On Monday, the proverbial puck dropped.
John Tortorella opened the Columbus Blue Jackets’ training camp with a half-hour practice for the "game" group before addressing the media, along with a few of his players.
Let's dive into three of the most interesting things they spoke about following the first practice of Phase 3.
Elvis vs. Korpi
Maybe more so than anything else, eyes over the next three weeks will be drawn to the decision Tortorella has to make at goaltender. Will he roll with Joonas Korpisalo or Elvis Merzlikins?
The 26-year-old Korpisalo started out the season in the net, earning his first All-Star appearance by maintaining a .911 save percentage with a 2.60 GAA and 19-12-5 record. However, a meniscus injury suffered on Dec. 28 opened the door for the fellow 26-year-old Merzlikins. He managed a .923 save percentage to go along with a 2.35 and a 13-9-8 record and was one of the NHL's hottest goalies before the pause.
Now, with both of them healthy and participating in Monday’s practice, it’s up to Tortorella to figure out who to start versus Toronto, and he’s in no rush.
“We're approaching it just like anything else,” Tortorella said. “We're going to go through our camp, and remember we don't play until August 2. A lot of things could happen from here until then. We're going to allow them to play. We're going to allow the forwards and defensemen to play. And then we'll make our call. I know that's going to be a question going along all the way through this here. We have no clue who's going to be our goaltender when we start playing. I think they'll make that decision for us.”
Korpisalo and Merzlikins will get to practice in Columbus for a couple of weeks before they go with their teammates to Toronto, where they’ll finish up training camp before beginning the best-of-five series.
“I'll tell you right now: Both of them deserve the opportunity with the way they played this year,” Tortorella said. “But we're going to see where they all stand as we go through the camp, go through an exhibition game and make our decision as we get close to August 2.”
“We don't care where we play them”
At one point in time, Columbus was in the mix as a potential hub city. Instead, not only will the Blue Jackets not play in their home city, but they’ll be going up against a team that’ll be in its home arena. They’re playing in Toronto at Scotiabank Arena along with the rest of the Eastern Conference teams.
Does Tortorella mind playing the Maple Leafs in Toronto? Of course not.
“We're not even discussing that,” Tortorella said. “We don't care where we play them. There's a lot of different things that are going to come up, and I know that's going to be one of them. We're not going to get involved in a lot of minutiae. We're going to try to prepare every day, get them home safely, prepare the next day. And whatever comes our way, no matter where we're playing, who we're playing, how we're playing, when we're playing, we're just going to attack that day.”
As sports get back underway and the NHL just weeks away from playing games, Tortorella understands this won’t be a usual period for players or coaches. He just wants to make sure his team doesn’t lose focus along the way, regardless of whether or not it’s playing against the Leafs in Toronto.
“I really do think we need to have an attitude of just going straight ahead and not worry about all the minutia that's going to come with this,” Tortorella said. “There's going to be a lot of different situations that arise. We've got to rise above it and just get ready for our next day to work.”
Getting ‘em back
To put it into perspective, Nick Foligno pointed out, the captain hasn’t been on the ice with his Blue Jackets teammates since Mar. 8, when they topped the Vancouver Canucks, 2-1, on the road. Four months and five days have passed since the victory. A long, long time.
Yet he hasn’t been on the ice with Seth Jones since Feb. 8. By this point, more than five months have gone by.
Jones’ ankle injury – which required surgery – was just one of the many that beset the organization throughout the 2019-20 season. Cam Atkinson and Oliver Bjorkstrand were among the others who missed extended time, threatening to doom Columbus on its path to the postseason. In a weird twist of fate, because of the layoff, they’re now almost all healthy enough to participate in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers.
“When Oliver goes out, which probably he was our best player at that point in time the way he was playing, when Jonesy goes down, we were swimming upstream big-time,” Tortorella said. “I'm not sure where we go without those two for another 12 games I think we had to play. I'm certainly not going to say we weren't going to get in, but it was a struggle. To see some of these guys come back and able just to see what your team looks like, not only now but maybe in the future with a (Liam) Foudy and (an Alexandre Texier), (Emil) Bemstrom, it's interesting to me.”
There’s plenty of optimism about what the Blue Jackets can do now with certain key players back in the lineup.
“We've become such a solid team when those guys are back in the lineup, and I think you could even feel that out there on the first day,” Foligno said. “Things were crisp. Things were sharp. It was an NHL-caliber practice even after that long of a time off. I'm really excited to get back to the game atmosphere with those guys.”