After last week’s article on Nick Foligno (Maybe It’s Time For a Fresh Voice) and some of the reaction, both in agreement and disagreement — not surprising — I figured it might be a good idea to revisit that, but offer a little more clarification.
First, Let’s Go Back
When I first got interested in writing nearly four years ago, I started with RantSports. It was summer 2015, the Blue Jackets had just acquired Brandon Saad in a blockbuster with the Blackhawks, the hype of Zach Werenski was real as the Blue Jackets took him in that year’s draft with the eight overall pick, and Nick Foligno had officially just been named the sixth captain in Blue Jackets history.
In that time, the Blue Jackets were trying what they could to reach contender status, two years removed from their thrilling six-game series with the Penguins, and following a season that left them on the outside of the playoffs, despite the impressive, improbable 15-1-1 run to close out the season. The thing about that run was how loose the Jackets played, how good they really looked; the question being whether the full-board optimism and newfound success was a product of a team trying to replicate the look and feel of a bonafide contender, or if they simply just cast their sails against teams with little to play for late in the year, whether teams that just were not good or teams who had locked up playoff spots. Nonetheless, while that run was damn impressive and not to be outdone, that obviously takes a backseat to the 16-game winning steak in 2016-17. But I digress. You’ll remember, health was a factor during 2014-15, as the Blue Jackets suffered among the most man-games lost (led with 502) for that entire NHL season.
Speaking to the looseness of that club and their run late in the year, they played without a captain, but that's not to say they lacked leadership in the room as Jared Boll, Brandon Dubinsky, Jack Johnson and Mark Letestu carried the ‘A’ on their sweaters. And that’s not forgetting the additional leaders around the dressing room, namely a Nick Foligno.
In a RantSports article (Nick Foligno Perfectly Embodies Columbus Blue Jackets) I wrote that summer, I talked about Foligno being a vital member of the Jackets, not just for the franchise on the ice but because of the leadership qualities he exemplified off the ice. He represented his club and city the season prior as captain when Columbus hosted the 2014-15 NHL All-Star game. Foligno was the recipient of the 2016-17 King Clancy Memorial Trophy after donations to Children’s Hospitals in Columbus and Boston to help support pediatric congenital heart care in honor of his daughter, among other charitable causes he’s involved with. I mentioned a certain calming influence. Now, I’m not in and around the Blue Jackets dressing room, and even if I was, I know there are things only those players and coaches will ever truly know. But when I hear Foligno speak, whether you agree or disagree with the message at the time, it’s hard to deny a certain calm undertone. That’s not to confuse calm undertone with subdued anger when the moment is right.
And who knows, maybe he just ripped a tongue-lashing or threw a water-cooler around. Not that a captain needs to prove his leadership qualities by the amount of F-bombs he can drop with the tenacity of a Lethal Weapon movie, or that one even has anything to do with the other.
Some things I wanted to clear up when saying last week that maybe it was time for a leadership change:
- For starters, forget about it happening in the middle of a season
Maybe I should have specified at the time, but the implication behind my reasoning was more about the overall heartbeat of the Blue Jackets and where things stand as a franchise. But in specifically moving forward, perhaps after another one-and-done playoff appearance. Removing the title of captain in-season probably means there are more, deeper-rooted and underlying problems that exist within the locker room of a professional hockey team. And by all accounts, this obviously does not appear to apply to the Blue Jackets. John Tortorella talked about his relationship with Sergei Bobrovsky, and specifically how the contract ‘noise’ can affect a locker room. But more so, maybe sometimes a message is stale and something needs to be done. Besides the fact Tortorella signed a contract extension, it’s hard to make the case that the club should fire the only coach that has this team in yearly, consistent, contention. Is it fair to ‘fire’ a captain? Maybe not. But something might need to change.
You want to argue that Torts is the kind of coach to get them there, but someone else needs to take them over the top? That’s fair. Aside from a Joel Quenneville, I don’t see any better options. Again: extension, yearly contention, Torts isn’t going anywhere yet.
