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Kukan making most of late-season opportunity

Blue Jackets defenseman has worked hard for his chance

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

Imagine going to work every day and not actually getting a chance to do your job. 

OK, that kind of sounds nice for those of us who aren't professional hockey players, but it hasn't been fun for Dean Kukan. 

For most of the season, the man known as "Kuks" has been the Blue Jackets' seventh defenseman. That has meant that if the six defensemen on the roster ahead of him have been healthy enough to play and not struggling terribly, Kukan would spend the night in the press box eating popcorn rather than playing the sport he loves. 

"It's not easy to be the seventh defenseman, but I'm used to it," he said. "I've been the seventh defenseman the whole season. Whenever I get a chance to play, I'm just trying to have my confidence and have fun. If you don't have confidence you play bad. That's just how it is. I think I've gotten used to it through the whole season." 

He might not have to stay used to it much longer. Kukan has played in four of the last five games and his game is earning notice, no more than when he earned a key assist in the Blue Jackets' 6-2 win against Montreal on Thursday night. Kukan intercepted a pass in his own zone, skated 100 feet with the puck and then teed up Oliver Bjorkstrand for a goal that gave Columbus a 5-2 lead.

Video: MTL@CBJ: Bjorkstrand scores second on the rush

Afterward, head coach John Tortorella couldn't help but notice how calmly and efficiently Kukan played in such a big game, especially as Tortorella mixed and matched him after defensive partner Adam McQuaid left the game injured in the second period.

"Zero nervousness -- zero," Tortorella said. "He's just playing. At a crucial time of year, it just rolls off him. The way Kuks has handled some of the situations as far as carrying the puck and making plays, we're going to stay with him.

"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. 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."

When Kukan has been tapped to enter the lineup, he's had success throughout much of the year. The 25-year-old from Switzerland has played in 20 games, totaling zero goals and four assists with a plus-3 rating. According to the advanced numbers on Hockey-Reference.com, the team's expected goals advantage is plus-3.8, a solid number for someone who has struggled to consistently break into the lineup. 

He's simply been a victim of circumstance in some ways. With the emergence of Scott Harrington -- who spent the last two seasons in a similar arrangement, spending as much time working off the ice with assistant coach Kenny McCudden as he did getting ready for games -- and a core of veterans on the roster, Kukan has been the seventh man in a six-man rotation. 

From early November through mid-February, Kukan played in just six NHL games, with a detour to Cleveland of the AHL to suit up in five games. But when Kukan showed so well in Vancouver on Sunday, he has stayed in the lineup since, turning heads in the process. 

"He's a really smooth player," Zach Werenski said. "He has no panic in his game. He's just holding on to the puck looking to make a play. Whenever you do that, it gives you the confidence to keep making plays.  

"He hasn't played that much, but he's worked hard on his game. He's been out there extra working on stuff, so I think right now it's paying off for him." 

To McCudden, who spends a chunk of his time working on drills with the players who are healthy scratches throughout the season, Kukan's game boils down to one word. 

"Poise," McCudden said. "He has terrific poise with his thinking. Prior to the play, his anticipation is there. His poise is there to make the right play. I like how he settles it down for himself and makes a play that a lot of people watching it will go, 'Wow,' like, 'I can't believe he pulled that off.' But I really believe he believes he knows he can do it time in and time out." 

McCudden also points to Kukan's speed as an asset, as well as his strength on his skates and his ability to use his stick in the defensive zone. The team's skills coach also lauds Kukan for taking part in forward drills when he's off the ice, allowing him to get more used to having the puck on his stick and making passes to help the team get out of the zone. 

Kukan, who the Blue Jackets signed four seasons ago after his solid play in the Swedish Hockey League and who is also an experienced international player for Switzerland, he also prides himself on his ability to contribute in both ends. He's shown comfort with the puck on his stick of late and isn't afraid to make an offensive play when it presents itself.

"I would say I'm a two-way defenseman," he said. "I like to get up the ice offensively if I can, and I think I'm a good skater with the puck. I can carry the puck. I like to contribute a little more to the offensive game. I am just focusing on doing the right things on the defensive side of the game, then I think I have some upside on offense." 

Kukan has shown some of that offensive ability the past three seasons when given the opportunity at Cleveland, totaling eight goals and 57 points in 138 games with the Jackets' top farm team. 

This year has been his biggest opportunity at the NHL level, with his 20 games topping the total of 19 he'd skated in over the past three seasons combined. With one more year under contract with the Jackets, he'd like to even boost that number, and the path is there to follow Harrington in becoming one of the team's trusted blue liners. 

"He was the extra guy the whole season, and this year he's a regular," Kukan said. "I still have one more year on the contract, and I am for sure going to try to earn a spot next season." 

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