriving in the NHL. This is the end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end. "You have to look ahead," Murray said. "I don't think you can look back on things that you have done, you have to look ahead. I have so much more to prove at this level. I'm completely focused on what's ahead, and I have to prove myself all over again."
Only one thing is for certain: this will be a night to remember for both young players. And, hopefully for Jackets fans, it will be just game-one of two long, storied careers.