Straight Jackets: Plenty of blame to go around

Jim Fischer
The Blue Jackets brought in Paul MacLean, center, to help with the power play, and the early results were encouraging. But the team is 0 for 14 in the past four games with the man-advantage. [Adam Cairns/Dispatch]

Whose fault is it?

The question has been coming more frequently and sternly in the past weeks, as the Blue Jackets drift further and further from playoff contention. (The old adage being that you can't make the playoffs in the first part of the season, but you can set yourself up to miss them.)

While the Jackets appear up to the task of handling the league's top team, points-wise — the Jackets' two most recent wins have both come against the Washington Capitals, 5-2 on the road on Dec. 9 and 3-0 at home this past Monday — December 2019, in general, has not been kind to the Union Blue.

Losses late last week to the Pittsburgh Penguins, a shutout 0-1 game that included many of the Penguins' minor leaguers due to injuries throughout the lineup, and to the Ottawa Senators, who we considered lowly until we looked up to see they were tied with the Jackets in the standings after the 3-4 overtime loss, raised fans' ire.

And when, after the Pittsburgh game, Head Coach John Tortorella said, "I'm embarrassed for the organization," many folks saw it as a red flag.

Now the question is becoming less about how we got here and more about who is most at fault.

There is evidence, depending on your interpretation of the facts, that supports blame for either (or both, I guess) Tortorella or General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen.

Kekalainen, to some, mortgaged the future last season when he held onto soon-to-depart free agents Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, instead trading away draft picks and young players to bolster a roster he felt was a legitimate contender. You know what happened. A euphoria-inducing sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning was followed by a hard-fought series loss to the Boston Bruins.

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Local sports radio host J.D. "T-Bone" Smith  echoed a popular stance when he took to Twitter with the notion that Kekalainen "mortgaged the future for a first-round playoff win." Many interpreted Torts' "embarrassed" comment as an indictment of the roster, stopping just short of naming Kekalainen as culpable.

The counter is that Kekalainen "mortgaged" little, holding onto the team's top prospects and the lion's share of its picks over the next few years. And that the series win — the first on franchise history — was both important and not the hoped-for end game.

Finally, Torts said he was embarrassed "for" the organization, not "of." It's parsing words, but if he's embarrassed "for" the organization, that would seem to include feeling badly for the general manager, no?

With so many player, especially forwards, having poor scoring seasons, Torts is a target, too. "He's a dinosaur," many say, who doesn't know how to coach offense and develop the skill of the young talent Jarmo has assembled. The power play is going on three full season of futility, despite attempts to fix it with outside help. The common denominator in the suckitude? Torts.

Adding to the pile-on, Ottawa's Anthony Duclair scored three goals, including the overtime winner to seal the once-lowly Sens December win — Duclair being the player who so befuddled Tortorella before being traded to Ottawa last season that Torts suggested that, "Right now... I don't think he knows how to play."

Not a good look.

On the other hand, maybe it was Torts' tutelage that ultimately brought out the best in Duclair, just, sadly, with another organization. And it's the young players — Sonny Milano, Alexandre Texier and others — who've... disappointed least, I guess, while Cam Atkinson, Josh Anderson and Alexander Wennberg have been downright crummy.

Here's my take: Maybe some of the veteran players have the same hangover from last season, most specifically the departure of guys they'd played alongside and had success with, who then bailed without appearing to give Columbus a second thought. Not unlike the fan base, those guys and last season seem to have defined the first part of this season for the team. It's time for everyone to get over that — Straight Jackets included.

As for firing someone? I don't see it. Perhaps after this season there will be a meeting of the minds that results in a new direction. But I believe Jarmo and Torts are acting with open eyes on the process. The organization decided to "go for it" last season. No one person is going to be held accountable. And they all knew there would be an exodus of talent. Torts' job since day one has been to get his charges to "play the right way." That may or may not be having the impact fans desire, but I don't believe it has changed.

Last year, the St. Louis Blues were in last place at Christmas. That team won the Stanley Cup. No, it's not very likely the CBJ are Cup-bound. But there is enough time for this season to have a different story.