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Kukan excels in first game on Blue Jackets' top pairing

First NHL regular-season goal highlights game for puck-moving defenseman

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

Kukan's top-shelf power-play goal

ARI@CBJ: Kukan beats Kuemper's glove for PPG

Dean Kukan controls the puck at the circle and rifles a wrister that beats Darcy Kuemper top shelf for a power-play goal, tying the game, 1-1

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When Dean Kukan stepped onto the ice for the first time on the power play Tuesday night, he admitted to being a little bit nervous. 

It didn't show. 

With his first shot on the man advantage, Kukan had time in the right circle and roofed a shot over the glove of Arizona's Darcy Kuemper, tying the game in the middle of the second period. 

"It was my first time on the power play, so I was a little nervous," he admitted after his first-ever NHL regular-season goal. "But I got a goal on the first shot, so that settled it a little bit. That was good." 

So highlighted a big performance in the biggest chance of Kukan's career to this point. The soft-spoken but hard-skating defenseman was elevated to the team's top defensive pairing and its No. 2 power-play unit in the after the injury to Zach Werenski, and in his first effort Kukan turned in an excellent performance. 

Video: Dean Kukan on the loss tonight.

The 26-year-old Swiss defender played a career-high 22:54 over 27 shifts and had the goal as well as a shot that hit the post. His pairing with Seth Jones was a possession monster, as the Blue Jackets had a 24-13 edge in shot attempts at 5-on-5 with Kukan on the ice, a 10-5 advantage in scoring chances and earned 73.2 percent of expected goals.

That's what head coach John Tortorella had in mind when he moved up Kukan, whose poise on the puck and skating ability have moved him from a part-time player since his North American arrival to someone the Blue Jackets are counting on for big things. 

"I thought Kuks was probably our best puck-carrying defenseman tonight," Tortorella said after the game vs. Arizona. "He has shown us just a tremendous improvement within his game, with the puck, working at the game defensively as far as the battle. (He's a) little inconsistent from shift to shift, but he's moving right along as far as his development. 

"Z is a puck mover who has mostly played with Jonesy, so I wanted a puck mover with him." 

Born in Volketswil, Switzerland, Kukan grew up playing in his home country before moving to Sweden in 2011. He spent four seasons there before catching the eye of the Blue Jackets and general manager Jarmo Kekalainen, who signed him ahead of the 2015-16 season. 

Kukan made his debut with eight games with the Blue Jackets that year at age 22, but he spent most of that season and all of the next one in Cleveland with the organization's AHL team. He played 11 games with the Blue Jackets in 2017-18 but finally spent the majority of the season in Columbus a year ago. 

He played only 25 games with the Blue Jackets, spending most of the campaign as the team's No. 7 defenseman, but he was at his best at the end of the year. As injuries mounted, Kukan stepped up and used his poise and puck skills to become an integral part of the CBJ blue line. He scored a goal to tie the game late in Game 5 at Boston and was on the ice for all 10 playoff games.  

But this is the first regular season in which he's received consistent playing time. After skating in just two of the first 10 games, Kukan has played in every game since Oct. 26, and in the meantime, his confidence and game have grown.  

"I think that is the reason," he said. "If you sit out three games and you come in for a couple of games, it's not easy to have the confidence and play like that. I think it's easier if you play consecutive games and you can grow your game like that. I think that's a little easier." 

Considering how little NHL hockey Kukan has played -- last night's game was just his 63rd regular-season at the highest level in four-plus years in North America -- it's fair to say there's still potential in his game. 

"I think the biggest thing with Kuks is you see when he's (at his best) and then you see him down here, too, and that can happen within a space of 10 minutes in a game," Tortorella said. "I think he's closing the gap as far as being more consistent, but he is turning into a very good puck mover, a very good player who has patience and confidence with the puck. 

"He's a really interesting one as he's gone about it here, how he has developed into a guy that I think feels really good about himself and has the moxie to hold on to pucks and look to make a play instead of always being off the glass. There's some times where he's inconsistent … but I think you have to live with that a little bit because of the upside on him." 

It might not always be a smooth progression from here, but Tuesday night was a huge opportunity for Kukan and it's fair to say he grabbed the reins and took full advantage.  

"It felt great getting an opportunity to play a little bit more than usual," he said. "I'm just trying not to think too much. Whenever I'm out there, I'm bringing my best. Tonight, it worked really well with Jonesy." 

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