Aaron Portzline of The Athletic wanted to answer the question, ‘Why does it seem like players are so eager to leave the Blue Jackets?’ When Pierre-Luc Dubois left the team earlier this season, many wondered what had happened between the player and management or the player and the coach. No one said much, but GM Jarmo Kekalinen suggested he was surprised there was an issue.
Perhaps he shouldn’t have been surprised.
Portzline anonymously talked to multiple players about their experiences with Columbus. Not wanting to alienate other players or in the hopes that things might change inside the organization, three players spoke candidly about their encounters with the GM, the coach and the city.
As expected, some said that young players wanted to be rock stars and that wasn’t about to happen in the city of Columbus. But, for the most part, it wasn’t about the city, the fans or the team. It was about how they were valued and treated while playing for the club by management.
In all cases, it was less about the city, the amenities or the coach and more about the hockey club’s approach to mistreating players they currently had during extension talks. Noting that they understood a GM’s job was to get the best value on any contract negotiations, Blue Jackets’ GM Jarmo Kekalainen took that mantra to a whole new level, often to the point where he ran guys out of town.
One player said:
When we talked contract it was, “Where do you want to be?” And we said “X” amount, they immediately said, “Nope, no chance.” And we were like, “Well, that’s where we’re at and there are like six other teams willing to go there.” They expected me to give up a ton of money to play there, like they were the only team in the league. When you’re a (restricted free agent) they play hard, hard, hardball, which is unfortunate, because then as soon as a guy gets a chance to get out there, he’s like “F–k this, I’m gone.”
Another player noted, “I have a ton of respect for Jarmo, but I feel like Columbus always has their eye on the future, what they can build, without maybe recognizing what they already have.” He talked about how an exit meeting left a handful of players stunned. When it was done, they were all sitting in the room just kind of wondering if any of them would be back. They all figured they should be, but he said, “And a bunch of us kind of realized that was it, we were moving on. I was sad as hell, to be honest.”
That same player said, “you have to make them feel like you really like them and value them, and I don’t think they really do that. I just know how the negotiations worked with me and it was like, ‘Sh-t, they don’t want me at all.'”
What About Coach Tortorella?
Part of the reputation in Columbus is that players leave because john Tortorella is too quick to call guys out or he’s too hard on players. That didn’t seem to be the case with these former members of the team. All said that Torts had his flaws but that every coach does and these guys preferred a straight shooter who was fair 100% of the time. One player actually suggested other coaches will try to be like Tortorella but fail because they treat their star players favorably. Tortorella is as even in his treatment of stars as he is fourth-liners.
One player suggested the stuff with Patrik Laine is not Tortorella’s fault. Another said, “I think he is a fantastic coach.”
Admittedly though, one player suggested that as much as he loved the coach, it was time the two sides split. He explained when asked what he would do first if he was an executive:
I would say fire the coach, for sure, and I love Torts. I wish I would have had Torts at Dubois’ age, to learn how to be a pro the right way — how to work, how to play, how to focus. I’d love to have him as a coach when I was 20 years old. But I think he’s probably worn out his welcome, and guys have tuned him out. I think you need a coach that wants to bring guys together, play a fun system, score goals … that’ll lead to wins. They have the players, in my opinion, everybody’s just kind of stymied with him.
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