Battalion Breakdown is a closer look at the Blue Jackets' past season on a player-by-player basis. Today, BlueJackets.com continues the series by looking at Dean Kukan's season and how it impacted Columbus in the 2018-19 campaign.
Birth date: July 8, 1993
Height/Weight: 6-2, 186
Stats (Games, G-A-P, point shares): 25 GP, 0-5-5, 1.3 PS
Contract: Signed through 2019-20 season
Switzerland isn't exactly viewed as a traditional hotbed of NHL talent, but it's becoming more and more of a place for smart NHL teams to find players who can get the job done.
According to Hockey-Reference.com, just 32 players born in the Alpen country have made it to the NHL, with all but two making their debuts since 2001.
But this past season, 12 different Swiss-born players suited up in the NHL, including such impact players as standout Nashville defenseman Roman Josi, 2017 No. 1 overall pick Nico Hischier and burgeoning San Jose star Timo Meier.
At the other end of the list is Dean Kukan, whose NHL career appears to just be coming into focus after coming over to join the Blue Jackets organization in 2015-16. The Volketswil native began his career in his native country, including playing on national Under-18 and U-20 teams, before four seasons in Sweden.
Largely a member of the Lake Erie/Cleveland Monsters the past few seasons -- he played on the Calder Cup championship team for the AHL franchise in 2015-16 -- Kukan finally got the chance to show his skills late this season and didn't disappoint, playing key moments and scoring a big goal in the postseason.
Entering the season: Kukan signed a two-year deal coming into 2018-19 and hoped he would finally get the chance to become a regular after his previous cups of coffee. From the Blue Jackets' end, he was viewed as depth who could step into the lineup if need be at a moment's notice.
What happened: For most of the first five months of the season, Kukan was exactly that -- depth. He spent the majority of the campaign as the seventh defenseman, practicing and traveling with the team but -- with few notable injuries and Scott Harrington's emergence on the third pair -- largely watching from the press box as a healthy scratch.
But Kukan's year-long work, including extra skill sessions with assistant coach Kenny McCudden, paid off late in the season. With the blue line struggling to transition the puck forward during an inconsistent stretch of team play in March, Kukan was put in the lineup and played well enough that the coaching staff couldn't take him out. He was confident in tight spaces, poised with the puck on his stick and smooth getting the puck up the ice, earning the trust of the coaching staff along the way.
"The thing I like about him is he's not afraid to make a play, and if a mistake is made, it never bothers him," head coach John Tortorella said. "He just goes out and plays. I think some guys get amped up and nervous in these situations. Look at him. Nothing is bothering him. He's just playing."
By the time the playoffs came around, Kukan was a mainstay, and with the injury to Markus Nutivaara in Game 2 vs. Tampa Bay, he was moved up to the second pair with David Savard for the most part. Kukan went on to play more than 15 minutes per game on average in the postseason and now looks poised to push for more playing time in 2019-20.
Could it be any moment other than Kukan's cannon blast of a goal that tied Game 5 in Boston at 3? With the Blue Jackets mounting a rally from a pair of two-goal deficits, Kukan finally tied the score late in the third period as he took a pass from Artemi Panarin in the slot and let go a one-timer that went bar down behind Tuukka Rask. Columbus wouldn't win the game, but Kukan opened some eyes with the shot, including those of general manager Jarmo Kekalainen, who said he encouraged the defenseman to let it fly more often going forward.
Video: CBJ@BOS, Gm5: Kukan fires home blistering one-timer
By the Numbers
5.4: Kukan has been on the positive side of the ledger in all three of his however brief NHL seasons when it comes to the difference in expected goals for and against. This year, his xGF mark of 17.4 for the team when he was on the ice outpaced the xGA of 12.0, a margin of plus-5.4.
17: On a related note, Kukan is plus-17 in 44 NHL games, having been on the ice for 33 goals at even strength and just 16 allowed. It's a small sample size, and a lot goes into plus-minus, but so far in his career, teams have struggled to score goals while he's been on the ice.
0: Despite the playoff goal at Boston, Kukan is yet to score a regular-season tally in his 44 career games.