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Play the kids

The solution to the slow start

NHL: OCT 14 Lightning at Blue Jackets Photo by Graham Stokes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Three games into the season may be too early to panic, but starting 0-3-0 with a -9 goal differential is about as disappointing of a start as the Columbus Blue Jackets could have had. There are any number of things that have gone wrong, but I have a simple solution:

Play the kids.

Thanks to a series of trades and some high draft picks in the last couple of years, there are a number of highly skilled young players in the organization. Many of those are available to play for the Jackets this year, but Brad Larsen and his staff have taken a cautious approach to those players’ minutes. With several veterans struggling, why not give those minutes to someone younger, with room to grow?

Here are some of the options:

Kent Johnson: I wrote about him last week, but my pleas for him to play in the first game were ignored. With the injury to Patrik Laine, he got to play in the next two games and he thrived. His lines have earned 58.06% of shot attempts at 5v5. This trails only Patrik Laine, in his limited action from the first game. Johnson has also been limited, with just 9:12 of 5v5 play per game. With more usage his numbers will regress somewhat, but he has the skills to take on more responsibility.

Yegor Chinakhov: He has been dragged down by the slow start for Jack Roslovic and Jake Voracek, but after his stand-out preseason and given his elite shot, he seems a natural fit to fill Patrik Laine’s sniper role on both the first line and the first power play unit.

Nick Blankenburg: Blanks has not played yet, but it seems probable that if the coaches want to shake up the roster that he’ll be the first one in. The third pair of Erik Gudbranson and Jake Bean has been consistently trapped in their own zone. Gudbranson has shown little of the toughness he was supposed to provide. He has faced a team-worst 78 even strength shot attempts against and has only blocked three of them. He has five hits in three games, with three of them coming in one game. Bean just looks lost out there. It’s not a given that Blankenburg will be an upgrade, but something has to change.

David Jiricek: Another change on defense could be calling up Jiricek from Cleveland. He was one of the last cuts at the end of preseason. Calling him up would require sending someone else down, and I don’t know that Jarmo Kekalainen is ready to make that move yet.

Kirill Marchenko: The Russian rookie is off to a hot start in Cleveland, with three goals (and an assist) in his first two games. If he can keep this up, he’ll make his Columbus debut sooner rather than later. Barring an injury, adding him to the roster would require a change in approach that would bench traditional fourth line types, such as Eric Robinson and Mathieu Olivier.


My inspiration for this position comes from another sport. My beloved Cleveland Guardians were not supposed to be good this season. Most preseason predictions had them winning fewer than 80 games. I thought they could finish above .500 because of their starting pitching and Terry Francona’s managing abilities, but I thought they would fall short of the Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins in the American League Central Division. They had no major acquisition like the Jackets had with Johnny Gaudreau, but they did sign team leader and perennial MVP candidate Jose Ramirez to a long term extension.

The season started with signs that the offense would struggle as it had in 2021. The opening day roster featured formerly highly rated prospects who had flashes of success, but struggled with consistency: Bradley Zimmer, Bobby Bradley, Yu Chang, and Oscar Mercado, among others. Eventually all were cut loose. The team also cut a key player in August in Franmil Reyes. The power hitter showed up to spring training after the winter lockout out of shape, and his power bat was cold and never got hot.

These decisions were hard, but it created opportunities for other young players like Andres Gimenez, and rookies like Steven Kwan and Oscar Gonzalez. In total, 17 Cleveland players made their MLB debut this season. In a thrilling comeback victory on Saturday night in the ALDS, multiple rookies contributed:

Not every rookie that played will be part of the future for the Guardians, but the front office learned a lot more about what they had, and there are still more blue chip prospects in the highly rated farm system.

Do we really need to play Olivier every day? As well as Justin Danforth is playing, does he need to be in the top six? Shouldn’t Chinakhov be on the top line instead? Could you trade pending free agents Gus Nyquist and Vladislav Gavrikov sooner rather than later, with younger players getting their minutes?

As the Guardians showed, dumping mediocre players and playing new guys with upside does not have to mean you’re throwing in the towel on the season. It could actually make the team better in the short term as well as in the future.