- This is not NHL 19, and it’s easier said than done to make such moves
I referenced that the title of captain may or may not really impact the player and his standing, leadership, or playing ability. But it’s not impossible that the burden of carrying the ‘C’ can bring with it extra unwanted pressures. The psychological aspect can affect anyone. You know, like when you casually start dating but there is no label. Then once you become “an item” that label starts to run rampant in your head.
Regarding the psychological aspect regarding contracts and impending free agency, Bobrovsky alluded to as much prior to the season.
Removing captaincy isn’t a foreign idea
Joe Thornton, much to his chagrin, was removed of the captaincy in 2014 and things got heated. Who knows the real reason, only GM Doug Wilson, Thornton, and those closely associated within the organization really know. Wilson had this quote at the time at a season ticket holders event:
“He cares about the game so much. The reason we took the ‘C’ off him . . . He carries the weight of the team on his shoulders and he’s got such a big heart that when stress comes on him he lashes out at people and it kind of impacts them.”
Again, who knows. But true or not in their case, or anyone else’s case, it’s not inconceivable to think that’s a possibility. In the Sharks’ case, they just missed the playoffs for the first time since 2002-03, after 10-straight years to the postseason. The Sharks are annual Stanley Cup contenders and they likely felt the shakeup was needed. They made it to the Stanley Cup final the next season, and Thornton, the future Hall of Famer that he is, is still a very productive member of the Sharks franchise. When it came to deciding if he would be back in San Jose when his free agency summer opened up in 2017, he ultimately decided to stay in teal. Even waiting to finalize the money amount before ex-teammate and friend Patrick Marleau officially left for Toronto. Things might have been testy and even fractured between Joe and Wilson when the decision to remove the ‘C’ happened, but the sides can co-exist. In Foligno’s case, even if there was a certain burden, who of us hasn’t felt that pressure at work? But I doubt you’d have to worry about the last part of that quote above, the lashing out at people, as it relates to Foligno.
- The thinking of Jones as future captain of the Blue Jackets is less to do with ‘star-power.’
I can see why being critical of Foligno, and bringing up Jones as a potential next captain, can start the people’s thought of ‘you just think it should be Jones because he is a star and Foligno isn’t’ or something along those lines.
No, not really. We’ve seen Jones’ stature among the organization only rise since his arrival in 2015. From being among the outset of the Predators’ talented defensive-core, to manning that top spot for Columbus. Foligno, the captain himself, sees Jones as the next to garnish the ‘A’ or ‘C’.
“Just with how important he is to a team. I mean, I don’t speak for the coaches or management, but I think it’s a no-brainer when you look at him, his body of work and the type of person he is.”
Jack Johnson also had this on his now-former teammate:
It would make sense to me down the road. It could be sooner than later.”
“He’s a big part of this team. Coaches rely on him in big situations, and you need your leaders to be guys used in big situations.”
Okay, cool it with your ‘Pittsburgh Penguin Jack Johnson trying to spur controversy’ takes. And I know just because there is glowing endorsement for Jones doesn’t necessarily mean Foligno would or should lose it.
Dustin Brown won two Stanley Cups, captaining the Los Angeles Kings, and was stripped of the ‘C’. Again, Brown, ala Thornton, was not vey happy with the decision. There are always particular circumstances that attribute and are at play. One difference between Thornton and Brown is Brown is not the superstar Thornton has been, but that doesn’t matter. I bring that up because being a superstar doesn’t automatically mean one is destined to captain a team, or that superstars necessarily embody the qualities needed for the role.
Jason Spezza, the former-longtime Senators star, was captain for one season before his trade to the Stars. There’s a little more to digest with Spezza’s situation, and he was never stripped of the ‘C’ but his story lends a little insight to some of the associated pressures of the role itself.
