It’s time to move forward.
A blown Columbus Blue Jackets two-goal lead in the third period of Wednesday’s Game 5 matchup versus the Tampa Bay Lightning led to a 5-4 overtime loss, ending their season in unexpectedly sudden fashion. It was the fourth one-goal loss of the first-round for Columbus, which fell 4-1 in the series.
Coach John Tortorella and general manager Jarmo Kekalainen gathered virtually with the local media on Friday afternoon to offer their final takes on the 2019-20 season and offer an idea of how they’ll approach the offseason.
Here are 10 of their most important thoughts.
Sure, Tortorella and Kekalainen have their eyes on the future, beginning with a Thursday staff meeting. But getting the playoff elimination out of their minds will take plenty more time than has been afforded.
Kekalainen called it a “bitter pill to swallow,” saying he thought the Blue Jackets “did so many good things in that series.”
“I truly thought, for sure, we'd be playing tonight,” Kekalainen said. “If we had gone to Game 6, who knows. But I'm not going to get into the ifs and buts and you-know-what. But the way we played in the second period of Game 5, it could've been our best hockey all year. We had 24 shots, I think, in that period and were in their zone the whole period. We get the lead at the end and we get to 4-2 and then lose that lead.
“It's hard to swallow right now, and I was 100 percent convinced that we're getting into Game 6 tonight. And then to have it turn around like that and lose it, it's hard. Just have to learn from it and move on.”
A couple of days removed from the series with Tampa Bay, that part of it that remains most with Tortorella is the blown lead at the end of Game 5.
He doesn’t view it as happening because Columbus was “managing the clock.” He said that’s just what can happen when one team is throwing everything at an opponent who doesn’t want to make any mistakes.
“So with both of those things together, you get a little momentum change,” Tortorella said.
What Tortorella termed a “fluky goal” was scored to tie the game. Then, Columbus lost in overtime on what he called “a freebie.”
“It just aggravates me, even this morning, that we lose it on a freebie,” Tortorella said. “I wanted to see what it was going to be like if we win Game 5. I wanted to see what Game 6 was going to be, see how players react on both teams, quite honestly. I just wanted us to get there. I thought we played well enough to get there, but we didn't get it done. And that falls on us.”
“The elimination conversation”
Tortorella’s post-game press conference lasted just two questions, and he didn’t even answer the second one. Some view it as him wearing his emotion and pain, while others see it as a lack of professionalism from a coach with a seven-figure salary.
The storm-off didn’t come as a surprise, though. Why? He hates these discussions.
“I get sick of these conversations when you get eliminated,” Tortorella said. “It's the elimination conversation: What did you get out of the playoffs, were there positives, the young kids playing? I'm tired of those conversations. But I also have to be honest about some of the things that went on here. We've got a good group of guys, and there is a belief in that locker room. It didn't start in the bubble. It started when the season started.
“I'll put this team up against anybody as far as how hard they work. I think they've really bought into the mental part of the game as far as playing as a team and being selfless and giving for the team.”
As many insights as Tortorella and Kekalainen offered, they didn’t delve much into their offseason plans or specific area they plan to address. They each only mentioned an area of two that might be a priority, and they weren’t exactly surprises.
- Tortorella: “Our center ice position has always been talked about. You just don't find center icemen in the league. Everybody's looking for those guys.”
- Kekalainen: “Everybody's screaming about our power play. How can we make that better? How can we better hold the lead at the end of games? Those are things we'll have conversations.”
That was about it for specifics. Otherwise, both of them offered wide generalities on how they’re planning to improve the Blue Jackets over the next few months.
As an example...
“I think we always look at each and every area,” Kekalainen said. “We're going to start from looking at our goalies and move on to the defensemen, and we'll have a good conversation about our forward group. We're going to try to improve every area, each and every area that we can. It's easy to be the armchair GM or whatever they call it and say that, OK, trade this guy for that guy. There's 30 other teams in the league and 31, pretty soon, other teams than us. They're all pretty smart people, and they don't just give away their players. It's a little harder to make a trade than a lot of people imagine.
“We're going to have all those conversations.”
Growing From Within
It’ll be incumbent upon Columbus to make some move this offseason to surround its current pieces in order to reach the next level. But perhaps more importantly, at least in the minds of Tortorella and Kekalainen, will be to have the players already on the roster continue to progress.
“That's the next step we have to take,” Tortorella said. “That's why I'm sick of the questions about all the good things and the experiences and stuff like that. That, to me, is players growing and playing at a different level and handling some of the mental obstacles that come with it. We've just got to continue to try to get better.”
Perhaps the Blue Jackets make noise in free agency, but they won’t live and die with it.
“I don't believe in the July 1 signings to be the answer or recipe for success,” Kekalainen said. “That's been shown very many times. It's going to be a different date, obviously, this offseason. But growing from within is going to be a key for us.”
Building from within including the development of the players already on the roster. It also, however, includes a few prospects who haven’t yet stepped on the ice for NHL games.
“We have some excellent prospects in our system that we're going to, unfortunately, have to wait for a couple more years in Russia playing in the KHL with (Kirill) Marchenko and (Dmitri) Voronkov,” Kekalainen said. “Those guys are big parts of their KHL teams right now already and most likely will be ready to play in the National Hockey League right away when they come here. But again, we have to wait for them a little bit.”
Foudy, Texier And Bemstrom
Some of the most important players going forward, as the Blue Jackets look to grow internally, will be their youthful forwards – including Liam Foudy, Alexandre Texier and Emil Bemstrom – who got a taste of extended playoff action in August.
