Straight Jackets: A frustrating start

Jim Fischer
Columbus Alive

Inspired by the early-season results for your Columbus Blue Jackets, I considered writing one good paragraph followed by a bad one, then another good one, then a bad, and so on. (Feel free, I guess, to @ me with “how is this different from…” jokes.)

You’re paying attention. You know the season can’t even be described as a “roller coaster,” because the ups aren’t up enough and the downs aren’t distinguishable enough from the ups. So while it’s (obviously) preferable to a poor start, it’s intensely frustrating.

The most frustrating thing (well, aside from the obvious, that long-suffering Jackets fans just want the team to be good and to play well and…) stems from something that Head Coach John Tortorella told me in January of 2017, not long after the end of a glorious, 16-game winning streak. He said, “You can’t say what your team is ... until you’re consistently that team for years. I don’t think it happens overnight.”

The point was to not get ahead of ourselves as an organization and, by extension, as fans. But, and I know he said “years,” are we any closer to knowing what this team is? And if the answer is “No,” is that just part of the process, or is that someone’s fault?

Tortorella arrived in Columbus with a reputation as a hothead, but also as a winner. It was hoped he would lend both bona fides and expertise to the franchise-building process. But, despite some early ball-busting, Torts proved adept at organization, placing players and the lineup in positions to be successful, all while softening his reputation. And it worked. But maybe there’s stuff we don’t know about behind the scenes. Have the players tuned the coach out? Has he reached the end of his rope with players who can’t seem to take the next step?

In particular, forwards Alexander Wennberg, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Sonny Milano have all stalled in their development. Is Torts right or wrong by insisting they play the game “the right way,” old-school code for checking-first? Or are the players at fault for not being open enough to take direction from a veteran coach?

Coaching also comes into question in the wake of Torts’ offseason move to change up the responsibilities of his assistants. Unfortunately, the defense looks disheveled while the hoped-for benefits to the special teams have not materialized. It’s become a recurring joke to suggest the Jackets decline penalties to avoid the power play, where the team is near the bottom of the league (while ranking near the top for 5-on-5 scoring).

And you have to wonder if the coaches (and front office) underestimated how much of a distraction the contract situations of forward Artemi Panarin and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky would be.  In particular, Bob’s play seems to have been impacted (although attempts to give backup Joonas Korpisalo a bigger workload haven’t exactly paid off), and he comes off as frustrated in interviews.

This wasn’t the way this was supposed to go, a still-young team coming off its first-ever repeat appearance in the postseason. The pieces are there, both on the ice and behind the bench, to get it turned around. But are the pieces larger than the sum of their parts?