Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards often jokes that Jack Johnson could play the entire game, but it became a bit more serious when they lost four top-six defensemen in less than a week.
The injury troubles began in a 3-2 loss to Minnesota on Jan. 29 when both Nikita Nikitin and Adrian Aucoin left the game early and did not return. Then it was James Wisniewski's scary collision with the end boards last weekend and a practice injury for John Moore, leading to several call-ups from the Springfield Falcons.
Nick Holden, Tim Erixon, Cody Goloubef, and David Savard make up the top four defense for first-place Springfield, which has managed to keep chugging along despite injuries and recalls. Those players are now playing on NHL ice for the Blue Jackets and filling in while the club hopes to see some injuries begin to heal.
Johnson played over 34 minutes in games against Detroit and Los Angeles but will likely see less tonight when Nikitin returns to the lineup, which Richards said is a huge lift to a defense corps that's inexperienced and has had to shoulder a lot of responsibility.
"Nikitin going back in on the back end will be a big help for us," Richards said. "He's a guy with some poise and can play in every situation that can handle the puck and make a good first pass. Hopefully we don't have to spend as much time in our own zone and can get the puck off his stick and on to somebody else's stick and in the right place.
"It'll help Jack, too. Jack's been logging a lot of minutes, tough minutes, and having Niki back that you can use in all of those same roles can help alleviate some of that load that Jack's been carrying as far as ice time."
Balance begins to return to the defensive pairings, as well, and Richards said he plans to reunite Nikitin with Fedor Tyutin, whom he's played almost exclusively with since joining the Blue Jackets last November.
The Russian defense duo can play both special teams and regularly draws top defensive assignments at even strength, and having them back together helps spread the minutes out across the lineup. Richards acknowledged that Johnson may have been trying to pace himself at times with so many shifts, but said that's typical of a player like Johnson who knows his body and prefers to play a lot.
"Last year they were our best pair as far as shutdown (duties)," Richards said. "I think there's a comfort level with both of those guys when they're playing together, so that's probably number one. It frees up the minutes for Jack; sometimes when you get in that role and you're logging that many minutes your game changes a little bit, where you're conserving energy in certain areas of the ice.
"Jack's game is he's a powerful skater...and by working up the ice offensively, it puts you in a better defensive position. He knew he was going to be playing lots of hard minutes, and you're looking at different areas to save energy. We needed him out there."