Matt Calvert arrived in the NHL by scoring what he calls “one of the craziest” first goals he could have imagined.
It was Jan. 8, 2011 – three years ago yesterday. The Blue Jackets were in Los Angeles and they had not been playing well, having dropped three straight entering that night's game and were set to face a Kings team that was starting to hit stride.
Calvert scored the Blue Jackets’ first goal of that game by intercepting a cross-ice pass and re-directing it back toward Kings goalie Jonathan Quick, who whiffed on a clearing attempt and had the puck slide just barely over the goal line.
That was one instance, just one moment. Some players are fortunate to only get one of those and Calvert acknowledges that – but he was determined to carve a spot for himself in the NHL. In a short period of time, has become one of the Blue Jackets’ essential components.
He is one of the team's best forecheckers, an aggressive and skilled player who often drags his teammates into the battle, and coach Todd Richards is one of the first to point out what Calvert means to the Blue Jackets.
“A big thing about making the jump to the NHL is that you want to make a difference, and that’s something I’m always trying to work on,” Calvert told BlueJackets.com. “It’s a great compliment to hear [about my impact]. You have your goal scorers, your energy guys, your defenders… I try to bring energy and that’s my main goal. If I’m doing that night in, night out, I’m happy about doing my job.”
Consistency and work ethic are what Calvert credits to earning a one-way deal and solid footing in the NHL, but the road to Columbus was not always a smooth one. He burst on to the scene with a hat trick against the Phoenix Coyotes in his rookie season, but to start the following season, he struggled out of the gate and was sent back to the AHL.
Calvert was frustrated. His game was not where it needed to be, and the positive vibes from his rookie campaign were gone. This ended up being the “look yourself in the mirror” moment for Calvert, and was a really challenging time that forced him to dig deep and keep pushing forward.
“Mentally, it was harder than anything,” Calvert said. “I had to stay positive and work on getting my confidence back. It was really beneficial to start [2012-13] in the minors during the lockout. We had a great team with great guys and I learned a lot. I learned about how to play the game the right way.”
Ryan Johansen, who currently leads the Blue Jackets in both goal scoring and total points, knows Calvert’s path well. The two have practically grown up together in the organization, from development camps to training camps and began their NHL careers in the same season.
As it turns out, their careers have a few parallels, as well: Johansen also struggled early in his first couple of seasons before being assigned to the AHL, and last season, he spent 30-plus games with Calvert in Springfield during the NHL lockout. Johansen has seen Calvert’s highs and lows – including a significant low when Calvert broke his hand during the Blue Jackets’ second-half run last season - and has experienced similar peaks and valleys, but he isn’t surprised by Calvert’s recent success because of how much work he’s put into his game.
“Matty brings the same effort every game – you never have to worry about that,” Johansen told BlueJackets.com. “He’s an Energizer bunny out there and flies around all game long. It’s going to be great to have him back in the lineup. Last year, even during the lockout, we saw in Springfield that he was a really driven player and he wanted to be a difference-maker in the NHL.
“In a way, we’re a lot alike; we’ve had our struggles and been through some tough times. To see where he was a couple years ago and the steps he’s taken to become a good NHL player, as his friend, I’m really proud of him. He earns and deserves everything he gets. It’s been fun growing up with him, you could say, here in Columbus.”
Growing pains are part of growing up, and Calvert said he has always been determined to learn from the inevitable curveballs and setbacks. He used his time in the AHL to get away from playing “the junior hockey style,” and learned how to be a solid player away from the puck in all three zones – something that NHL coaches aren’t very patient in waiting for.
“I played my first 40 games in the minors my first year and I felt pretty good,” Calvert said. “I felt I could make the jump; looking back on it now, there were probably some things I could polish up but some guys learn in the AHL and some learn in the NHL.
“You just have to play your way, and know that the coaches put you on a line for a reason. It’s all about sticking to what you do best.”
It hasn’t taken long for other NHL teams to take note of No. 11 in the Blue Jackets sweater. On numerous occasions last season, Calvert made plays on the forecheck that took established players by surprise – Detroit’s Niklas Kronwall was among the victims – and perhaps one of the greatest sources of pride is that the opposition wasn’t his biggest fan.
Calvert’s teammates, who have the best seat in the house, have particularly enjoyed watching him become an unnerving presence for opponents.
“You better know where he is,” Johansen said. “If not, he’ll blow by you and make you look stupid.”