When it comes to the Blue Jackets lineup this season, there’s one thing that everybody keeps talking about — the kids.
Don’t know who the kids are?
There's a handful of them, including 21-year-old rookie goaltender Joonas Korpisalo, 21-year-old defenseman Seth Jones and 22-year-old defenseman Ryan Murray, and 21-year-old forwards Kerby Rychel and Alexander Wennberg.
“We have some really, really good kids," veteran forward Scott Hartnell said. "Guys in their first season, second season as an NHLer and it’s just fun to be a part of. I know how I was, always asking questions and stories about the older guys. You obviously treat them with respect and treat them like I was treated, and you want to pay it forward."
And while the importance of the kids and their contributions this season cannot be overlooked or understated, the veterans are contributing in big ways too, both on and off of the ice.
“With young guys, and we have a lot of them, it’s not so much always the X’s and O’s and what’s going on,” Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella said. “It’s just learning to be a pro. Understanding how the locker room works, how you handle yourself in preparation, all of those things. Our veteran guys should, it’s part of their responsibility, send that down to them and teach them.”
For many of the Blue Jackets’ veteran players, including Hartnell, captain Nick Foligno, Jared Boll, Brandon Dubinsky and others, helping the younger players navigate the NHL is just another part of the job.
“You’re not really babysitting, but you’re there for help when they need it,” Boll said. “These guys are pretty mature guys. They wouldn’t be here if they weren’t. I think they get it, but a big part of it is kind of being here when they need it and helping them out when you can.”
Columbus drafted Boll in the fourth round (101st overall) during the 2005 NHL Draft. This year marks his ninth with the team, which makes him the most tenured Blue Jacket in the locker room.
Since being drafted, Boll said a lot has changed in the NHL. The 29-year-old said the biggest change he’s seen is how many kids are in the league.
“It’s a lot different. I think the league is a lot younger,” Boll said. “You don’t really see as many older guys on a bunch of teams. It’s getting a lot faster and younger guys are coming up quicker. The most important thing is coming into the rink every day and being ready to work.”
Another player who noted the changes in the league is Jack Johnson, who said the league has gone thorough a big generational change over the last few years.
“There’s a transition of younger guys coming into the league, and I think a lot of older guys, kind of leaving the game, retiring, around the same time. I think you just had a big generational change,” Johnson said.
“With younger guys, every generation is a little bit bigger, a little bit stronger, a little bit faster and I think that that’s what’s taken place in the league. The game keeps evolving and it’ll keep evolving from here. Who knows where the game’s gonna go from here?"
Johnson was drafted by Carolina third overall during the 2005 NHL Draft, and was acquired by Columbus from the Los Angeles Kings in 2012. The 29-year-old is currently in the midst of his 11th season in the NHL, and has played 626 career games.
When Johnson first started his NHL career with the Kings, he said a few of the veteran players told him one of the keys to being a great professional hockey player has to do with consistency.
“One thing the older guys told me: it’s a long season,” Johnson said. "It’s 82 games and you've got exhibitions and playoffs, and they said the key to being a good pro is you can’t have too many highs and lows.
“You have to find a way to be consistently good every night. What I was always taught is what makes a good pro is consistency. So that’s probably one thing I’d pass on to the younger guys is trying to find whatever way possible to be a consistent player every night.”
For Hartnell, 15 seasons and 1,087 games in the NHL have given him plenty of experience being a professional hockey player. The 33-year-old was drafted sixth overall by Nashville in the 2000 NHL Draft, and with the benefit of hindsight, said looking back to the beginning, he would’ve done a lot of things differently.
But the Blue Jackets' approach with their young players should not change, Hartnell said. They will make mistakes, which are part of the game and part of growth, and also lean on the guidance of the veterans and their coaching staff when it's time for teaching.
“You learn from your mistakes,” Hartnell said. “You grow up as an adult. They’re still kids out there right now. They’ll learn as they go, and you just try to steer them in the right direction.”