When the Columbus Blue Jackets hired John Tortorella as their head coach, his relationship with star centre Ryan Johansen became the most significant one in the organization. Now that Johansen is gone, the spotlight is now on Tortorella and Seth Jones, the newest Blue Jacket and the latest star to share a bench with the no-nonsense coach.
Tortorella’s singling out of Johansen — though he did call out both veterans and youth alike — was not out of character. This has happened before.
The stern, Stanley Cup-winning coach has had his share of spats with star players in the past — Marion Gaborik, Brad Richards and Vincent Lecavalier among them. In the case of the latter, Tortorella’s divide with Lecavalier nearly resulted in a trade to the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2001, three years before the two would lift the Stanley Cup together in Tampa Bay.
It’s also the case that most closely resembles what just transpired in Columbus prior to the Johansen-Jones trade.
“Boy oh boy, a lot of similarities,” Bill Watters, the former Leafs executive who had a deal in place to bring Lecavalier to Toronto, told Sportsnet this past week.
Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen recently said that Tortorella’s arrival was not a factor in the trade, while Johansen went as far as to say his relationship with the coach was good.
And while Johansen's relationship with the club may have been strained after last season's contract dispute, the Blue Jackets’ fortunes went south awfully quick this season and now their best player is in Nashville.
What was unique about Columbus trading away a potential future superstar was that they may have gotten one back in return. But when dealing such young players and betting on their future, how can one be so sure?
In 2001, then-Lightning general manager Rick Dudley had made up his mind before the Lecavalier deal was nixed.
“Sometimes as the general manager you have to intervene and I think Dudley tried that, but (Lecavalier’s) agent wanted his player out,” Watters said. “Dudley believed in Tortorella. He had his young, shining star, a coach he brought out of Rochester, and he (chose) Tortorella.
“But they won the Cup and not too many people lost on the deal -- except the Maple Leafs.”
Watters said the trade would have been Lecavalier for Tomas Kaberle, Nik Antropov, Jonas Hoglund and a first-round pick. In 2001-02, Lecavalier scored just 37 points in 76 games. Over the following two seasons, he scored 144 points in 161 games before winning the Stanley Cup in 2004 under Tortorella.
“Dudley was of the opinion that in order to improve his team, he was going to have to trade Lecavalier,” Watters said. “It was obvious that Lecavalier was not doing what Tortorella wanted him to do. He had to get Tortorella onside with the team and the way to do it was to make that trade.
“Dudley told me we had a deal and that he had to pass it by ownership, which was not part of Dudley’s MO.”
Ownership declined and like that, the deal was vanquished.
Gaborik was dealt from the New York Rangers to the Los Angeles Kings and Tortorella was fired by the Rangers not long after he benched Brad Richards in the seventh game of a playoff series. But Lecavalier and Johansen were both early into their NHL careers when their situations became untenable and therein lies the crucial question: can’t a young star and a tough-love coach find a way to win together?
“I heard about the Ryan Johansen thing and I understand it,” Dave Andreychuk, the captain of that 2004 Cup team, told Sportsnet before the Johansen-Jones trade took place.
Andreychuk was in the late stages of his career when he came to Tampa.
“As an older player, you understand what John is saying,” he explained. “As a younger guy, you don’t get it -- he hates me, he doesn’t want to play me -- and the older guy has to be that buffer. John and I basically got Vinny on the right track to be a superstar, and there were some growing pains.
“I felt the same way about Scotty Bowman. Scotty was very hard on me as a young kid (in Buffalo) and I didn’t realize what he was doing. Years later, I’d figure out that he was trying to make me a better player. It’s day-to-day, not month-to-month. It all worked out in the end for us and for Vinny.”
It was just over two months that Johansen and Tortorella spent together in Columbus.
After the Lightning Cup win in 2004, the team partied well into the night, but Tortorella found himself on the outside looking in.
"All the other coaches, everybody was in the rink here, upstairs somewhere in one of the rooms partying," Tortorella told NHL.com in 2014. "I was the only one in the building and I didn't know what to do so I just got in my car and left. I went home. It was really weird for me. I walked out and I said, 'I guess that's it,' and I drove home. My coaches didn't tell me where they were going. They all gassed me and went upstairs and I just drove home by myself. It's true. I was a little (angry) the next day that I wasn't involved in the party upstairs. I didn't know where they all were."
Ten years after the Lightning's Cup win, the organization got together for a reunion and Andreychuk met Tortorella at the door.
"I was a little nervous entering the room at first, but then the night got flowing and the boys had a few beers and started telling stories," Tortorella said back in 2014. "It was probably one of the most rewarding times I have had in a number of years. I think almost even more rewarding than the Stanley Cup win celebration after the game because it's 10 years later, you see where guys are at."
Andreychuk explained that it takes time to come to terms with Tortorella the coach and the man, but once a player or a team does, it's clear the guy just wants to win.
"As you get older and the years go by, you realize what he was all about," Andreychuk added. "That 10th anniversary was kind of an eye-opener for John. I don’t think he realized what we all thought of him and what he accomplished. There were a lot stories we told him that he was unaware of. It was a special event for all of us but he realized how much the players respected him and valued what he did when he changed the culture of our team that won a Stanley Cup."
Now, Johansen and Tortorella won't get that chance to find out what might have been. That potentiality now sits in the hands of Jones and his new bench boss.