On Thursday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets, John Tortorella, deployed his team’s leading scorer from the previous season for three minutes and fifty-five seconds of ice time. The Blue Jackets eventually lost in overtime. The absence of that player, Pierre-Luc Dubois, unquestionably affected the outcome of the game.
If you asked Tortorella which way that outcome was affected, though, his answer might be different than that of your average CBJ fan.
It’s no secret Dubois wants out of Columbus. He’s asked for a trade, the team – and coach Torts – have addressed that head on. But similar situations in the past have been tenable in the short-term while the particulars of a future deal worked towards fruition. I mean hey, as it currently sits it seems Patrik Laine wants out of Winnipeg, but the conflict is minimal there and Laine had two goals and an assist in the game he was able to dress for the Jets.
If a player wants out, it’s incumbent upon them to prove they have value and should be sought after. The case Tortorella seems to be making without saying it directly is that Dubois is pulling something more akin to what James Harden did to get out of Houston, which was “put yourself first and barely care about the team to the point everybody just wants you gone, return value be damned.”
I’m not saying that’s the case, not at all. But Tortorella’s commentary speaks to something like that, with repeated implications that he’s not getting a fair effort from Dubois.
"I really don't make decisions as far as minutes," Tortorella said. "It's up to the player to show me. If there's one thing I'm pretty easy to read on is the minutes. You're going to get out there if you play the proper way. ...The onus is on the player. And it's on all players -- not just the player we're talking about here that sat. It's all the players. I'm not a hard guy to read as far as that's concerned.
"I've coached Luc like this for a couple years, as far as trying to get him to get some growth in his game and growth as a pro. Nothing changes here. ... I think you're asking the wrong guy. I'm just a coach trying to make it work with a hockey club, trying to find a way to win games. The person that you keep talking to me about, you should ask him."
I always find this angle of response half-funny, but not without truth. “Hey, I certainly didn’t bench the guy, he benched himself with poor play!”
Yeah, but … ah nevermind.
As a former player I can see how this may be playing out on both sides. Yes, there are games where you’re mad at your coach or team or situation, and it’s not that you don't try, per se, so much as you do the bare minimum to not get yelled at. You can go through the motions and avoid video some days, believe it or not, in a game with 36 total skaters where you only play like 15-20 minutes and you’re not that involved with the puck too often. So maybe that’s the route Dubois has been trying to go (though he’s clearly failed the “not get yelled at” part).
I can also see a scenario where the coach doesn’t like the player for whatever reasons, and once that bias sets in, the player gets treated unfairly and doesn’t have a chance to get out of the doghouse.
On paper, this scenario is ridiculous from Torts' perspective. He’s got a 22-year-old kid who led his team in scoring last year, who’s scored 27 goals in a single season before, who just signed a two-year deal at only $5 million per, who exists on a team devoid of offence and scoring and stars. The coach should be doing everything in his power to make the player happy so they don’t lose him.
But you can only lead a horse to water, right?
I picked through PLD’s 3:55 last night to find answers. I looked for moments when he was remotely involved to try and shed some light on the question: was Torts right, and the player was to blame for not getting more ice time after five shifts? Or was this a coach fed up with all the things the player is and does?
Here’s five clips in chronological order.
First, you’ve got PLD coming up the bottom boards through the neutral zone as a puck reaches a common point of congestion, the blue line. Tampa Bay’s defender gets a stick on the puck
PLD pokes at it with one hand on his stick, and flies by, hoping the puck miraculously jumps through and he’s able to play offence. I think this is egregious, and arguably his worst moment from the game. He should stop on that puck and engage in the battle. This is a hope play, and coaches hate players who play for hope.
On the same shift, PLD gets the puck behind the net to kick it off. He pushes it towards the other side, which isn’t awful, but given there’s no teammate nearby, he’d have been better eating it and taking contact and waiting for help. It’s his decisions that follow which are likely worse to Torts.
Dubois starts back towards the play, and you can see a Tampa player about to grab at a bouncing puck, which Dubois should either engage on (that’s the correct answer here), or if he thinks it’s clearly going to be Tampa’s puck, he should pull back to the defensive side.
Instead, he guesses on where the player will move the puck (if he guesses right, it’s fun offence time), takes the wrong side of the pile yet again, and Tampa moves it up the ice. Columbus keeps the puck in, and again, PLD takes the offensive side of the puck and player, hoping it skips through.
Below is more just not stopping on the puck. He’s coming up the ice by the bottom boards, there’s a loose puck up in the air, and he waves at it and swings by.
Nitpicking, but the point is he wasn’t showing a penchant for stopping and getting competitive on pucks.
While we’re nitpicking, here PLD is racing through the neutral zone to get after an opposing D-man who’s going to make a play on a punted puck, and all zooming 6-foot-3 220 pounds of Dubois gives a half-hearted swipe and another fly-by.
There’s a reason coaches love certain types of players, like those from the Zach Hyman mold. They maybe don’t make the special plays that break games open, but they’ll lead on a play like that with a good stick, stop on the puck and finish through the body, and often get that puck going back into the offensive zone, as opposed to letting the opponent build speed back through the middle.
And finally, the play on Dubois' last shift, which you have seen on Twitter. PLD is F1 on the forecheck, the first player to the puck, and gives all the resistance of an Ambien-stuffed bean bag chair.
Maybe that’s unfair (okay, it definitely is a bit), but the point here is that Torts doesn’t want to throw a guy over the boards who isn’t going to give the same battle level as his teammates.
I don’t want that critique of Dubois’ play to read as “Tortorella is in the right” either, as there’s certainly two sides here fanning the flames that are very real, but don’t need to be an inferno. However, the video does bring us to the conclusion that Torts isn’t making something out of nothing, either.
The most aggrieved party here appears to be GM Jarmo Kekalainen and the Columbus Blue Jackets, who are seeing their most talented forward’s value drop, their leverage evaporate, and they now have a team in limbo waiting for what seems to be a pretty sizeable shoe to drop.
Whenever it does, and wherever Dubois winds up, he’s certainly set the stage for criticism if he’s not able to perform. And in a market like Columbus, where keeping stars is already a little harder than it may be in some other cities, the Blue Jackets have to be wondering how long they can afford to keep a coach who doesn't seem a help in keeping stars happy.
Even if, in this case, he may have a point.