After the Blue Jackets lost a 4-1 decision at home Tuesday night against a New Jersey team that passed Columbus for first place in the Metropolitan Division, head coach John Tortorella had a message for his team.
Simply put, last night's effort wasn't good enough.
"We were out-quicked, we were outworked, they were more tenacious," Tortorella said after the game.
And after watching the tape, he was even less pleased. When asked at his daily media scrum Wednesday if his team was as outworked on the tape as he thought live, he said, "More than I even thought ... That's embarrassing, last night's game, so flush it down the toilet."
As the interview went on, it was clear Tortorella hasn't been pleased of late with his team's play, even as the Blue Jackets won eight of nine before Saturday night's loss to Washington.
His biggest area of disappointment appears to lie with what he called the team's "top players," many of whom he says are not producing as they need to be.
"We can slice it 10 different ways and talk about it 10 different ways," Tortorella said. "Our top players haven't been our top players, and they need to start being our top players."
While no names were named specifically, it's not hard to make a few guesses.
Two who stand out were on the team's top line to begin the season. The thought was center Alexander Wennberg and right wing Cam Atkinson would join with offseason acquisition Artemi Panarin to form one of the most dangerous trios in the league. Instead, rookie center Pierre-Luc Dubois and the 23-year-old Josh Anderson have meshed big time with Panarin, while Wennberg has a single goal and nine assists in 22 games and Atkinson has six goals and three assists in 24 contests.
Atkinson's mark of 0.25 goals per game is the lowest of his career, while Wennberg has fallen from 0.74 points per game last year to 0.45. Wennberg signed a contract extension just before fall training camp that gives him a cap hit of nearly $5 million per year through 2023, while Atkinson inked a deal early this year that will pay him nearly $6 million per year through 2024.
Captain Nick Foligno ($5.5 million cap hit per year through 2021) also hasn't produced as he did a year ago and is on pace for just 35 points, the same mark as veteran center Brandon Dubinsky ($5.85 million cap hit through 2021). Meanwhile, Boone Jenner ($2.9 million cap hit in his final year under contract) had 30 goals two years ago but is posting his lowest career marks for both goals and points per game, and the defensive pair of David Savard and Jack Johnson (combined salary of more than $8.5 million) has gone from one of the best shutdown duos in the league last year to average this year.
Salary, of course, isn't everything, but that's seven of the top 10 highest-paid (and in many cases, most veteran) players on the team producing at a level below their career marks.
There have been bright spots to be sure – the play of Dubois and Anderson, for starters, as well as the standout play of the Seth Jones-Zach Werenski pair and the solid work of defenseman Markus Nutivaara and Ryan Murray – but Tortorella sees a team that needs its biggest guns to be just that.
"My biggest concern is we simply have to get our core guys playing harder and better," Tortorella said. "Sometimes instead of pointing the fingers outward, we have to point the finger inward. ...
"My concern has been a concern right along here even though we won (games). It's the guys that we have to have play better. It can't keep going on like this."
Tortorella made sure to point the finger back at himself as well for the struggles.
"Some of the responsibility falls on me," he said. "As a coach of a team, that is one of the biggest responsibilities of me is to get our top players to play. I'm right in there with it, and that's why I am frustrated, not enjoying winning four or five games in a row as I watched our team play. Don't discount me. That is my responsibility, to find a way, and we're going through that process."
There's no easy panacea, Tortorella said, and the head coach made sure to point out that each player on his roster has different things he needs to do to get his game right.
And that's what Tortorella expects to happen, eventually. It's just killing him that it's taking so long to get the team to that point.
"We have really good players," he said. "Eventually, that really good player has to figure it out, and we're going to help them as coaches one way or another."