The voice at the other end of the telephone was from Columbus and it had a very relevant question. “What’s wrong with our town?” was the query. From this corner, absolutely nothing. Columbus is a fantastic hockey market, small enough to have a rabid fan base and large enough for a player to be fairly anonymous if he wishes. It has great bars, really good restaurants and, obviously, a very active college vibe.
But there’s obviously a problem with players wanting to stay there, as evidenced most lately by Pierre-Luc Dubois’ reported request to be traded elsewhere. As coach John Tortorella said on the opening day of camp, it shouldn’t be a problem because this is hardly the Blue Jackets’ first rodeo when it comes to this kind of thing. Just two seasons ago, they played the entire season under the specter of both Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin essentially having no desire to re-sign with the Blue Jackets and stay long-term.
Rick Nash left a million years ago only because he didn’t think the Blue Jackets could win and he was right. He now lives full-time in Columbus and currently serves as a special assistant to the GM. Adam Foote wanted out even before that because he wanted to go back to Denver. Panarin and Bobrovsky were never going to stay. And it’s not as though everyone who wants to play there is itching to leave. Nick Foligno is the captain and is entrenched there and loves it. Cam Atkinson, who is signed through the next five seasons, loves it even more.
The thing that is most frustrating about Dubois reportedly wanting to leave is that nobody can really figure out exactly why he thinks he needs a change of scenery. Is it the GM? Is it the coach? Is it the market? Is it the cannon? (That’s got to be it.)
There is a lot we don’t know, but here is what we know. Pierre-Luc Dubois bought a condo in Columbus in August, so if he were intent on leaving then, he had a rather interesting way of showing it. Then he entered into negotiations with GM Jarmo Kekalainen where they discussed possibilities of two-, three- and eight-year extensions before settling on two years? Was Dubois turned off by acrimonious negotiations? Kekalainen insists that is not the case.
Is it the coach? Playing for John Tortorella can be difficult sometimes. He rides his players hard and it was well documented that he and Dubois had a very public difference of opinion on the Columbus bench during the playoffs. But again, there’s not a lot of evidence to support that claim. First, Dubois said on the first day of camp, “I’ve always played better for a coach who pushes.” And it if were because of a rift between player and coach, the Blue Jackets could simply tell Dubois to wait it out through this season and Tortorella would be cut loose after his own contract with the Blue Jackets expires after this season.
I’m not about to say it’s because of the contract talks, but I do get the sense in the times I’ve interacted with Dubois that he is a very proud and passionate young man. Again, we don’t really know how he reacted to the negotiations because he won’t say, which is his right. We do know, however, that both the Blue Jackets and Kekalainen grind guys in contract negotiations and they take advantage of the rights they’re afforded under the collective bargaining agreement. Nothing wrong with that, either. And they’re not the only ones. Prior to signing Ryan Johansson to a three-year bridge deal in 2016, then-Blue Jackets’ president John Davidson – with Kekalainen as his GM – went on an epic rant about restricted free agents and intimated that Johansson’s agent was trying to get Blue Jackets’ management fired. “When they have arbitration and they have unrestricted free agency, they try to take us to the woodshed,” Davidson said at the time. “So now they have no leverage and they’re trying to take us to the woodshed. You explain it to me. What are we supposed to do? We’re not being unfair. We’re following a document that’s right there in place.”
This is going to create an interesting dynamic this season in Columbus. All of those involved are adamant this will not create a distraction. And based on how these things have unfolded previously with this group, there’s no reason not to trust their judgment. In fact, it would not be a huge surprise if this is one of those imbroglios that seems to somehow work itself out over time. We do know that the Blue Jackets essentially control Dubois’ contractual rights for the next four years and short of withholding his services, Dubois does not have a whole lot of control over that. We also know that he got a really reasonable deal that carries a cap hit of $5 million for the next two seasons and guarantees him a qualifying offer of at least $6.5 million a season after 2021-22.
Who knows what will happen once the games get going? If there were ever any impending divorce in Columbus that could be worked out with reconciliation, it’s probably this one.