As the 2021 regular season comes to a close, the Columbus Blue Jackets are missing the playoffs for the first time since the 2015-2016 season. John Tortorella has been at the center of attention in Columbus since his rough skid in Vancouver with the Canucks organization, having the reputation of being an American-born leader and loudmouth in the same breath. Tortorella is finishing what is more than likely to be the final days in his contract with the Columbus organization, where he birthed a culture and determination of hard work and grit into the franchise that was in desperate need of a stern bench boss.
In a shortened coronavirus season, the mistakes have been made more clear with this team than in any other season, but also covers some of what Tortorella is leaving behind for the next bench boss. In his only season of missing the postseason besides his inaugural season, gaping holes will be with left behind the bench and in the organization to fulfill. On the contrary, this is the perfect season to fail and recover in the coming years, and could be reflected as a blessing in disguise for the team and for the coach, which is why he should be getting a proper sendoff.
Torts is no slouch, having run-ins with the media about opposing players, writers, or his own guys he is constantly with. Some of the showing is in compilation clips on YouTube, where other acts are behind the bench or in the showing of players ice time. Whether its swearing at Larry Brooks; finger pointing Bob Hartley; or calling Sidney Crosby a crybaby, Tortorella has been a winner, and did it with Tampa Bay in the 2004 run against the Calgary Flames. Torts knows how to push buttons with veterans, pushing for a ruthless shot-blocking defensive system with all four lines contributing with their body and limiting the scoresheet for the opposition. Tortorella led the New York Rangers to the Eastern Conference Finals; and led the Columbus to their first and second ever playoff series victories.
For the past five years, Tortorella ran his course, and for that is at least looked at as a bright spot in Columbus, so thank you John for your services.
As for Jarmo Kekalinen, after what is looking to be a tough first half of the 2021 season, had the best trade deadline in the worst season they had under his reign of growth. Having the lowest points since the 2012-2013 season, Kekalainen has put himself back in the same situation he began himself in when he got here after two of the most brilliant trades at the 2021 trade deadline.
Kek turned their captain, winger Nick Foligno; and right defenseman David Savard into two first round draft picks in 2021, a third round pick in 2022, and a 2022 4th round draft pick, with retention of 75% of their contracts between them, the Detroit Red Wings, and the San Jose Sharks also giving up depth pieces in winger Stefan Nosen and defenseman Brian Lashoff. Kekalainen also dealt center Riley Nash to Toronto as well for a conditional 2022 conditional seventh round draft pick in 2022.
So what went wrong to lead to the destruction of Columbus in 2021 that led them to deal without their captain; a top four defenseman; and a playoff veteran?
Miscalculation. Overachieving. Development. The past. The future. These top five things will help will contribute to this situation ongoing.
The 2020-21 season led the Blue Jackets to lose Alex Wennberg, Ryan Murray, and Markus Nutivarra to only regain cap space to extend Pierre-Luc Dubois; a fifth round draft pick in 2021; and winger Cliff Pu. At the draft, they also dealt winger Josh Anderson to the Montreal Canadiens for center/winger Max Domi and a 2020 3rd round pick, which was left defenseman Samuel Knazko. Knazko had 15 points in 23 games this season with TPS with the Finnish Liga league. To lose the players they did, they extended Pierre-Luc Dubois, then flipped him after a poor start with a third round draft pick to the Winnipeg for Finnish winger Patrik Laine with salary retained and the rights to Columbus native center Jack Roslovic.
The three biggest offensive adds did not contribute the same way as the players they lost did for them in their tenures. Jack Roslovic was the biggest success with 32 points in 45 games played. Patrik Laine scored 18 points in 42 games, when he normally scores 30-plus goals a season. Max Domi scored 22 points in 51 games, when he scored 70-plus points before. The production of Laine and Domi have been extremely subpar, and the talk of them being moved is extremely high. Laine has been linked to LA as he publiclly stated he would love to play in California. The other team that has been mentioned is Anaheim as they have a prospect buildup similar to Los Angeles, but quite as elite. Domi is being linked to Seattle as an attempt to rebirth his career.
John Tortorella worked with what little he had with the succeed in Columbus. Elvis Merzlikins and Jonas Korpisalo led them to the 2020 playoffs with the massive success of Zach Werenski and Seth Jones, and center Pierre-Luc Dubois. The defense has dropped off this season, with a minus -50 goal differential. Aside Roslovic, there are very little spurts of offensive production. Cam Atkinson and Oliver Bjorkstrand have 30+ points, but that is to be expected by them every season.
The development of players is still building in Columbus, as the core of Werenski, Jones, the goalies, and forwards are all under the age of 26; and the only veterans are Atkinson, Del Zotto, and Gustav Nyqvist, who has been injured the whole entire season. The kids still have lots of time to go, including just signing the shocker of the draft, winger Yegor Chinakov to his entry-level contract; center Liam Foudy; and defenseman Gabriel Carlsson finally playing games this season.
The past of players leaving has been coming into question in 2021, with the doubt of the success of the 2019. The additions of Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, Adam McQuaid, and Keith Kinkaid. The retentions of Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky and Mark Letestu. The undrafted adds of Lukas Sedlak and Markus Hannikanen, and the criticism of winger Anthony Duclair. The team did everything to show the fans they can win, and they did with their round one success, and two wins short of the conference finals. This team did the right thing in the right moments.
The future of the team is looking dim, as they have the expiring contract of Patrik Laine this year; and in 2022 with Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, Boone Jenner, Max Domi, Eric Robinson, Elvis Merzlikins, and Jonas Korpisalo.
What is next for Columbus, and what do they need:
1. A first line center. With the plethora of wingers between Atkinson, Bjorkstrand, Laine, Jenner, Roslovic, Domi and Nyqvist, the team has the support to help a center, but they really do not have one. Roslovic and Jenner have been having to fill their center needs better than Domi, but are letting center Foudy continue to develop.
2. Contract Extensions. The team needs to find a way to extend one or both of Jones and Werenski, as both could be moved according to Aaron Portzline of the Athletic. The worry with them is both could ask for the same price, especially with Karlsson and Doughty getting over $11M dollars each on the west coast.
3. A true plan to Seattle. With no David Clarkson and William Karlsson to give to Vegas this time they need to hope to not lose someone they may refelct poorly agsinst them. One of the big names has been Max Domi, but Dean Kukan or Eric Robinson may be more likely as depth pieces.
What else does this team need? Comment below. More to come...