The NHL gives young defensemen a lot of challenges to face before they become dependent assets.
Succeeding in board battles, especially if the player is undersized, can be a tall order. Learning to “gap up” against oncoming rushes isn’t easy, and neither is defending NHL forwards as the lone guy back. Defensemen also need to develop a feel for when to pinch low in the offensive zone and when to stay near the blue line, which can be often the difference between a goal one way or the other.
Adam Boqvist is trying to work on all of those areas with the Blue Jackets, but the biggest hurdle for the 21-year old defenseman is staying healthy. Boqvist will restart his season for the third time Wednesday against the Calgary Flames after being activated off the team’s COVID-19 protocols list.
“The hardest thing when you’re not in the lineup is you’re falling behind — and it’s nobody’s fault,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said Wednesday. “I’ve been through it as a player, too. You work hard, you do everything you can, but the games still get played. So, every time you miss time, whether it’s a week or 10 days, two weeks, you’re playing catch-up and you’re trying to get back to the pace that the NHL is at.”
This time, Boqvist missed two games and a couple of practices with a COVID-19 infection that laid him up almost a week. Unlike most of his teammates who missed games because of the illness, Boqvist struggled. He was in bed “four or five days” and his appetite vanished.
Now recovered, he’s ready to move past the infection and his prior issues this season, which included a lower-body injury that sidelined him seven games and an upper-body injury that cost him three more. Prior to joining the Blue Jackets last summer in a trade that sent Seth Jones to Chicago, Boqvist missed time with the Blackhawks for shoulder issues, a fractured wrist and two concussions.
That’s not the easiest path for a defenseman trying to grow into an impact player.
The game against Calgary will be Boqvist’s 103rd through three seasons, which is roughly one-third the number of games most development experts feel is the threshold for stable NHL performance by defensemen. He’d be much closer to the 300-game milestone had it not been for health issues.
“You want to play every game,” Boqvist said. “You never want to be hurt or out. You want to help the team any way you can, and you cannot do that from up top (in the press box). I don’t try to think about it too much, because then I just get a lot in my head, so I’m just trying to think about the good things, and I’m happy I’m back now.”
Zach Werenski, who has paired with Boqvist on a few occasions, thinks that’s the best approach. Werenski, now the Jackets’ top defenseman, has also overcome several injuries during his six seasons and knows how aggravating it can be.
“There’s no real need to get frustrated,” said Werenski, who missed the final month last season after hernia surgery. “It’s part of the game and things happen for whatever reason, so I think the main thing I’ve learned with dealing with injuries over the years is they’re out of your control and you can’t get frustrated at them. You’ve just got to come in and approach each day, whether that’s rehab you’re doing or strengthening or whatever it is.”
This is the third time Boqvist has done it this season, and he went through the process multiple times with the Blackhawks. Now, he just wants to play as much as possible in the Jackets’ remaining games.
“I think my overall game has been better this year,” said Boqvist, who went into the game against Calgary with seven goals, seven assists and 14 points in 26 games. “I feel pretty comfortable out there. This is my third year, so I think so far, so good. For offensive defensemen it takes a little bit longer time, but I feel like I’m growing into the jersey, so it’s good.”
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism