Representative of the wave of warmer-weather players making their marks on a sheet of ice, Jonathon Blum of the Nashville Predators is enjoying a homecoming this week as he returns to his native Southern California to face the Kings and Ducks.
Born in Long Beach and raised in Rancho Santa Margarita, a town perhaps more known for The Real Housewives of Orange County than for producing hockey players, the avid surfer-turned-versatile defenseman became the first player born and raised in California to be selected in the first round of the NHL Draft when Nashville selected him 23rd overall in 2007.
A Western Hockey League and Memorial Cup champion with the Vancouver Giants where he played alongside Milan Lucic and Evander Kane, the 22 year old left 20 tickets for friends and family for Tuesday's 4-2 loss in Los Angeles, with more expected Wednesday in Anaheim (7 p.m. PRIME TICKET KLAA 830).
"When the schedule comes out, I look when I'm coming out west and going home," Blum said.
Though he scored a goal in Nashville against the Kings in his 23-game, eight-point rookie call-up last season, and appeared against the Ducks in the playoffs, Blum made his first STAPLES Center appearance in Tuesday night's loss, compiling a minus-three effort in 12:22 of ice time.
"There wasn't anything spectacular in his game," head coach Barry Trotz said of Tuesday's performance, noting that Blum is still finding more consistency and comfort in more of a third-pairing defensive role. With Kevin Klein out due to an ankle injury, Blum received minutes alongside Ryan Suter in Saturday's overtime win in San Jose.
"They're unbelievable. On and off the ice they're really helping me a lot," Blum said about the guidance he's received from Suter and Norris Trophy finalist Shea Weber. "Saturday I got to play with Suter, which was pretty cool. A veteran defenseman like that, he really makes the game easy. It doesn't matter what team you're playing when you're with him. It just seems like the game slows down, he really controls the puck. It's pretty cool to watch, not only to be on his line with him. It's special for me, because those two guys are probably the top two defensemen in the league in my mind."
Blum recorded 65 points in 55 games for the 2004-05 California Wave midget team as a 15-year old, probably the most talented minor hockey team in the history of the Southern California Amateur Hockey Association. Along with Blum, the team also featured several current American Hockey League players, including Colin Long (Portland Pirates) and Shane Harper (Adirondack Phantoms), as well as a handful of skaters who appeared in the WHL.
Current Ontario Reign forward C.J. Stretch, who played with Blum with the Wave and against him in the WHL, recalled Blum's progression and the challenges it presented for opponents.
"When we were 15 playing in midget, he was obviously our best D-man," Stretch said. "From when he was 16, 17, and even when he was 18, he just got better and better and better every year and just because so solid. It was so hard to play against him."
No longer the best player on the ice in all situations, the transition from juniors to the AHL and now to the NHL means setting new goals and battling for ice time against veteran teammates, all of whom understand the rigors and competition inherent in an 82-game schedule.
"Just keep getting comfortable and comfortable, and keep making plays," Blum said of what he's looking to improve upon. "This is my first year with the team, so there are a lot of ups and downs your first year, and I'm just trying to keep it even keel and not get too high. The big thing is coming to the rink every day, wanting to work and get better."
With veteran stalwarts in Weber and Suter surrounding him on Nashville's blueline, a Vezina Trophy finalist who recently agreed to a seven-year extension in Pekka Rinne, and with a team that in the last several years has bought in to Barry Trotz's hard-working, defense-first methods, the pieces are fully in place for Blum to experience success.
"We've had a couple of shutouts lately, and we really turned the page from the three or four-game losing streak. We really had to go back to our basics, and that's team defense first. That's the strong part of this game. We've got Pekka Rinne in net, who's going to give us a chance every night, which is good. We've got a good group of forwards, good group of defense, so if we play the way the coaches want us to play, we're going to be a hard team to play against."
NOTES: David Legwand, Nashville's leader in points (14) and ice time amongst forwards (19:08), suffered an upper-body injury when he was hit in open ice by Dustin Brown in the first period Tuesday night. He won't play against Anaheim Wednesday...With an assist on Alec Martinez's first period goal, Jarret Stoll recorded his 300th career point...Jonathan Bernier improved to 5-1-0 all-time against Nashville...The Kings' sell-out streak ended at 23 games with a crowd of 17,963, 155 people below STAPLES Center's capacity of 18,118.