Before Monday night, the last time Marko Dano had played an NHL game while wearing a Blue Jackets sweater, he looked like a critical part of the franchise's future.
The first-round draft pick (No. 27 overall in 2013) had an assist in that April 11, 2015, game at the New York Islanders. It capped a fantastic finish for the Austrian-born Slovak forward, who had a 4-10-14 line in his last 15 games for Columbus in that rookie season. Overall, he had eight goals and 21 points in 35 games after his midseason debut and was a true bright spot for a team that had dreams of playoff contention the next season after winning 15 of its last 17 games.
Then, at the NHL draft, Dano's hockey world was turned upside down. He was one of the pieces sent back to Chicago in the Brandon Saad trade, and his NHL career never quite was the same. He bounced from the Blackhawks to the Jets to the Avalanche -- not to mention the IceHogs (Rockford) and Moose (Manitoba) in the AHL -- never finding the same level of production he did in Columbus.
Perhaps that was why Dano was all smiles both this summer, when he signed with the Blue Jackets as a free agent, and on Monday when he stood in front of his stall at Nationwide Arena, about to step back on the ice as a Blue Jacket again.
He was brought up to the big club on an emergency recall Sunday thanks to the plethora of injuries suffered by the Jackets, and he played each of the last two nights for during wins both at home vs. Washington and then at Detroit.
"It's pretty much half of a team (different) from the last time," he said before the Capitals game. "It's been a while but the guys are still here, and it's good to see those guys again. Tonight, it's going to be a great night to be back here after five years. It's been a while since I've played in this building as the home team. I'm excited for the cannon, and hopefully we can hear it a bunch of times tonight."
He then heard it for each CBJ goal in the win over the Caps and then again when the Blue Jackets celebrated their victory postgame. While the cannon has come to be the bane of opponents' existences over the years, it was a sweet feeling for Dano to be on the right side of it once again.
"That was amazing," he said. "Hopefully I'll get a couple of games where I can hear it after my goals. It was a great win for us, and I was happy to be a part of that."
Things certainly have changed for Dano, his teammates and the whole organization since he went to Chicago in the Saad deal. While he's bounced from NHL team to NHL team, as well as those AHL squads, the Blue Jackets have built a consistent winner including being one of just seven teams to make the playoffs each of the past three seasons. It's come under a new coach, too, as Todd Richards was let go early in the season after Dano was dealt, replaced by John Tortorella.
Most of his teammates from back in the day are gone, as well, but a few remain. Nick Foligno, Boone Jenner, Cam Atkinson, David Savard, Ryan Murray, Josh Anderson and fellow 2013 first-round pick Alexander Wennberg are those who are still around, becoming core pieces of the CBJ puzzle that Dano once thought he'd be.
"It's a little different -- he speaks a little better English," Wennberg joked about being reunited with his former teammate. "It's fun to see him back on the ice. It brings back a little bit of memories. We just have to get (Scott Hartnell) back on the line, too. We'll see how that goes. But it's fun to see, and I think he did a good job coming here. It has to be a lot of emotions, and it has to be fun to be back for him."
Dano has played each game on the fourth line thus far and doesn't have a point, but he was an all-situations player with three goals and 12 points in the AHL with Cleveland who hopes to chip in where he can as long as the opportunity arises.
Doing it at what he considers his original NHL home makes it all the sweeter.
"It's a great feeling to be out there again and do the things I used to do and have some fun out there," he said. "It's a place where I started, and now being back, it's really special. You don't know how many people can do that in their career, so it's nice to be back here."