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Columbus Blue Jackets Head Coach John Tortorella is an accomplished NHL Head Coach, with a Stanley Cup win just one accomplishment on a resume that includes 657 wins (the most by an American-born NHL Head Coach), two Jack Adams Award honors as the NHL’s Coach of the Year, and over 1,300 games behind the bench. Throughout his nearly six seasons in Columbus, however, the outspoken bench boss has been known for a number of cases in which he has come to odds with young, star players. In this piece, NoVa Caps’ Diane Doyle looks at this history after his most recent incident.
Tortorella’s latest transgression involved young forward Pierre-Luc Dubois, a homegrown Blue Jacket who became unhappy with his situation in Columbus and whose situation was resolved when he was traded to the Winnipeg Jets in a blockbuster move involving star forward Patrik Laine. His last game with Columbus was notable for Tortorella benching the former third overall pick for the last 46:32 of the game. The at-odds with Dubois, which included benching him in games, is very similar to the stories of a number of young players who fell out of favor with the coach often referred to as “Torts”. In his last game with the Blue Jackets, Dubois played just 3:55 and did not play at all after the first period.
Tortorella became Head Coach of the Blue Jackets on October 21, 2015. During his tenure as Head Coach, the team has improved enough to become a consistent playoff team after years of often being a bottom-feeder or mediocre at best in the league standings. However, his tenure has also been controversial in how he has handled certain young players. There have been two other cases of young players under his regime who eventually left town as a result of coming under the scrutiny of their Head Coach.
The Blue Jackets drafted Ryan Johansen with the fourth overall pick in 2010, and he made his debut with the Blue Jackets during the 2011-12 season after playing the previous year with his junior hockey team, the Portland Winterhawks. He divided the 2012-13 season with Columbus and their American Hockey League farm team, the Springfield Falcons, due to the labor-shortened lockout. He had a breakout year in 2013-14, when he scored 33 goals with 30 assists and followed that production with 26 goals and 45 assists in 2014-15. Prior to the 2014-15 season, Johansen had been involved in a contentious contract negotiation.
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The Blue Jackets lost their first eight games of the 2015-16 seasonand on October 21, after their seventh loss, decided to fire then-Head Coach Scott Richards and replace him with Tortorella. In Tortorella’s first game as coach, he benched Johansen for the last six minutes in a game Columbus lost 3-2 to the Minnesota Wild. Initially, it was reported that Tortorella was not happy with Johansen’s level of conditioning but it was later reported that Johansen missed two more games with an illness.
On December 15, Tortorella benched Johansen for the entire third period of a game the team lost 5-1. The Blue Jackets were in a rough stretch in which they had won just one game during the month and carried an overall record of 2-5-3 in their previous 10 games, including a loss in November. Johansen’s last shift in that game came with 4:35 in the second period. When asked about it, Tortorella said it was not an injury keeping him off the ice but merely a, “Coach’s decision. No explanation. I just didn’t play him.”
Aaron Portzline, writer for the Columbus Dispatch, reported that Johansen’s play during the first 40 minutes was “lethargic” and commented that “many of [Johansen’s] passes were way off-line, and there were several neutral-zone turnovers and failed clearing attempts.” Johansen was then healthy scratched from the team’s next game on December 17 against the Arizona Coyotes, followed by a benching in the last 10 minutes of the Blue Jackets’ game against the Florida Panthers 10 days later. It was clear that Johansen and Tortorella were not a good match for one another as player and coach and there were rumors that he was “softly in play” on the trade block.
The Blue Jackets traded Johansen to the Nashville Predators in exchange for defenseman Seth Jones, who had been the fifth pick in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. Blue Jackets’ General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen commented on the trade during an interview with WBNS-FM radio saying, “This has nothing to do with John Tortorella or his relationship with Ryan Johansen. Ryan Johansen did nothing wrong. He’s a good player. He’s a good teammate. This is something we felt we needed to address. We’ve been looking for a defenseman for a long time. [Jones] is defenseman that can be a No. 1, No. 2 defenseman. It’s hard to give up someone as good as Ryan Johansen, but if you want to get a player of this magnitude you have to do that.”
Tortorella himself took some of the blame for Johansen’s struggles, prior to the trade, “The greatest thing about him is just his ability. He has more ability than a lot of players in the League. It’s trying to get him to get there all the time, to use that ability. And that’s a process. That’s a maturity level. And he hasn’t totally matured yet. The onus falls on us to try to get that out of him. I like the kid. I think certain days we have great progression, some days it’s a step backwards. He’s . The greatest part is there’s a ton there, and we’re going to try to get it out of him.”
Johansen himself spoke about the situation, “Me and coach got along fine,” Johansen said. “He definitely had a couple of disagreements with me, but that’s part of the game. I think he was looking out for my best interests and wanted me to be the best I could be. I’m not sure what happened behind closed doors or whatever on that side of it. That’s nothing I should worry about or can worry about. It’s just part of the game, I guess.”
Johansen has remained with Nashville since the trade and is currently serving one of the team’s Alternate Captains. However, his offensive productivity in goal scoring has not reached the heights it had reached in Columbus prior to Tortorella becoming coach.
The New York Rangers drafted Anthony Duclair in the third-round of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft with the 80th overall pick. He played in 18 games for the Rangers in 2014-15 before being assigned back to his junior hockey team. The Rangers traded him to the Arizona Coyotes that spring. After failing to rekindle chemistry with World Junior Championship teammate Max Domi in Arizona, and a stint with the Chicago Blackhawks, Duclair was not tendered a qualifying offer and was granted free agency.
