John Tortorella, Blue Jackets ‘mutually agree to part ways’

Reports: John Tortorella won't coach Blue Jackets next season - Torts
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No doubt about it, John Tortorella is a polarizing coach; he was before, during, and might be one after his time with the Columbus Blue Jackets. However you feel about Tortorella (or “Torts”), his Blue Jackets days are over.

The Blue Jackets made it official on Sunday, saying the head coach and the team “mutually” agreed to part ways.

From Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen:

“Torts and I have had numerous conversations throughout the season, and we have agreed that the time is right for both he and club to go our separate ways. He is a great coach and his accomplishments with our club over the past six seasons speak for themselves. He has played an integral role in our success since his arrival, and we are extremely grateful for his passion and commitment to the Blue Jackets and our city. He was the right coach at the right time and helped us establish a standard that we will carry forward.”

“After discussion and consideration of the future direction of the team, Jarmo and I have come to a mutual agreement to part ways,” said Tortorella, who’s contract was up after this season. “I’d like to thank the Columbus Blue Jackets organization for the opportunity to coach this team and live in the great Columbus-area. It has been a privilege to work with the players, coaches and hockey operations staff, which is one of the best in the League. Also, I want to thank the CBJ fans and the community for the support they’ve given the team and for the work of the CBJ family in support of the community.

Tortorella era over with Blue Jackets

The parting of ways was expected by many, and the Blue Jackets staff gave Tortorella a send-off Saturday night.

Tortorella coached the Blue Jackets from 2015-16 through 2020-21. The Blue Jackets made the playoffs four times under Torts, winning two series. Most memorably, Columbus swept a powerhouse Lightning team one year before Tampa Bay won a Stanley Cup.

A mixed legacy

Again, Tortorella leaves behind a polarizing legacy with the Blue Jackets, and as an NHL coach.

Many will praise Torts for the Blue Jackets’ upset victories, and their scrappy play through injuries. Some will credit Tortorella, as much as Kekalainen, with establishing the Blue Jackets as a more viable NHL franchise.

On the other hand, it’s fair to wonder how many players Tortorella scared off. And some will definitely look back on benching players from Pierre-Luc Dubois and Patrik Laine as doing far more harm than good. Did someone like Artemi Panarin leave town primarily (or in part) because of Torts?

Those are fair questions to ask. If a coach scares off star players, does it shed a different light on being underdogs? (Ultimately, you don’t play the role of underdogs forever, right?)

Sometimes people can fall into a trap when a team seemingly overachieves. Could it be that, by pulling off the occasional upset, the good times get exaggerated?

Big, difficult questions for Blue Jackets post-Torts

Kekalainen — or perhaps a new GM? — will face big questions about the Blue Jackets’ future, even beyond replacing Tortorella.

That larger outlook is a post for another day, but in short:

  • The Blue Jackets must figure out what to do with Patrik Laine, who’s set to be an RFA. Should they sign Laine for long-term, short-term, or even trade his rights? Few easy answers after a profoundly terrible season for the player and the team.
  • Some key potential extensions loom, too. Both Zach Werenski and Seth Jones will need new contracts after 2021-22. Would the Blue Jackets need to overpay to keep one or both? (That’s especially scary if you believe, as many do, that Seth Jones’ actual impact might not match the hype he generates. Yikes.)
  • Among other factors, the Blue Jackets also need to make some decisions in net. Both Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo enter contract years, too.
  • Naturally, the Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft could set the stage for difficult decisions.

Now … it doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

As tough as those questions are, the Blue Jackets could also forge a new identity with Tortorella gone. All of that uncertainty also highlights that Columbus has some flexibility — if they don’t back themselves into a corner.

But if uncertainty makes you nervous, then the Torts-less Blue Jackets might leave some fans breaking out in hives.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Lightning donate $2 million to Hurricane Ian relief efforts

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TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning and team owner Jeff Vinik are donating $2 million toward Hurricane Ian relief efforts.

The NHL team announced Friday that $1 million each will be donated by the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation and the Vinik Family Foundation.

“This is a tragic situation for many families and communities across the state of Florida, but especially so in the southwest region of the state,” Vinik said in a statement released by the team. “In times like these the most important thing we can do is support one another, and we hope this donation will help families recover and rebuild in the months to come.”

Ian made landfall Wednesday on Florida’s Gulf Coast, south of the Tampa Bay area. The Lightning postponed two home preseason games and moved the club’s training camp to Nashville, Tennessee, during the storm.

Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

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TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

“Got a great set of tools,” fellow defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “With experience, I think they’re only going to get better.”

The signing comes as the Leafs’ blueliners been hit hard by injuries. Muzzin has been dealing with a back issue, and Timothy Liljegren recently had surgery for a hernia.

Toronto then lost Jamie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) in Wednesday’s 3-0 preseason victory over the Montreal Canadiens, pressing forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot into defensive roles for two periods.

Back with Wild, Fleury welcomes big workload as clear No. 1

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — With his ever-present smile, tireless approach and long list of accomplishments in the net, Marc-Andre Fleury has always embraced a heavy workload.

The Minnesota Wild sure haven’t shied away from leaning hard on their new – and 37-year-old – goalie. After arriving in a deadline-day trade in March and re-signing with the Wild in July, the guy everyone calls “Flower” is still fully abloom as he begins his 19th season in the NHL.

“They say, `You play,’ I play, unless maybe I’m hurt or something,” Fleury said. “But other than that, I like playing.”