I've also said that the official designation of a captain is a tad overrated. I love that hockey has this tradition, but we know that teams have various leaders inside the walls. Remember when Roberto Luongo was the Canucks captain? He couldn’t wear the ‘C’ per NHL rules as it pertains to goalies, but he was seen as the leader of that club. Wearing the ‘C’ or not, I know Foligno still brings a lot to the team, on the ice, and from a leadership perspective. Same with Jones and other members. But at the same time, there is a certain responsibility that comes with adorning the letter on the jersey and maybe certain guys aren’t as cut out for it. Maybe the actual letter sewn on the jersey, being pinned as one of the media focal points, is too much for some, psychologically. Even if they don't quite realize it. It’s all speculative, but something’s gotta change if this team is one-and-done in the playoffs again, right?
But then again, Brad Larsen is still in charge of a nearly two-year league-worst power play (15.2%) since Jan. 1, 2017.
It was just an idea. Or put it this way. If the Jackets and Foligno were to ever part ways one day, we know who could be fit for the captain role. Could being the operative word, as we never really, truly, know do we?
Additional ramblings, in conclusion: Remember how I ended that sentence in that last Foligno article — I wanted to see how the Jackets would do following their win over Vegas. Bobrovsky has been nearly perfect, going 4-0-0 with two shutouts in capturing NHL First Star of the Week ending Dec. 23.
I wanted to see them take care of business against the struggling Metro teams. ✔️
Yes, I tend to side with Tortorella. But I want to make clear, I’m not absolving him of any issues pertaining to the team. He’s the head coach, of course, and naturally, the good and bad sticks to him, fair or not. I just believe he has brought a change in the culture for a team still learning how to win and on top of that, instilling a disciplined approach. Some of you which may not agree with the style in place. The child doesn’t always agree with the parent. Obviously, Blue Jackets’ management also felt he was the right guy after extending his contract. If this team stumbles in the playoffs, or even misses the playoffs, I think everyone should be under the microscope and evaluated, and no doubt they will. This team is too talented, and while so many people are quick to point out regular-season success, with that said, the goal is to aim higher.
Were the Sharks happy with all of their regular-season success?
It’s not solely Nick Foligno’s fault if the power play or penalty kill or additional line mates or teammates struggle. That also was not the point in the previous post. Again, team-wide issues might lead to some kind of potential change. Everything is on the table. Oh yeah, in that article, I asked aloud if anyone really thought of this team as a real contender and that even if they were doing anything to resemble that, I might say ‘prove it in the playoffs’ but also, I’d probably have my hopes up and admit excitement. Well, the club is 4-1 since, and I am excited. It would have been nice to see another win over the Maple Leafs, but, while I acknowledge it’s December, I am having fun. Tortorella hadn't been pleased with the play of the club and that was during a seven-game points streak, five-game winning streak. Just win baby. But Torts is right and I want to see things continue to evolve; it’s okay to demand perfection.
That’s part of where we’ve come, that just making the playoffs isn’t the main goal anymore. And let me close this out by squelching probably your other thought; I’ve addressed this before, but yes I can be critical of Tortorella. Before the season I suggested a change could be warranted, welcome maybe, even, by me — At that time, before the Jackets extended Tortorella. I contemplated based on more losing in the playoffs, that maybe it would result in some kind of change. Whether with Bobrovsky, Panarin, Tortorella. The stars without new deals in place. I wasn’t advocating a coaching change but I was open to the idea of some change after another potential playoff exit. If the team was one-and-done. I thought maybe the team was waiting to see how the season played out before extending the coach, but then they negotiated an extension pretty soon after.
But regardless of how much I like Tortorella, and how excited I am about the teams’ winning ways right now, I’m tired of one-and-done’s. The lasting imprint of the team is what they do in the spring. If they at least get out of the first round, I can be happy. That’s at least progress. I don’t care anymore about the total number of regular-season wins and December accolades. Living in the moment, sure, it is nice. Right now, these numbers and accolades are building blocks for potential success later on. You have to win today to have a chance tomorrow. But when tomorrow comes, what are you doing with those building blocks if they don't actually rise to the occasion when things really amp up ... ?