On October 21, 2015, The Columbus Blue Jackets were 0-7-0 to start the year, and something had to be done to right the ship, so head coach Todd Richards was told to walk the plank and John Tortorella was brought aboard. The Jackets finished that campaign last in the Metropolitan division, squeaking out 34 wins for a measly 76 points, but there was clearly a shift in culture beginning to take place. This iteration of the Jackets was hard working, but simply lacked the star power necessary to compete in their division, with Brandon Saad and Cam Atkinson finishing tied for the team lead in points with just 53 each. This is most likely why GM Jarmo Kekalainen saw Tortorella as a great fit for head coach, as he has a reputation for using his outspoken personality to get the most out of his players. There is no denying that John Tortorella is one of the greatest hockey minds in the world today, and the 2004 Stanley Cup champion proved it once again the following year. With a roster practically identical to the prior years’, the Jackets finished the 2016-2017 season with 50 wins and 108 points, good for 3rd in the metro, and fell short to the Penguins in round one of the playoffs, who were en route to their second consecutive Stanley Cup.
The Jackets had found new life under Coach Tortorella, and while he does have a reputation for getting the most out of his players, it is well documented that he has a tendency to step over the line with his outspokenness and coaching philosophy, and it wouldn’t be farfetched to say he can and will drive certain players out of town. Forward Anthony Duclair knows Tort’s wrath all too well, as his time in Columbus ended shortly after the coach said to the media regarding the player, “I don’t think he knows how to play,… He’s off the rails.” But catching flack in the media from Tortorella hasn’t always proven to be a death sentence to his players. Six years prior, as coach of the New York Rangers, Tortorella had this to say about forward Carl Hagelin; “He stinks, I don’t know why. I wish I could put him on the powerplay, but every time I put him on he stinks,… He stinks on the powerplay every time I put him on there.” Yet at the end of the 2012-2013 season, Carl Hagelin was still a Ranger, and Tortorella found himself as a free agent. After one season in Vancouver mustering up only 36 wins, he moved on to Columbus just seven games into the 2015-2016 season. Since then many players have come and gone through Columbus, and despite the roster fluidity the Jackets have maintained regular season success for the last four years, and even won their first playoff series in franchise history in 2019, an impressive four game sweep of the President’s Trophy winning Tampa Bay Lightning.
Tortorella’s most consistent weapon throughout his time in Columbus has been 2016 3rd overall pick Pierre-Luc Dubois. PLD debuted as a Blue Jacket in 2017, and had an impressive 48 point rookie campaign playing alongside superstar Artemi Panarin, after mostly dominating the QMJHL for 3 years. I say mostly because after he had 99 points in 62 games during his draft year (2015-2016), his production in Cape Breton took a hit following the departure of key teammates Evgeny Svechnikov and Maxim Lazarev, posting just 18 points in 20 games before being traded mid-season to the much more talented Blainville-Boisbriand Armada. PLD once again found his stride with the Armada, putting up 37 points in 28 games to finish out his junior career. A monster rookie season in Columbus led to an even better sophomore campaign, and as the Jackets improved, so did Dubois. They acquired star forward Matt Duchene at the 2019 trade deadline and PLD finished with 27 goals and 61 points in 82 games. These are incredible figures for a player that has averaged around 50 PIMS per year dating back to junior. Dubois appeared to be on trajectory to be the true number one centerman the jackets have been missing since their inception, but then the roster was shaken up all around him. Artemi Panarin walked for nothing, signing with the Rangers in free agency at a dollar figure Columbus wouldn’t dream of matching. Matt Duchene was out the door to Nashville as a free agent, once again leaving no return for the Jackets, and former Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky took the same exit plan to Florida, leaving a glaring question mark in between the pipes. Luckily for Tortorella and the Jackets, the goaltending conundrum solved itself from within, with the arrival of a young Latvian goaltending tandem consisting of Elvis Merzlikins and Matiss Kivlenieks, as well as an improvement in play from the injury ridden, former back-up goalie, Joonas Korpisalo. Their consistency in goal was enough to have put Columbus in a playoff spot by the time the league had paused due to the ongoing pandemic, but they had lost a lot of offensive punch through player departures and Pierre-Luc Dubois’ production took a hit, managing only 49 points in 70 games. So now, the 6’3” 218 lbs centerman, who has never missed a game in his NHL career and appears to fit the exact mold of a player Tortorella would want on his team, has requested a trade out of Columbus.
Knowing what we know about PLD, this isn’t all that shocking. He is clearly a player who shows up everyday with one thing on his mind, winning hockey games. With the tight lipped nature of junior hockey management we may never know if Dubois requested a trade from Cape Breton, but history shows us that he was traded to a better team and he produced more because of that. He’s found himself in a similar situation now and it’s clear he wants a change of scenery, but the handling of this Dubois situation by Coach Tortorella is key to the jackets long term success, and if he fails to continue to get the most out of PLD, this situation likely ends one of two ways.
- Jarmo Kekalainen’s hand is forced and he will have to trade Dubois for pennies on the dollar, and then keep his faith in Tortorella with an extremely inexperienced group or,
- Kekalainen has had enough of Tortorella’s outspokenness regarding talented players and will look to make a coaching change before pulling the trigger on a Dubois deal in an effort to maximize return by showcasing PLD in a different system.
Something has to give in Columbus. There is no doubt Dubois has seen reduced ice time since requesting a trade, yet Tortorella denies “benching” him. Tortorella has pressured Dubois in the media to publicly come out with a reason for wanting to leave, and Dubois has stayed silent. With this stalemate between Torts and PLD, it is imperative that Kekalainen takes action soon before years of progress towards playoff contention comes to a screeching halt.