Malatesta debut

SvoNotes is a (generally weekly) column by reporter Jeff Svoboda.

It’s amazing how quickly someone can adapt to their surroundings.

That’s the case for James Malatesta, the Blue Jackets rookie who made his NHL debut a week ago in Arizona. Now four games into his NHL career, he isn’t taking anything for granted, and he said he’s making the most of his current reality of five-star hotels, charter flights and playing in the best hockey league in the world.

But he acknowledged one’s natural ability to settle in has taken effect, a testament to how quickly something new can be become normal. On the other hand, though, there’s the Malatesta family, including parents Roger and Linda, who can’t quite believe the fact their son is living the high life in the NHL.

“I kind of settled in after a day or two, and they’re like, ‘Oh my God, do you realize what you’re doing right now?’” Malatesta said. “It’s fun. I’m living out my dream, but my parents are living it out as well. They brought me to the rinks, they helped me get here. It’s just a really fun time for my family. It’s almost like a team effort to get here, so I give a lot of credit to them. They should be feeling as much excitement and joy as I’m feeling over here.”

The ride might end shortly – Justin Danforth was back in the CBJ lineup Monday and the potential returns of Sean Kuraly and Boone Jenner could send Malatesta back to the AHL – but it’s fair to say the 2021 fifth-round draft pick has made the most of it.

Not only is he having the experience of his life, the 20-year-old wing has caught the eye of the Blue Jackets leadership. While he doesn't have a point yet, he might lead the NHL right now in hits per minute, as his 5-foot-9 frame hasn’t dissuaded him from racking up 17 hits in his first 33:09 of action.

Eight of those hits came in his debut last week vs. the Coyotes, a game in which he also dropped the gloves in the final moments. Malatesta has some skill – as evidenced by the fact he was the QMJHL playoff and Memorial Cup MVP last season thanks to his goal scoring – but his physical, energetic play will be his calling card at the pro level.

"That's what we tell our young players when you come in – you have to make an impression, and you need to be seen,” head coach Pascal Vincent said. “We need to see that you're gonna bring something, a flavor. And he's got some spice.

"So it’s a good start for him. He's been noticed. We know he's a guy that plays like that all the time. Can he do it consistently in the NHL? That's gonna be up to him to prove it. But so far, he's been exactly like advertised.”

There’s a reason Malatesta is an intriguing player who might have what it takes to be an NHLer. The skill is there, as he posted 37 goals in 55 regular-season games last season with Quebec of the QMJHL, then hit another level in the playoffs. The Remparts won the league title thanks in large part to Malatesta’s postseason performance, as he tallied 14 times and had 20 points in just 18 games as the squad romped to the crown.

That sent the Remparts to the Memorial Cup, and Malatesta followed in the footsteps of such players as Mitch Marner, Leon Draisaitl and Nathan MacKinnon in capturing tournament MVP honors as he scored five times in four games to lead the squad to the Canadian junior championship.

But his energy, work ethic and bulldog-like tenacity will be his tickets at the pro level, and Malatesta’s stats in Cleveland – a 12-9-21 line with 79 penalty minutes in 53 games – are a testament to that.

So far, Malatesta says so good at the NHL level, as he understands that while he has skill, he’s got to start by making his mark in other ways.

“You want to leave your mark somehow on the game, and playing a fourth-line role, an energy role, obviously at first you’re not going to be scoring the goals and everything,” he said. “But I think finishing your checks and creating energy, people notice that, and it also gets the guys going on the bench. I’m just being a team player and doing what I can to bring something to the table.”

Malatesta is just one of a bevy of players who spent most of the season in Cleveland but have been called up at the end of the season because of injuries. He said that having those friends on the Columbus roster has helped him settle in, and he’s also living for the time being with Adam Fantilli, whom he became friends with over the summer at the team’s development and training camps.

He also said he’s getting more comfortable at the NHL level every game, and his future is bright. There’s still a lot of growth in his game that will happen over time, but for right now, he’s just focused on maximizing this opportunity.

“It was just crazy how things work out,” he said. “There was an opening here, and you just have to make the most of it. It’s easy to get called up here, but it’s even harder to stay. Every day that I’m here, I’m just thankful and really happy, and I’m just gonna try to prolong it as much as I can.”

Looking Back at a Special Night

Like any NHL player, Carson Meyer remembers pretty much everything about his first NHL goal, and as a Central Ohio native, the tally late in the 2021-22 season was extra special.

Scoring for the team he grew up rooting for was pretty cool, and there were some unexpected benefits of doing so. One of those is that the voices of his youth were on the broadcast calls for the tally, including Bally Sports’ Jeff Rimer.

As someone who grew up watching the Blue Jackets and dreaming of joining the team, Meyer heard Rimer call hundreds if not thousands of goals on TV broadcasts. And when he scored in Philadelphia back in 2022, Meyer joined the club.

“That was one of the coolest parts about scoring the goal, was the team sent me a montage of all the angles of my goal and all the calls,” Meyer told Bally Sports’ Dave Maetzold pregame. “Hearing Rimer’s call, I sent it to my dad and was like, ‘How many times have we heard him call a goal? And this one was mine.’ That was pretty special for us.”

That was just one of the memories and stories shared Saturday as Rimer was celebrated before the game against the Penguins for finishing up his 20th and final season on CBJ broadcasts. Those two decades have capped almost 50 years in the NHL for Rimer, making him a bona fide legend in the game.

Blue Jackets players and coaches got in on the fun throughout the day, from Mathieu Olivier wearing a Rimer-inspired T-shirt during morning skate to Vincent addressing the media in the same shirt after practice. Before the game, Rimer was invited into the dressing room to address the team, and after the win over Pittsburgh, Zach Werenski presented him with the game puck.

Rimer TeamPhoto

Members of the Blue Jackets team and support staff pose with Jeff Rimer before Saturday's game against the Penguins.

“He’s just a great person to be around, fun to talk to,” Olivier said. “He’s seen it all, really. Listening to some of the stories, it’s always special, and he’s definitely gonna be missed. He’s not only a Columbus legend, but a legend in the broadcasting game. He’s always been awesome with me. I can’t thank him enough for that, and it’s definitely gonna be different next year when he’s not gonna be there, that’s for sure.”

While Rimer still has seven games to go before the end of the season, the celebration was a fitting way to recognize his contributions to the game and Columbus.

“Every time I go somewhere, and it’s a true story, there's somebody that is asking me, ‘How is Jeff doing?’” Vincent said. “I feel very privileged that I had the opportunity to meet this man. We've had great chats. He's a good man, and I know you all feel that way.

"This man had an impact on a lot of lives on our team as well. The guys love him in the room. He's been not only a good professional since I've been here, but for his (48) years, and he's an even better man."

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