At age 26 -- with his 27th birthday on the horizon next month -- Gavin Bayreuther knows the score.
He had played just 19 NHL games prior to signing with Columbus this season and has added five contests with the Blue Jackets so far down the stretch as the team looks forward to next year.
Bayreuther is no longer a spring chicken in an NHL that's getting younger by the day, but he also is a defenseman who believes he has the ability to stick at the highest level.
As a result, you could say he's playing for a contract for next season as he nears the end of the one-year deal he inked with the Jackets this past offseason. Whether that upcoming contract will be with the Blue Jackets or another team, his play in this coveted cameo at the NHL level could be the difference in where he ends up and what type of opportunity he gets a year from now.
"Opportunities are hard to come by," Bayreuther said. "You really have to earn them. You have to work really hard for them. When they come, you have to leave it all out there. That's something I'm trying to focus on every night. I feel like this opportunity is earned, but I need to earn it every single night and one game at a time is the way I'm approaching this."
For a number of players on the roster, the final stretch of the season is as much about making an impression -- either on CBJ brass or talent evaluators around the league -- as anything else. As head coach John Tortorella has said a few times down the stretch, he's listening to Jarmo Kekalainen to find out what the general manager wants to see in these last few games, such as the game new trade acquisition Mikko Lehtonen played with Seth Jones on the top defensive pair.
"I'm going to rely on Jarmo quite a bit as far as who he wants to see, who he wants to play so they can make some decisions here," Tortorella said.
Looking at the roster, there are two distinct groups of players who are looking to catch eyes down the stretch. The first are the team's youngsters, those who are among the top prospects for the team who hope to show they deserve a bigger role going into next season.
While someone like Emil Bemstrom is out because of injury, this group includes such names as Alexandre Texier, Liam Foudy, Josh Dunne and Andrew Peeke, all of whom are age 23 or younger and in their first or second full NHL seasons. Those players can use any opportunity that comes their way to stake a claim on playing time going forward.
"There's always something to play for even if we're not in the playoffs," said Foudy, who returned to the lineup in Tuesday night's win after amassing 16 points in 11 games with Cleveland of the AHL. "We're all trying to showcase our skills, and we obviously want to win every game possible. We have six games left here, and we're all going to try to play our best here and show what we have."
Texier, who has the most playing time among the group with 47 games played this year and 85 in his NHL career, agreed.
"I think it's a good time for me and for the team for young guys, too," he said. "I am just going to game after game and try to play the right way until the end and work on a couple of details."
Then there are those who are a little bit older but fighting for their NHL lives while being showcased down the stretch. Bayreuther, Lehtonen, Stefan Matteau, Mikhail Grigorenko and Zac Dalpe are all 26 years of age or older and will be unrestricted free agents going into next season.
For those players, it's a matter of livelihood and opportunity, as most hope to stick with the Blue Jackets but also know scouts around the league have an eye out in case the player or team decide to in opposite directions.
Matteau knows how it works as much as anyone. A 2012-first-round pick and the son of a former NHL standout, Matteau has been up and down throughout his career, with 361 American Hockey League games to his credit. Now at age 27, he's played in 89 NHL games for four different teams, skating in 16 games this season for the Blue Jackets after spending much of the early season on the taxi squad, the very definition of being on the edge of an NHL roster.
"It's a tough spot," Matteau said of the stretch run. "It's a different vibe in the locker room than everyone hoped it would be, but for me personally, it's definitely an opportunity. If things don't work out here, there are other teams, too. I like it here and I'm trying to showcase myself and just work hard every day, take it day by day, and it's an opportunity for a lot of guys. I still feel like I have a lot to give and a lot to prove."
Which brings us back to Bayreuther. A four-year player at St. Lawrence University, he's become a prototypical borderline guy, earning those couple of chances with the Stars and Blue Jackets over the past two years. He's skated in 24 NHL games but 208 at the AHL level, and how he performs down the stretch could help determine which of those he starts at a year from now.
"Every game is so important," he said. "You have to show management, show the team, show everyone that you are capable of playing hard every night and being consistent, and that consistency is something that I'm focusing on.
"I just know how hard it is to stick in this league. I've been sent down numerous times. I understand you have to add elements to your game and that's something I'm trying to show management I'm capable of doing."