Calder Cup run a big step in Jiricek’s development

Photo: Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

This is exactly what the Columbus Blue Jackets envisioned for David Jiricek this spring: high-pressure, intense Calder Cup Playoff hockey with the Cleveland Monsters.

To get past Belleville in the division semifinals, Cleveland required wins in overtime and double overtime and a one-goal affair until an empty-netter clinched the series.

To eliminate Syracuse in the division finals, the Monsters eked out a 1-0 win in Game 1 and rallied for four third-period goals to take a 6-4 victory in the clinching Game 3.

Next up is the defending Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears in the Eastern Conference Finals, a best-of-seven series against an opponent that has rolled through two rounds of playoff competition themselves.

Jiricek, the 20-year-old defenseman who was the sixth overall pick in the 2022 NHL Draft, struck for a goal in Game 3 against Belleville and has also provided four assists in his seven playoff games, but Columbus wants him in Cleveland to do much more than generate points.

“It’s a new experience,” Jiricek said. “I’m enjoying it. Just keep going.”

During the Monsters’ Calder Cup championship run in 2016, an 18-year-old Zach Werenski joined the team from the University of Michigan and played a dominant role on the Cleveland blue line. He has been a mainstay in Columbus ever since. Where Werenski was just coming out of the NCAA, Jiricek already possesses pro experience, having played two full regular seasons in North America including 47 games in the NHL. But the Blue Jackets made to make Jiricek eligible for the AHL postseason in order to get his first taste of playoff hockey.

In the final week of the AHL’s regular season, Jiricek was part of an eight-player contingent that went from Columbus to join Cleveland. And as the Monsters fought to clinch first place in the North Division, Jiricek stood out to Monsters head coach Trent Vogelhuber. He was in the lineup for the entirety of a 3-in-3 weekend that the Monsters swept to earn their first division title – and the city’s first in 62 years.

“I think [Jiricek] is a guy who plays his best hockey in big moments,” Vogelhuber said. “He just elevates. He likes that spotlight, so I think this is really good for him to play under that spotlight where he wants it most.”

The Eastern Conference Finals will certainly provide that spotlight. Jiricek is a focal point of the Cleveland blue line and will be asked to help drive a power play that is tasked with going against Hershey’s excellent penalty kill and league-leading defense.

Vogelhuber has also repeatedly stressed that a top priority has been helping Jiricek know when to utilize his considerable skill with the puck and when to pull back.

Hershey can punish an opposing defenseman. An ill-advised pinch, a risky pass or a fumbled puck and the Bears will strike quickly. At lower levels, Jiricek could use his skill to nullify any risk. In the AHL, just one step below the NHL, that approach can easily backfire.

“It’s something he’s still figuring it out,” Vogelhuber said. “You’re finding your balance of risk/reward when it comes to decision-making with the puck. Right now, he’s still gauging that. I think the playoffs have helped him a ton because he’s much more aware of the risks for a 50-50 play. It’s going to shape his game into being a more trustworthy defenseman because we know what he can do on the offensive side with the puck.

“He can defend very well as well. His understanding of the reads, the little intricate reads in a game, and understanding risk-reward in high-pressure moments… Where early on in the year that judgment was not always right, I think you can see that needle going in the other direction. It doesn’t sacrifice his offense at all. In fact, he gets the puck up the ice and can join in a little bit more when he’s making those proper decisions.”

Taking two playoff rounds means more time together. The organization has made it clear that a postseason run in Cleveland is a significant priority, a part of the necessary development process to bring along a core of young prospects to become part of the NHL club’s future.

“It’s such a good group,” Jiricek said. “We enjoy spending time together.”

Now the Monsters are going to get a further taste of what hockey into June feels like.

Of Jiricek, Vogelhuber said, “I see him going through the reps that he needs and understanding the checks and balances: ‘Okay, that’s not right. That’s the time for this,’ which is exactly what we’re here for.”