On Thursday night, Columbus Blue Jackets forward Patrik Laine watched from the bench for the final seven minutes of regulation and the entire overtime period as his club fought — and ultimately fell to — the Florida Panthers.
But, as head coach John Tortorella insisted during Friday's post-practice media availability, it wasn't a benching.
"You guys call it a 'benching' and all that. My job is to, throughout hockey games, make decisions on who's going, who isn't, situational play, momentums of games, what the other team's putting out there. There's a lot of things that come into play, especially when we're reeling a little bit there," Tortorella told reporters.
"I make decisions on players' ice times and where I put 'em all the time. Is it a benching? No, I didn't bench anybody last night. I just decided to play some other people in situations late in the third period that I felt more comfortable with at that time. Those are the calls I have to make running the bench," Tortorella continued. "I know all the drama starts with the benchings, and this and that — I don't get it. It's just my decisions as far as who I think is going to give us the best chance in those minutes."
Considering some of the biggest stories to come out of Columbus this season have revolved around the Blue Jackets' bench, it's easy to understand why seeing Laine sit so long drew so much speculation. After all, it wasn't so long ago that Laine was benched by Tortorella — he sat out an entire period of play on Feb. 10, though for reasons not performance-related. (Laine later admitted he deserved the benching after it was reported he'd “verbally disrespected” a member of the coaching staff.)
Before that, it was the player he was traded for, Pierre-Luc Dubois, who was benched after a lacklustre performance that ultimately forced the team's hand to finally trade him — which they did, landing Laine and forward Jack Roslovic in return.
Asked Thursday night about his extended stint on the bench against the Panthers, Laine himself expressed confusion about the situation:
"Um, yeah, I got scored on a couple times, but I think the first two — if you take out the one play where the puck was bouncing a little bit and couldn't get it out and they end up scoring — I thought I was playing good, but, I guess, I thought wrong," Laine told reporters after the game.
Tortorella explained Friday he felt Laine did play well Thursday night. He registered an assist in the second period of Thursday's game, snapping what had been a personal seven-game pointless skid, and added a goal early in the third to put the Blue Jackets up by two. Three straight Panthers goals in the third frame led Tortorella to shorten his bench in an effort to stop the bleeding.
"You guys think I don't wanna play Patty? I mean, I wanna play him. But I still have to make calls as far as how the players are playing at that particular time," Tortorella said Friday. "I'll go a little deeper for you, just to try to explain it so you understand it: I thought Patty probably played one of his best periods in the first period. He played really well. But I also have to make calls as the rest of his game is going on, where he is at that particular time, especially late in the third period and us reeling a little bit.
"I'd love to be able to put all of my top guns out there, but I also have to look at how they're playing at that particular time too. So I hope that explains it for you," Tortorella continued. "There's no free passes because you're notably the top gun. I don't look at it that way. I look at what's happening right now as far as in those minutes in the hockey game and go that way."