Wild general manager Bill Guerin initially planned to bring back both Fleury and Cam Talbot, who made the All-Star team and went 13-0-3 in his last 16 regular season starts before being benched in favor of Fleury for the first-round playoff series against St. Louis. The Wild lost in six games, after Talbot got the cold start in the elimination game and gave up four goals on 26 shots.

Guerin changed his mind, though, after signing Fleury to a two-year, $7 million contract. Realizing Talbot’s frustration from the lack of postseason action, he didn’t want to risk any tension or discontent. Talbot was traded to Ottawa for Filip Gustavsson, who will be the No. 2 goalie while top prospect Jesper Wallstedt gets more development in the AHL.

Gustavsson has only 23 career regular-season starts, nearly 200 fewer than Talbot, so it’s a good bet that Fleury will get the majority of the games.

“I was ready to share the load with him, but things didn’t work out and happy to be having the chance to play maybe a bit more. It’s fun to play. It’s more fun than sitting on the bench,” said Fleury, who went 28-23-5 in 56 combined starts for Chicago and Minnesota last season with a 2.90 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

The Wild reconvened for training camp last week, beginning their quest to recapture the mojo they enjoyed last season while setting franchise records for points (113), wins (53) and goals (305). The only team that finished ahead of them in the Western Conference was Colorado, which went on to win the Stanley Cup, but they never met the Avs in the playoffs because the Blues got to them first.

There’s a strong chemistry in place, at least, to build upon.

“We still have a lot of guys here who were here last year. We’re just trying to make it even better, just trying to listen to everybody,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said. “We want to set a standard and a way for how hard this team’s going to work.”

The Wild start the regular season by hosting the New York Rangers on Oct. 13.

COMINGS AND GOINGS

The most significant roster move of the summer amongst the skaters was the inevitable salary-cap-driven trade of second-leading scorer Kevin Fiala to Los Angeles. Fiala had a career-high 33 goals and 52 assists last season. Guerin otherwise dabbled mostly in two-way contracts in free agency for depth. Former Anaheim center Sam Steel signed with Minnesota last month, one day after defenseman Dimitry Kulikov was dealt to the Ducks.

MORE POWER

The Wild were done in during the playoffs by abysmal special teams. They went just 4 for 24 on the power play against the Blues, and head coach Dean Evason had the team working on that on the first day on the ice. The penalty kill that lagged last season was a focus of the second practice.

“It has to get better, no question,” Evason said.

BLUE LINE SHUFFLE

Captain Jared Spurgeon has been placed with Jonas Brodin on the first pair on defense, and Jake Middleton has joined Matt Dumba on the second unit. Dumba and Brodin are close friends who’ve been paired together for several seasons.

“Dumbs is a shooter too,” said Middleton, who re-signed for three years and $7.35 million. “It’s pretty exciting. I can get some cookies passing him the puck. That’d be a big plus. I think it’ll work well. He loves hitting guys too. He plays a gritty game as well so I think we’ll be a good combo.”

UP FRONT

With Jordan Greenway recovering from offseason surgeries, Tyson Jost will get the first chance to skate with Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno. The departure of Fiala has opened at least one spot for a rookie to make the team, with 2020 first-round draft pick Marco Rossi in line for it.

ON THE SLATE

This is the first time in eight years the Wild will play their regular-season opener at home. After three more games at Xcel Energy Center, they don’t hit the road until a five-game trip that starts Oct. 22 at Boston. The Wild have a season-long nine-game homestand from Feb. 9-21.

Stars expect to open camp without unsigned scorer Jason Robertson

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FRISCO, Texas — Young 40-goal scorer Jason Robertson is expected to miss the start of training camp for the Dallas Stars because the team and the restricted free agent haven’t agreed on a new contract.

General manager Jim Nill said there’s been steady, ongoing negotiations over the last couple of weeks with Robertson and his representatives. Nill wouldn’t say what has kept the two sides from reaching a deal, adding there have been “very good discussions.”

The Stars, with new coach Pete DeBoer, open camp Thursday in Cedar Park, Texas, at the home of their AHL team. They have three days of work there before returning to North Texas for their exhibition opener at home on Monday night. They open the regular season Oct. 13 at Nashville.

“I think he’s disappointed he’s not at camp, we are too,” Nill said before the team departed for the Austin area. “I think it’s very important for a younger player and as you mentioned, the (new) coaching staff. … We do have some time on our side, but we wish he gets here as soon as he can.”

Robertson had a base salary of $750,000 last season, the end of a $2.775 million, three-year contract. He still has five more years before he has the opportunity to become an unrestricted free agent.

The left wing turned 23 soon after the end of last season, when he had 41 goals and 38 assists for 79 points in his 74 games. Robertson joined Hockey Hall of Famer Mike Modano, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin as the only 40-goal scorers since the franchise moved to Dallas in 1993.

A second-round draft pick by the Stars in 2017, Robertson has 125 points (58 goals, 67 assists) in his 128 NHL games. He had one goal and three assists in his first postseason action last season, when Dallas lost its first-round playoff series in seven games against Calgary.

DeBoer said he looks forward to coaching Robertson, but that the forward’s absence won’t change his plans for camp.

“It doesn’t impact what I’m doing,” DeBoer said. “Listen, I laid awake at night with the excitement of coaching Jason Robertson, 40-plus goals, but he’s not here. So, you know, until he gets here, I can’t spend any energy on that.”

Nill said the Stars are open to a long-term extension or a bridge contract for Robertson, who was part of the team’s top line last season with veteran Joe Pavelski and Roope Hintz. They combined for 232 points, the second-most in franchise history for a trio.

“We’re open to anything. But other than that … I’m not going to negotiate through the media,” Nill said. “As I said, we’ve had good conversations. We’ll see where it goes.”