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Blue Jackets should have all hands on deck for return to play

Jones, Atkinson, Bjorkstrand among those who should be healthy for Columbus

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

When the Blue Jackets return to the ice to take on Toronto as part of the NHL's return to play plan, the team might be able to steal a line from Ohio State's fight song, "Across the Field."

Hail, hail, the gang's all here. 

A team that made overcoming adversity -- mostly in the form of repeated injuries to both top players and role players alike -- its calling card this year should be largely at full strength in the five-game series against the Maple Leafs when things get going again later this summer.  

Cam Atkinson (ankle), Seth Jones (ankle), Oliver Bjorkstrand (ankle), Dean Kukan (knee), Alexandre Texier (back) and Nathan Gerbe (groin) -- all of whom were out of action when the team played its last game March 8 in Vancouver -- all should be ready to go by the restart, while Josh Anderson could return at some point as he continues to come back from shoulder surgery in early March that carried a four-to-six-month rehab timetable. 

"I think there's a good chance that we'll be fully healthy," Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. "I think Josh Anderson is probably the only one where the timeline is going to get close to when he would be ready. Everyone else is on schedule and should be ready to play whenever we start." 

Kekalainen went on to add that Brandon Dubinsky, who has not played a game this year because of a degenerative wrist injury, also will not be able to return, but by and large the Blue Jackets will have their strongest group on paper since the injuries starting piling up in mid-December. 

"Just to have this kind of a time for those guys to heal and come back and help us, it's huge," captain Nick Foligno said. "I don't want to knock anybody on our team, but they're guys (coming back) that eat big minutes. They're not players who are up and coming, they're established. They're leaders. 

"We obviously missed Jonesy badly and Cam and Bjorky's goal-scoring ability, so to have those guys back in the lineup, that's a huge boost for the morale first and foremost and also to the team itself. The minutes those guys can eat, it kind of bumps everybody back to where they need to play and it makes you a stronger team." 

The funny thing is that Columbus actually got through the first two months of the season fairly healthy, but from the time Emil Bemstrom went down with a rib/oblique injury in a Dec. 7 game at Florida, the injuries came fast and furious. 

Ironically, that's the time the Blue Jackets turned around the season, going from 11-14-4 at the time of the loss to the Panthers to 33-22-15 and in a playoff spot when the coronavirus pause hit. But the list of walking wounded from there included the above players as well as Zach Werenski, Joonas Korpisalo, Alexander Wennberg, Markus Nutivaara, Ryan Murray and Kole Sherwood, all of whom missed games at some point.  

While posting a 22-8-11 record the last 41 games, the team lost 336 man-games to injury, an average of more than eight players out per game. By the time the Blue Jackets got to the pause, the team had lost 419 man-games to injury, the second most in team history and the most in the NHL this year. At that point, Columbus had a chance to match the team record of 508 in 2014-15 yet still remained in the thick of the postseason race. 

"I'm never satisfied -- even with all of our injuries I still wanted more from our group -- but I think knowing that we were able to navigate some really unfortunate situations and the way we responded to adversity, I was really proud," Foligno said. "I'm proud of our group for banding together and realizing we can go one of two ways and we chose to respond the right way. 

"I'm always gonna appreciate that out of our group, but now it's time to put all that we've learned this year to good use and make sure it's not wasted." 

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