Duclair signed a one-year, one-way contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets prior to the 2018-19 season. While he scored 11 goals and had eight assists in 53 games played with the Blue Jackets, he ran into the wrong side of Tortorella on several occasions. On November 10, during a 5-4 shootout loss to the New York Rangers, he was benched for most of the third period and the overtime period.
Tortorella commented on the fact that although he appreciated Duclair’s ability to create offense, he was unhappy with his recent play away from the puck, saying, “He’s got to check. He’s got to learn to check.” The Columbus bench boss was also unhappy with his entire third-line of Duclair, Alexander Wennberg, and Oliver Bjorkstrand, feeling he could not play them together due to a lack of checking, but it was Duclair who had the least ice time at 5:40.
Things did not improve by January. After a 2-1 loss at the Minnesota Wild on Januaury 19, Tortorella mentioned Duclair’s name for losing control of the puck too much. In a 4-3 loss against the Winnipeg Jets, Duclair was on the ice when the Jets scored their first goal after Duclair could not get the puck out of the defensive zone; as a result Tortorella pulled him off the ice and benched him for the remainder of the game for just 24 seconds of ice time during the game.
Duclair was listed a healthy scratch in their game on February 19 but returned to the lineup on February 20 only because then-Blue Jackeys forward Artemi Panarin had to miss the game due to an illness. Tortorella discussed Dubois’ absence from the lineup as “bad listening skills” and did not elaborate when talking to writer Tom Reed.
Tortorella had more to say about Duclair the next day when they lost 3-2 to Montreal. In a conversation with Canadiens’ writer Arpon Basu, he ripped into Duclair, saying, “I don’t think he knows how to play”, and “he’s off the rails”, among others, although acknowledging that he was skilled. Basu was stunned at what Tortorella said, “I still can’t believe what I heard from Tortorella on Duclair. I’ve never heard an NHL coach rip one of his players to shreds like that. Just prior to game time, no less. And in Duclair’s hometown.”
With the situation clearly untenable between Tortorella and Duclair, the Blue Jackets traded Duclair to the Ottawa Senators, along with two, second-round picks in exchange for Ryan Dzingel and a seventh-round pick; Duclair would score eight goals and record six assists the season after the trade. In 2019-20, he scored 23 goals and had 17 assists for Ottawa. He became a free agent after that season when he and the Senators could not agree on a contract and is currently playing for the Florida Panthers.
Athletic: 11/11/2-18: Making Sense of Anthony Duclairs Third Period Benching and What it Means for Blue Jackets Third Line
Columbus Dispatch: 2/1/2019: Blue Jackets Recent Play Lands Anthony Duclair in Doghouse
Tortorella Rips Anthony Duclair Don’t Think Knows How To Play
The Columbus Blue Jackets drafted Dubois with the third pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft and he joined the Blue Jackets for the 2017-18 season, in which he scored 20 goals and had 28 assists; he followed that season up by scoring 27 goals and 34 assists in 2018-19, and 18 goals and 31 assists in 2019-20, a season shortened due to the coronavirus pandemic. Then came the 2020-21 season and contentious contract negotiations and problems with Tortorella.
Given the fact that such similar situations happened with three different skilled forwards in just five seasons, one might wonder if there is a deeper issue within Columbus or with John Tortorella in particular. The team has certainly improved since he was appointed Head Coach of the team but it is tough to recall any other coach having as many issues with multiple skilled players within a five-year time frame; observers can certainly cite flaws in the games of Johansen, Duclair, and Dubois.
As far as character issues of individual players are concerned, Dubois probably did not cope well with being in a location he considered undesirable and likely did not put in the requisite effort during his last days with the Blue Jackets. But the fact that Dubois’ story sounded so similar to that of two other players in recent years could indicate a more deep seated issue than a single player’s character flaws.
Many questions can be raised about this situation. One possible question is whether issues are related to contract negotiations? Johansen had a contentious contract negotiation with Columbus but that was prior to the 2014-15 season, one year prior to Tortorella’s arrival, so there should be no lingering grudge because of that. Dubois had expressed interest in leaving Columbus prior to the 2020-21 season but, having no leverage, signed a two-year deal. Given these factors, it appears there isn’t correlation to contract negotiations.
Questions could be asked about the Blue Jackets’ evaluating of potential draftees and not doing enough due diligence on assessing the character, work ethic or coachability of players, especially a player who is to be drafted early in the first round, especially as the team had performed very poorly the prior year and were desperate to turn things around. Might the Blue Jackets have been better off drafting a player other than Johansen in 2012 or Dubois in 2016? Duclair was not drafted by the Blue Jackets but due diligence on his acquisition still needed to take place.
It also could be asked on whether Tortorella could be too harsh of a judge of players who do not fit his mold or too quick to find scapegoats when his team does not perform well? His prior history on other teams has indicated harsh behavior towards certain players. Admittedly, many skilled players, who are not on the goal scoring level of Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, go through scoring streaks and scoring droughts. Many of these skilled players have focused on offense to the detriment of defense. Often, if such a player is going through a drought, a coach like Tortorella who is more defensive-oriented, might denigrate as he would prefer more of a two-way player.
All questions to ponder regarding the Blue Jackets and their Head Coach.
By Diane Doyle