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Growth of youth, balanced scoring are reasons for optimism with these Blue Jackets

by Rob Mixer / Columbus Blue Jackets

We all know this by now: the Blue Jackets are building for the long-term around a core group of young players.

Their names are no secret, led by Brandon Saad, Boone Jenner, Ryan Murray, Seth Jones and a handful of others. They’re also building a team in layers, with the young core in the middle, supported by a strong supporting cast and a stable, experienced group of leaders.

And one of the more encouraging things for John Tortorella as he evaluates his team on a nightly basis is the lead role his young players have taken. Not only are the kids playing important minutes and earning responsibility, they’ve contributed offensively and helped the Blue Jackets accomplish something no other NHL team has done yet this season.

With Cam Atkinson’s goal on Monday night at Madison Square Garden, he hit the 20-goal plateau for the third consecutive year and third time in three full NHL seasons.

On top of that, Atkinson gives Columbus four 20-goal scorers (along with Saad, Jenner and veteran Scott Hartnell) – most in the NHL – and there are still 18 games left in 2015-16.

In a season filled with ups and downs and a fair share of disappointments, the emergence of those aforementioned young players as the Blue Jackets’ core group up front has been an undeniable bright spot.

And that hasn’t come without mistakes – both from the players and the coaches – and Tortorella is first to admit he made a mistake with Saad, who came highly-regarded in an offseason trade from Chicago and was counted on early to be an impact player for the Blue Jackets.

"I screwed up with Saader," Tortorella back in January. "I came here, I screwed up with him and I think I held him back in where he wasn't killing penalties. You know what he is as a player, a two-time Stanley Cup winner, but I still think he has a lot to learn about the game and I lost him.

"When he spends two minutes on the bench and he doesn't kill a penalty, and I don't come back with him another shift after that because I'm trying to get my lines back together, there he is sitting on the bench for probably three minutes. It may not seem like a lot, but for a player, that's an eternity."

Tortorella has Saad in a groove right now and the 22-year-old is rewarding his coach with his best hockey of the season. Saad leads the Blue Jackets in goals with 24 (a new career-high, eclipsing his previous best with the Blackhawks) and has shown a game-breaking ability with his speed.

With respect to Atkinson, he had first-hand advice from his friend and summer workout partner Martin St. Louis, who played for Tortorella in Tampa Bay and knew what to expect. St. Louis told Atkinson that if he’s working hard and doing his job, his minutes will reflect it – and Atkinson has responded positively, as well; he’s on pace to eclipse his own career-high in goals and, like Saad, has made himself a threat by using his legs.

“There are no secrets with Torts – he just wants you to work hard and give everything you’ve got on each shift,” Atkinson said earlier this month. “If you’re doing that, he’s going to keep putting you back out there.”

Jenner had a rough go in 2014-15 with two ill-timed injuries, the first a broken hand in the preseason and then a broken back that caused him to miss three months. He returned this fall eager to make amends and take another step forward, and his development has been another positive for the Blue Jackets in this trying season.

His 22 goals are a career high and he could challenge the 30-goal plateau before the season’s done. The Blue Jackets made sure to lock him up early before restricted free agency on July 1, giving him a two-year deal worth $5.8 million on Feb. 29.

“If you’re going to win consistently in this league, he needs to be in your lineup (and) playing the minutes that he plays,” Tortorella told The Dispatch’s Aaron Portzline in January. “As the years go by here, he’s going to be a big, big name for us, because he’s that reliable.”

All Hartnell has done is score 20 goals for the ninth time in his 15-year career, catalyzing a Blue Jackets offense that took a hit with Ryan Johansen’s trade to Nashville in January.

On the power play and at even strength, Hartnell continues to find ways to create chances whether it’s in the slot or at the front of the net – playing a throwback style that’s gotten him into some trouble along the way, but Tortorella trusts him and continues to go back to him.

“I don’t want a different Scott Hartnell,” Tortorella said. “Since I’ve been here, (Hartnell) has been one of my most consistent forwards – he’s a really good player. I’m not looking for a different one, I just want one that is disciplined right on through, being himself.

“I think he needs his personality and I’ve stressed for him to be his own person, because he’s a throwback. That's personality we need within our team.”

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