David Jiricek’s NHL debut is just one part of a new-look Blue Jackets lineup
COLUMBUS, Ohio — As rookie defenseman David Jiricek stood before his locker stall to answer questions from a media scrum, defenseman Adam Boqvist wheeled by on a knee scooter, his broken right foot propped in the air.
Meanwhile, on the far end of the dressing room, Nick Blankenburg wore a wrap on his injured left elbow as he chatted with teammates.
Injuries have mounted early this season for the Blue Jackets, especially on the blue line, which was an uncertain spot on the roster even when 100 percent healthy.
Between injuries and ineffectiveness — the Blue Jackets suffered a galling 6-3 home loss to Arizona on Tuesday — there will be numerous lineup changes when the Jackets host the Boston Bruins on Friday in Nationwide.
Most notably will be the NHL debut of 18-year-old defenseman David Jiricek, the Blue Jackets’ No. 6 overall draft pick this past summer. Jiricek, after just five games in the American Hockey League, was recalled on Wednesday.
He’ll open on the second pair with veteran Vladislav Gavrikov, giving Gavrikov his third different partner in just the ninth game of the season.
Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said there will be no kid-glove treatment with Jiricek, who will be the second-youngest defenseman to ever debut for the Blue Jackets.
“If you talk to the kid, he’s a very mature kid,” Larsen said of Jiricek. “He’s very excited to play. We don’t just call him up because he’s a first-round pick, a high pick. We call him up because he’s been the best defensemen in Cleveland. That’s how we have to operate.
“He’s very assertive, very aggressive. He trusts himself. We’ll probably have to coach that out of him a little bit at times. As we saw in practice today, he’s a very excitable kid. I’d rather coach a kid on that side of it than a guy who’s gonna sit back and let the game attack him all night.”
Jiricek, who ran the top power-play unit with AHL Cleveland, was running the point on the second unit on Thursday. He celebrated wildly — kicking one leg in the air — after zipping a puck through traffic and past Blue Jackets goaltender Elvis Merzlikins during a power-play drill.
“We joked on the bench that somebody should grab the puck for him after that celebration,” Blue Jackets veteran Zach Werenski said. “I can’t imagine playing (in the league) at 18 years old.”
But Werenski can come close. He was 19 years old when debuted in the league in 2016.
“It’s so exciting,” he said. “Every game, you’re going against somebody you grew up watching. Every night is a different building, a different crowd, a different situation. There’s just so many new experiences that first year.”
But there are challenges, too. Jiricek’s name is almost certain to come up in the Bruins’ pregame meeting. Like a rookie cornerback in the NFL, a rookie defenseman in the NHL will get challenged.
“It’s tough, because there’s a lot going on,” said Erik Gudbranson, who made his NHL debut with Florida in 2011. “It’s about controlling your nerves and making the simple play, making the game as easy as you can. Don’t complicate it.
“If you see a play, make a play. Really focus on being in the right spots and play your game.”
Jiricek said his parents, Libor and Lanka, were traveling from Czechia to Columbus on Thursday and plan to be in Nationwide Arena for the game. It’s a big moment for every family, of course, but Jiricek is an emotional young man.
When the Blue Jackets drafted him last July, he posed arm-in-arm with members of the Blue Jackets’ front office, then looked at the front of his sweater and kissed the Blue Jackets’ logo as tears streamed down his face.
“So exciting,” Jiricek said. “Just … everything.”
Werenski said he planned to speak to Jiricek before the Blue Jackets take the ice on Friday.
“I’ll probably just tell him not to change anything, just play your game,” Werenski said. “Your game is why you’re here, and that’s why you got drafted so high.”
The Blue Jackets will have a different look at forward, too. Some of the moves were presaged in the latter stages of Tuesday’s debacle.
Center Jack Roslovic has been elevated to the top line between wingers Johnny Gaudreau and Patrik Laine, replacing captain Boone Jenner, who drops to the second line between winger Kent Johnson and Gus Nyquist.
Cole Sillinger will anchor the third line with wingers Yegor Chinakhov and Jakub Voracek, while Liam Foudy goes in on the fourth line with center Sean Kuraly and winger Eric Robinson. Mathieu Olivier will be a healthy scratch.
They’ll face a Bruins (6-1-0) club that sits atop the Eastern Conference and carried a three-game winning streak into Thursday’s game in Detroit.
Boston welcomed Brad Marchand (double hip surgery) back to the lineup on Thursday about a month ahead of schedule, but he will not play vs. the Blue Jackets because the Bruins don’t want him playing in back-to-back games.
Still, the Blue Jackets will need to be much better than they were on Tuesday. Larsen didn’t care to dissect any further the loss to the Coyotes, but after watching film on Wednesday he came away with a simple diagnosis.
“We looked like a tired team,” Larsen said. “If it was two or three guys we’d have some issues, but it was from my captain all the way to our goalie. We just look like we were out of gas. I wish we didn’t, but we did.
“Even then, we could have found a better way to manage the game. But we didn’t. We have to be better. We’re playing a real good team here on Friday. We have to be better, be sharper, and have more energy.”
(Photo of David Jiricek with the Cleveland Monsters: Frank Jansky / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)