When someone gives a “vote of confidence” in sports — as Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen provided for embattled head coach John Tortorella — there are often several layers to peel away. That’s certainly the case with Kekalainen, Tortorella, and the Blue Jackets.
But there aren’t a ton of instances when a “vote of confidence” really instills much actual confidence in a situation working out, long-term.
With the Blue Jackets now amid a five-game losing streak, it was natural to wonder if Torts worried about his job security. Tortorella brushed off such concerns, stating that he’s focused on doing the best job he can, not if he’s on the hot seat.
Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen gives Tortorella the vote of confidence
So, on Tuesday, Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen threw his support behind Tortorella. You can watch his unusual press conference in the video below:
Explaining that he doesn’t believe in quick fixes, Kekalainen expects Tortorella and the Blue Jackets to work out of this bind. He’s seen Torts pull it off before.
Kekalainen: "I have full confidence we're going to snap out of this."
— Nick Cotsonika (@cotsonika) March 2, 2021
For what it’s worth, Tortorella said he hates that Kekalainen had to give him that vote of confidence. (Though Torts appreciates it.)
This all circles back to some key questions.
Can Tortorella and the Blue Jackets actually dig out of this hole? With the 62-year-old Tortorella’s contract up after this season, is there much reason to believe that this partnership will extend past the 2020-21 NHL season? Should it?
Let’s ponder some short and longer-term questions for the Blue Jackets, and ponder if Torts fits into any meaningful plans.
The hole is already pretty deep for Columbus
Before Tuesday’s game against the Red Wings, the Blue Jackets sit at fifth place in the Central Division. At least, they do by standings points. The Blue Jackets boast an 8-10-5 record, good for 21 points in 23 games played. That leaves them one point behind the Predators team that just handed them consecutive losses, but Nashville holds two games in hand. The Stars also linger with 16 standings points and only 16 games played.
Even if you just look ahead, it’s not a pretty picture. The Blackhawks have 28 standings points in the same number (23) of games played.
With those factors (and points percentage considerations, in general) in mind, it’s not surprising that the Blue Jackets’ playoff odds look so shaky. By Dom Luszczyszyn ‘s model (sub required), the Blue Jackets have a four-percent chance to make the postseason cut (the top four in the Central).
Yes, it’s early in the season, but the Blue Jackets are already about 40-percent through their schedule. If there’s time, it’s running out.
(You know, unless they actually want to punt on the season, entirely.)
During the past few days, Kekalainen’s made some interesting comments about Blue Jackets players, and how they may or may not respond to Tortorella.
One interesting bit came via texts sent to Aaron Portzline of The Athletic (again, sub required).
“We are terrified of making mistakes and that reflects in our lack of puck possession and inability to make plays,” Kekalainen said Sunday via text. “We started well (on Sunday in Nashville), but after the first goal, panic set in.
“You can’t play at this level if you are afraid of making a mistake and don’t want the puck.”
Let’s be honest. You’d have to be pretty naive to assume that there’s no chance that players are so terrified of making mistakes because of Torts.
Just consider how publicly Tortorella’s unleashed his wrath lately. There were quieter benchings, like that of Max Domi earlier this season. Then there was a series of soap opera-level benchings for Pierre-Luc Dubois and Patrik Laine.
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If you’ve ever played on a sports team with a “fiery” coach, you might have gotten to the point where you were always worried if you were next. That can go for film sessions, press conferences, or benchings.
Logically, such an atmosphere of fear might inspire players to clamp up and play conservatively. Maybe the costs of losing offense are worth the defensive gains.
But it’s difficult to shake the notion that the balance is off. Cam Atkinson and others note that the Blue Jackets aren’t “tuning Tortorella out.” Maybe that’s a problem in itself, though. There’s no avoiding a reprimand if you mess up. And sometimes those reactions could be embarrassing, and public.
Actions will speak louder than words — even Torts’ very loud words
Whatever Kekalainen says, it’s crucial to make the right decisions over the long haul.
With Patrik Laine in a contract year, and players like Zach Werenski, and Seth Jones needing new contracts after 2021-22, Columbus needs a plan. How much confidence should we have that Tortorella will be a part of such long-term decisions. And if he is, how many other players will want out? (Even if they say all the right things on their way out the door?)
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.