Too Much Time on the Jackets' Increasingly Good Hands
It’s a long way to April, with not a lot to prove in the meantime, for the Blue Jackets. In the second week of December they have the look of the well . . . not self-satisfied, but inattentive, which is hard for John Tortorella to watch and even harder to talk about. His team’s case of the winter blahs is not helping the coach’s lingering symptoms of the flu.
“I have no idea,” said the coach, asked what had happened in a 4-0 home loss to Washington Saturday, but of course he did. His team was not ready to play and he had not prepared to be this annoyed.
Tortorella had been vouching for his increasingly potent team making better neutral zone decisions, putting more pucks in deep, and bringing more intent to chase them down. “I think we have cured it,” he said. But a jarring week was pause for the thoughts kept under the hoodie the coach wore on the bench in Philly before, as usual, eventually telling it as directly as he sees it.
“We’ve kind of laid off and allowed them to play and I think you need to do that with today’s athlete,” the coach said on Monday after referring to the Washington debacle as “disgusting.”
“The time has come now, though, that we should be embarrassed and I expect a good answer out of our team.”
The Blue Jackets are in one of the three guaranteed playoff spots in the Metropolitan Division due to a big-time roll by Cam Atkinson that has made them one of the top scoring outfits in the league. But the goals against are up almost one per game over 2017-18 because giveaways are rampant and big saves have been sporadic.
Just when it looked like they were tidying heir own end, the Jackets gave up nine in a home loss to Calgary, blew a 3-1 third period lead in Philly (but still won on a bad Flyer giveaway in overtime), then looked like a team belatedly groping for the on-button against the Stanley Cup champions. Of course, Columbus couldn’t find it, giving up three in the first and generating nothing after that but steam from the coach’s head.
At this rate, another 16-game winning streak that enabled a 108-point season in 2016-17 is a long ways off. In its place, Torts gets what might be a season-long struggle of a young team against itself. What does December mean to a club that needs an April?
It means a tough coaching job, that’s what.
The Jack Adams Trophy almost always goes to the coach who induces a big one-year turnaround. A no-brainer was last-year’s choice of Gerard Gallant for the seeming miracle he created in one season with expansion castoffs. Quite the coaching performance for sure.
Note, however that among the past winners, only Gallant and Tortorella, the 2016-17 recipient, are still coaching the same teams as when they were voted the award. You only get one year to surprise people and then the harder work begins. For our money, the best job done behind the bench last season was by Barry Trotz and it occurred before things finally broke the Caps’ way in the playoffs.
Coming off a devastating second-round knockout in a President’s Trophy season–and with a team that suffered seemingly severe cap losses–Trotz won another division title by wisely coaching less and ultimately turning it into more. He eased off the throttle though an 11-10-1 start and let Alex Ovechkin start to go when he was good and ready to do so.
With no redemption possible until May, all the Caps had to do was get themselves in the playoffs, which they did with a minimum of emotional expenditure. After losing the first two games of round one to the Blue Jackets, A veteran Washington team had plenty of legs and enthusiasm remaining to stun the not-yet-ready-for-prime-time Blue Jackets in the next four.
Following three years of crushing Capitals disappointments in the second round, the hockey gods finally decided they had suffered enough. Aided by matchups against the weary Penguins, a loaded but not yet fully mature Tampa Bay team and then an expansion club in the final, the Caps were on the roll that had eluded them through 12 playoff appearances in the Ovechkin era.
The Blue Jackets, working on a third playoff berth in succession after qualifying in just two of their first 15 years of existence, have not yet nearly known such extended pain. But Columbus is the last franchise that never has won a single round.
In all fairness the sins of Marion Gaborik should not be transferable to this young and talented group, but of course, they are because they have all been players in the same jersey. And as much as the current team would deny it, the failures of false prophets like Rick Nash hang around the necks of the 2018-19 team, too. Reading about it, hearing about it, sensing that the fans judge the honeymoon over, the burden becomes greater every year.
The Capitals are far from the only team to ever have hit such a wall. In fact they were the second Washington group–behind Bryan Murray’s teams in the eighties. For lack of a prime goalie and just one hot spring by Mike Gartner, those Caps banged their heads for seven years until at last getting to a third round, just before they slid back into a rebuild. In the days of the best-of-five first round, Bobby Clarke’s final three Flyers teams dropped nine straight playoff games until new blood and a fiery rookie coach, Mike Keenan pushed Philadelphia to two finals in three years.
Between Cups One and Two in New Jersey, the Devils lost four straight years in the first round. The Predators, building agonizingly slowly, went out in the first round five of six years (missing the playoffs in the other) until finally having their breakthrough into the second-round, Going back to the days of the best-of-three preliminary round, the Atlanta Flames lost in it five straight years, pretty much why the franchise is in Calgary.
Currently, a lot of skeptics in Philadelphia wonder what was so sparkling about Chuck Fletcher’s performance –three first round losses in the last three years, never past the second round–that he became coveted by the Flyers.
Fair minded people cite circumstances contributing to these elongated chokes, like luckless matchups in tough divisional rounds. Indeed, the Blue Jackets have lost in the first round in successive years to the eventual champion.
Injuries, shots off posts, overtime goals, questionable calls . . through the emptiness of the repeated first round loss the losers are never empty of rationales of how close it came to being different this time. But a common denominator is goaltending, or the lack of it, which brings us to Sergei Bobrovsky, the greatest goalie in NHL history to never win a playoff series. The .919 regular season save percentage of this Vezina winner dips to .891 in his 24 postseason games.
Short sample sure. But you win to keep playing.
The players will tell you that when strong 82-game seasons can crash in the finger snap of seven contests or less, there is no pressure like first-round pressure. We can site example after example of how prohibitive favorites came through the initial series feeling for bullet holes and then started to roll.
When bad teams first get good, a playoff run that first year may seem like a bonus, but actually it is valuable credibility banked for rainy days to come. As high expectations can turn to the dread of failure, winning in the post-season gets a whole lot harder in subsequent years, especially now that the cap shortens your time with a franchise’s most trusted foot soldiers.
This become especially true for teams who don’t feel they can afford to spend to the cap. Columbus, currently with the fourth most unused dollars of all NHL teams, is apparently one of them.
The window in Columbus could close soon after it has opened. Bobrovsky becomes a free agent July 1, with the sticker price to be set by how far he goes this spring, should he go anywhere at all. If Artemi Panarin, also a free agent, wants to stay, he probably would have committed to do so by now. It may take a good spring run to keep him, as presumably was the case last spring with Washington’s John Carlson
All this baggage–impending loss of a franchise goalie and a point-a-game plus scorer–complicates the job of the uncomplicated coach, who has directed only one sustained run–of the 2012 Rangers to the conference final–since winning a Stanley Cup in 2004 at Tampa Bay.
After the Rangers let Tortorella go following bad reviews from the players, Vancouver did not go well at all for him. With no path being beaten to his door, off-the-beaten-path Columbus was presumed to be his last shot. Easily understood to be a good guy when he allows you to see it, Tortorella has coached well and behaved well in Ohio. Meantime, Ken Hitchcock has another life, too, ongoing evidence that experience still is coveted.
We’ll see what develops. Meanwhile in Columbus, the hard part has begun.