When John Tortorella clashed with a young star by the name of Vinny Lecavalier almost two decades ago, then-Tampa Bay Lightning GM Jay Feaster made it clear to both of them that he had no intention of trading Lecavalier or firing Tortorella and the two of them would have to work out their differences. And they did that. Lecavalier played the best hockey of his NHL career in the ensuing years and the two men shared the experience of winning the Stanley Cup.
There are some parallels to that situation and the one in which Tortorella currently finds himself with newly acquired Patrik Laine, whom he benched for almost half the game Monday night. And if there’s anything to be gained here, it’s that perhaps there’s some hope that Laine and Tortorella will be able to co-exist in the long-term in Columbus after all. Because if the tea leaves are being read properly, it happened because of a blow-up between two proud, passionate and fiery people. Some people might have other terms to describe them, but they’re coming from the same place. And that’s far better than the alternative.
For his part, Laine even admitted he deserved to be benched for his actions Monday night. Brian Hedger of the Columbus Dispatch reported that Laine was picking splinters, not because of his on-ice conduct, but because of a verbal altercation he had with a Blue Jackets’ assistant coach. Tortorella would not confirm or deny that, but he did say it had nothing to do with Laine’s effort on the ice and offered an impassioned defense of Laine as a player and of his commitment level. And when asked about it after practice Wednesday, Laine confirmed that and added that the incident will have no bearing on whether or not he stays in Columbus long-term.
“If that kind of stuff happens, you deserve to get benched,” Laine said. “That’s just the way it is. I think it’s fair from the coach that if you do something, you’re going to get benched. That’s great to see for me. You don’t want to be the guy who’s getting benched, but now I’ve seen it myself that it doesn’t matter who you are or how well you’ve done, you can get benched. If you want to take something positive out of that, I think that’s the one thing.”
There is probably far too much drama in Columbus than the size of the market warrants, and much of it comes from the coach. But perhaps Tortorella does deserve a pass here. There’s no reason to believe he wasn’t acting in the best interests of the organization on this one. Tortorella is certainly not for everyone, but he is consistent in that he demands the same from star players as he does from fourth-liners. And in this case, it’s probably best to establish that expectation early in the process. The Blue Jackets want Laine to commit to them beyond this season and they proved they have their coach’s back by moving Dubois in the first place, so the two are going to have to find a way to make it work, at least for the next two years while Columbus essentially controls his ability to move.
Tortorella said the situation was handled quickly and captain Nick Foligno, who often serves as the team’s conscience, claimed not much had to be said to Laine in the aftermath of the incident. “I think he figured it out pretty quickly, obviously,” Foligno said of Laine. “And (you) tell him, ‘This is our standard here. This is how we go about our business. This is why we’ve been a successful team for a lot of years.’ It’s never personal. It’s just the way it works here and I think it works well. I think you have to give Pat credit, first of all, because he’s a lot smarter and a lot more in tune than I think people sometimes give him credit for. I think he knew and understood what was going on and then you move past it. We’re professionals, we’re not in the business of hurting people’s feelings. This is a job we have to do. We have to try to win hockey games. This is who we are and this is what we are as a team and I think Patty understands and now has gotten a good dose of who we are and is now ready to jump right in and be a part of that.”
As always, the Laine-Tortorella relationship will be nothing if not interesting to watch over the next little while. But for now, there’s no reason to believe it was anything more than a dust-up between two fiery personalities. And the thing about those kinds of people (perhaps speaking from experience) is that they’re pretty quick to put incidents like that behind them and move on.