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Danforth's hockey journey comes full circle with Blue Jackets

Career that blossomed in Cincinnati returns to the Buckeye State after a strong showing overseas

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

Justin Danforth had a standout showing in 2017-18, his first full professional season, with the Cincinnati Cyclones, posting 28 goals and 59 points in 44 games to place second on the team in scoring. 

Danforth's 1.34 points per game finished ninth in the ECHL, a pretty solid number for a rookie in the Double-A league, but that's not necessarily an indicator of what would come next. 

Exactly zero of the eight players above him in scoring have taken part in an NHL game, showing how difficult it can be to start in "The Coast" and make it to the NHL these days. In fact, NHL opening night rosters in 2021 featured 56 players to see ECHL ice, only 26 of whom are skaters -- less than one per team -- who made it from The Coast to the top league in the world. (The only Columbus players in 2021 to see ECHL action? Goalie Matiss Kivlenieks and forward Kole Sherwood, who spent three games there.) 

Those were the odds stacked against Danforth as he played that season in Cincinnati, something the new CBJ signee remembered in a recent interview with BlueJackets.com.  

"When I was in Cincinnati, obviously I still had the dream of playing in the NHL," he said, "but I'm a realist and at that point when you're playing in the East Coast, you have some work to do ahead of you to get to that point of signing a contract. If you had talked to me back in Cincinnati, I probably wouldn't have told you that would be happening. 

"My goal at the time was really just to get to Europe and see what I could do in Europe, but it's pretty crazy looking back to that first year pro to where I've come now with the work I've been putting in." 

Danforth did make it to Europe, and it proved to be a boon to his career. He spent two seasons with Lukko of Finland's top-level Liiga, racking up 45 goals and 112 points in 115 games, including a 27-33-60 line his second year that allowed him to lead the league in scoring and be named the top player of the regular season. 

He then moved on to the KHL, Europe's top league, and was just as productive, leading a Vityaz Podolsk team that features former NHLers Kaspars Daugavins, Mattias Tedenby and Alexander Semin in scoring with a 23-32-55 line in 58 games. 

Those experiences showed scouts he could play at a high level, and the end result was that Danforth signed a one-year, one-way contract with the Blue Jackets in May. He'll report to training camp in the fall with a big shot to make the NHL team and stick in the world's top league. 

Geographically, it's not that far from Cincinnati, but professionally, it's about a world away. 

"I'm obviously pretty excited to get the call from Columbus," he said. "It's not really something I went into my KHL season expecting, but just with how the year was going, they have watched me play quite a bit over the last couple of years. 

"It's a huge excitement for me and my family to realize a dream of signing an NHL contract. Obviously there's a lot of work ahead of training camp and making that starting roster, but I'm super pumped." 

While the offensive numbers overseas surely helped draw attention to his abilities, Danforth expects his complete game to be his ticket to making an impact stateside. The Oshawa, Ontario, native and product of Sacred Heart University in Connecticut always has had the ability to score, but he sees his biggest gains over the past few seasons coming in his attention to detail. 

"I think (consistency) is a big part of any pro hockey player, or any pro athlete, who is trying to reach that level," he said. "Even if you're not scoring two or three goals a night, you can still play a consistent, professional game. I think what I've learned since leaving college and back to my junior years, there's a lot more to the game than just creating offense. 

"Especially as a centerman, you have to be pretty dialed in every night at both ends of the ice -- your faceoffs, being in the right spots for your defensemen as the first guy back in the zone. I've learned stuff like that over the past four years to help me get to the point where I am at now, playing consistent hockey and being able to contribute at both ends of the ice and really just trying to play a winning style of hockey." 

Danforth did just that recently at the IIHF World Championships, where he donned a Team Canada jersey at a major international competition for the first time. He didn't hesitate at all when asked to join the squad and it paid off, as Canada rallied from an 0-3 start in the round robin to down Russia, the United States and Finland in a row in the knockout round to capture the gold medal. 

Playing in nine games in the tournament, Danforth filled a bottom-six role for the squad and his only goal was a crucial one, an empty-netter in the semifinal win vs. Team USA. 

"That was an amazing experience," he said of playing in the Worlds. "We didn't start the tournament the way we wanted to. I think that just comes from it being a new team. We had a pretty young team as well. We were just trying to come together and get used to systems and stuff like that, but we also came together off the ice. We were a pretty tight team over the three weeks we were there, so I think that helped a lot. We had to win out after those first three games and we pretty much did.  

"It was definitely a crazy experience. I'm obviously pumped to bring home a gold medal back to Oshawa. It was a pretty amazing time." 

Next up will come the chance to make it at the NHL level, and perhaps it's fitting that opportunity is coming in the same state his pro career really took off. 

"I think it's really funny it came full circle, starting in Cincinnati and coming back with the big club," Danforth said. "I loved Cincinnati, and I loved Ohio when I was there. I've heard good things about Columbus as well so I'm excited to get there." 

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