Less than a week away from his first NHL game, 20-year-old Boone Jenner found himself skating on a line with Marian Gaborik and Brandon Dubinsky.
“That was...pretty cool,” he recalled.
The chemistry between those three seemed almost instantaneous, so coach Todd Richards gave them an extended audition near the end of training camp. They were the best line on the ice in an exhibition win over the Pittsburgh Penguins, but then, reality set in on opening night against the Calgary Flames a few days later.
Jenner’s stint on the Blue Jackets’ top line lasted less than a period, providing an immediate speed bump in his NHL career despite a strong training camp. He spent time on the bottom two lines and eventually sat out a couple of games in the early part of 2013-14 to help slow things down, and it turned out to be a beneficial experience.
Richards wanted consistency from Jenner, a young, hard-working player who he thought highly of even before putting him into the lineup. It didn’t take long before he got it.
“When you work as hard as Boone does and you’re as committed as he is, it’s tough to have three, four or five bad games in a row,” Richards told BlueJackets.com. “That’s just not going to happen. He’s a very determined player, too, and he understands his game and his role. He has skill and he can make plays, score goals and impact a game that way, but he plays a big, strong, straight-line game.
“He stuck with it, and you have to give a lot of credit to a young player who’s able to do what he did throughout the year – and his game continued to improve. You look at where he was at the end of the year (in the playoffs), and he was a real impact player for us. That says a lot about Boone and the type of player that he is.”
Jenner scored 16 goals in 72 games during the regular season but had only five in his first 33 games – and two of those were scored in the same game (Oct. 17 at Montreal, which happened to be one of Jenner’s best games of the regular season).
Admittedly, the stress and pressure of training camp and earning an NHL roster spot weighed on him early in the season – when the possibility of returning to the AHL was looming – but once he got his bearings, Jenner was a different player.
When the calendar turned to 2014, Jenner’s game reached another level and he was a big part of the Blue Jackets’ franchise-record eight-game winning streak in January that put them squarely into the playoff picture.
“Coming into camp, I wanted to prove myself and show that I can play here,” Jenner told BlueJackets.com. “I wanted to earn a job here so bad, and I was willing do whatever I could to make it happen. During the preseason I was playing with two tremendous players and it was a good opportunity for me, and then, 5-10 games into the season I think I found my role as that energy guy. I wanted to make sure I brought it every night and worked really hard every shift, and hopefully earn more opportunities.
“That game (in Montreal) was huge. To be able to get the first one out of the way was a monkey off the back, for sure, and then getting the second one was really special. After that game, I had a lot more confidence and I wanted to keep it rolling.”
The ability to make plays, protect the puck along the walls, hold his own against experienced, bigger, stronger players…all contributed to Jenner quickly earning a reputation as pain in the you-know-what to play against, which is exactly what Richards hoped and believed would happen.
Just before the Olympic break, Richards paired Jenner with Ryan Johansen at center, and when healthy, Nathan Horton was their right winger.
During the team’s Stanley Cup playoff run, Jack Skille skated on the right side of Jenner and Johansen and they were one of the Blue Jackets’ most dangerous units. Jenner scored three goals in the first-round series against the Penguins, and perhaps most memorably, didn’t make many friends on the other side.
What you’ve got in Jenner, Richards said, is a player who was born for this type of role.
“When I think of Boone’s season and how he played, I think of a real consistent model throughout the season and it continued to get better,” Richards said. “There might have been a dip here or there, but the dips weren’t long and they weren’t very low. He maintained his level, and continued to elevate it to where he was at the end of the year.
“He didn’t have as many lows (as other rookies), and his lows weren’t even that low. His consistency in his play was always there, and the reason why is because he works so hard.”