“It just doesn't happen in 10 or 12 games or a playoff series,” Tortorella said. “You look at Fouds. Fouds was playing so well then, I thought, ran out of gas. We played so much hockey, I thought (he) ran out of gas and started struggling. We kind of put him in a lower position in the lineup, bounced him back into it. I think the last game, gave us some really good shifts there. These are just kids. Tex came in after a year of really just sitting on his ass because of his injury and came in and, I thought, played very well.”
To Tortorella, their collective play was “just a glimpse” of what’s to come for the franchise, which needs them to take strides over the course of the upcoming offseason.
“I can't emphasize the growth from within enough because I think there were some very encouraging signs with guys like Liam Foudy and Alex Texier in the playoffs when we were playing some of the best teams in the league,” Kekalainen said.
He Can Be “one of the top players in the league”
No Columbus Blue Jackets player had more goals (4) than Pierre-Luc Dubois in the postseason, and nobody had as many assists (6) as him, either. The 22-year-old, third-year center’s playoff run included the Blue Jackets’ first-ever hat trick in a comeback to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs and five assists in five games versus the Lightning.
“I thought he played very well,” Tortorella said. “I still think there's inconsistencies as far as things we have to continue to teach and him to understand. But I thought he played very well. I thought he wanted the puck. I thought he was strong with the puck. He was our most consistent forward. But there's still a lot of things he needs to learn. What's he, 21? He's still a very young man and there's some things that he has to learn to keep on growing.
“He has a chance to be one of the top players in the league if he just keeps on going about his business the proper way.”
Those are big words for somebody who sometimes has preferred to hold back some degree of praise heaped on Dubois.
Now, will Dubois be the team’s offensive cornerstone moving forward?
“He's one of them, for sure,” Kekalainen said.
Anger And Excitement
One-time first-round draft pick Alexandre Wennberg sure looked like a 25-year-old who was picked with the 14th overall pick seven years ago when he recorded both a goal and assists in Game 5 against Tampa Bay on Wednesday.
A good sign? Sure. But it’s more complicated than that.
“It pisses me off and it excites you at the same time,” Tortorella said. “Not even just the last game. He had a meeting early on, I forget which series, I forgot when I was losing him and I wasn't playing him much. Brad Larsen sat with him. They looked at some video. That's one thing about Wenny. Wenny wants to try to get better. He wants to see how he can improve. He asked to look at some tape. I think it helped him. I thought he just started carrying the puck in the middle of the ice, held on to pucks, won some faceoffs. I think I played him 23 minutes the last game and he deserved it. But it pisses me off why isn't there all the time.”
Kekalainen largely agreed, calling the performance encouraging but saying they need to see that type of play more often.
“That's what the expectations are for all the pros is that whatever your capacity and your potential is, you should pretty much be close to it every night and 82 years in the regular season and then in the playoffs,” he said. “Nobody's perfect. You're going to have an odd off-night here and there, but when we know what you're capable of, that's what we expect from you.”
Brandon Dubinsky’s time as a Blue Jacket appears to be nearing its conclusion.
The 34-year-old veteran has not played in a game since May 6, 2019, and he’s not nearing a return anytime soon. Kekalainen said Dubinsky “most likely can't play anymore” due to a chronic wrist injury.
Kekalainen was unwilling to say how near Josh Anderson was to a return. Some speculated he might be able to get into a playoff game, but the 26-year-old never got back to action.
“His six-month date is September 2nd, I believe,” Kekalainen said. “It was supposed to take four-to-six months and closer to the six-month mark, told by the doctors.”
Goaltender Elvis Merzlikins, conversely, was nearing a return.
“He was nicked up a bit and had to take some time to rehab and recover, and I think he would have been back in the weekend,” Kekalainen said.
Though Kekalainen didn’t name names, he said he’s already started having conversations with certain players about going across the Atlantic Ocean to spend some of the offseason getting in game action in Europe. Much of that idea stems from his desire to avoid some of them to spend nine months mostly on the sideline.
“We're going to look into all of that with our prospects and some roster players, too,” Kekalainen said. “If you don't play, and we have some guys that didn't get into the lineup, so now you haven't played from March 12 until whenever the league starts – we don't know that. Let's say it's in December. That's nine months. You cannot take nine months from hockey.
“I don't care what you do off the ice for training or on the ice for training, you have to play games and be in a competitive situation where you can improve and develop the right way.”
A Weird Offseason
Nothing about this offseason will be normal.
Far be it from Tortorella to pretend otherwise. He and the Blue Jackets entered the offseason without much of a map.
“I don't know when the season starts,” Tortorella said. “I have no idea. We'll just have to wait. The season has to finish, the playoffs. I think with the health issue going on, who knows where that's going to be. Does a second wave come in? Who knows. It won't take the coaches that long to get their camp together and do what you have to do. We don't stray too far away in how we want to do things. But as far as the scheduling of it, I don't have a clue of when it starts again.”
When the season wrapped up, the head coach didn’t have any exit interviews with his players. Because they spend so much time together throughout a season and postseason, he doesn’t see the need to do them anymore. Instead, he’ll check in with players throughout the offseason at a slow, manageable pace.
One of the next steps for the franchise will be the NHL entry draft, which is set to begin on Oct. 9. Not even that, nor the lead-up to it, will be particularly normal.
“It's been more video, more background checks, more Zoom video interviews instead of in place at the combine and some of them are getting done in person before the combine when you take guys for lunch or a cup of coffee to get to know them,” Kekalainen said. “Now we're getting to know them via Zoom.”