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Jackets struggle to assuage identity crisis at midpoint of season

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Can they fix their problems in time for the playoffs? It’s looking less and less likely.

Columbus Blue Jackets v Chicago Blackhawks Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The Jackets are in the midst of an identity crisis.

John Tortorella recently admitted that he hasn’t been as successful as he would like to be with “reaching” his players. Here’s the full quote from his press availability on February 24:

“Especially for me this year, I am trying to figure out the players. And I don’t think I’ve done a good enough job of that to to this point in how to coach certain players. I think I”m finding inroads with certain players. I don’t think I’ve come close to doing my job properly with some other guys to try and get them playing. I think that’s a huge part of my job this year with a number of the new bodies, and I have not done a good enough job with certain people, and I think I’m reaching some other people.”

Let’s unpack that, shall we?

Especially for me this year, I am trying to figure out the players.

Identity is not really something the Blue Jackets have ever questioned, right? The Jackets are known for their blue-collar, gritty, underdog, get-the-job-done style of hockey. Their defenders are the pistons of the engine, churning out opportunities for the offensive star power to score goals, meanwhile throwing their own bodies in the way to protect the goalie from threats. The games weren’t always fun in the scoring-lots-of-goals department, but the Blue Jackets played 60 minutes of hard-fought hockey and didn’t give the opposing team nearly as many chances as they’d like.

Well, that switch has flipped, hasn’t it? The Jackets defense has been spotty this year, to say the least - opponents regularly capitalize on sloppy breakdowns by the Jackets to put three, four, five goals in the back of the net on a nightly basis. That’s not the kind of hockey John Tortorella is used to coaching out of this crew, and if he doesn’t figure it out soon, it’ll be too late.

And I don’t think I’ve done a good enough job of that to to this point in how to coach certain players. I think I’m finding inroads with certain players.

Yeah, this is putting it pretty lightly. Tortorella has a lot of new blood on this team, and I think the first mistake he made was trying to cram them into the mold left by the August 2020 iteration of the Blue Jackets. The organization traded defensive depth for offensive potential, which means Torts needs to switch gears - and he seems to have been delayed in doing that.

So who is he making inroads with? Well, certainly with Patrik Laine - there’s a lot riding on his performance with the team, and everything was off to a pretty bad start when he was benched for mouthing off to one of his coaches. That relationship has seemed to improve, however - Laine seems to be making progress, spicing up the CBJ power play to where it’s actually watchable - can’t believe that’s a sentence I get to type!

Other players who are performing well right now under Torts: Cam Atkinson (seven goals in the last nine games), Oliver Bjorkstrand (I love the consistency of this man), Kevin Stenlund (rising star, has the support of his Stanlunds at The Cannon).

I don’t think I’ve come close to doing my job properly with some other guys to try and get them playing.

“Some other guys” here obviously referring to Max Domi, someone whose potential with this team hasn’t even been touched yet. Domi is the most noticeable piece of collateral damage in Torts’ inability to shift the expectations for the Jackets’ identity, especially when you directly compare him to the relative success of J*sh A*derson up in ol’ Montreal (Josh Anderson has nine goals this season to Domi’s three).

Who else? Boone Jenner has been weirdly neutral lately, after an exciting start to his season. Seth Jones has been underperforming, Vladislav Gavrikov and David Savard tend to look confused out on the ice, Zach Werenski has been in and out with injury. The whole defensive unit needs work, and leaning on them as the safeguard of the team’s success is no longer an option this season.

I think that’s a huge part of my job this year with a number of the new bodies, and I have not done a good enough job with certain people, and I think I’m reaching some other people.”

Whoop, there it is. It’s dawning on Torts that the amount of new blood on the team has created a different organism, and he’s been too stuck in his ways to figure out how to coach it. I don’t doubt that he can reach these players where they need to be met, but obviously the big question now at the nearly-midpoint of the abbreviated season is whether he’s going to be able to make all, not some, of his players produce for the remainder of the season to have a shot at qualifying for the playoffs.

The Jackets are scrambling to get back to an identity that doesn’t fit them anymore, and that’s where the problems are stemming from. What they need to do is construct a new identity that fits the personalities and capabilities of players on this current team - which means John Tortorella is going to need to get to know his players for who they are and not who he wants them to be.