This should have been a pretty good season for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
They’d had a decent enough run through last year’s playoffs. The team is young and talented. The coach is an old hand who loves to make a show of himself, which can be a positive if the club is even-keeled.
Sadly for them, the Blue Jackets are about as even-keeled as a ship launched upside-down.
As the season started, their most promising young star, Pierre-Luc Dubois, announced he wanted out. The Blue Jackets tried their best to ignore him, hoping he’d lose interest. He didn’t. They gave in and traded him for two players (Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic) and one additional problem (Laine).
A week into his tenure in Columbus, Laine has three goals against one benching. That’s a bad ratio.
When you bench your shiny new object, people tend to notice. For all his supposed savvy, Columbus head coach John Tortorella has never seemed to understand that his mission statement – avoiding the media – isn’t helped by constantly playing footsie with the media.
“That’s going to stay in-house,” Tortorella said of his reasons for sitting Laine the entire third period on Monday night.
Then, because he is himself, Tortorella took the story out of the house, walked it down to the park and made sure everyone in the neighbourhood was introduced to the story.
“It wasn’t because of a missed assignment (what assignment?) …
“There’s a number of things that come into play with that (everyone rushes to Laine’s teammates to ask exactly how big of a pain he is. A regular-sized pain or a Valu-Pak-sized pain?) …
“That will stay in the locker room (are you under the impression this is broadcasting to a closed feed inside the locker room?) …”
Does this remind you of some other team? Say, a year ago, or two years ago, or, really, every year ago?
This is a Toronto Maple Leafs’ story par excellence. Substitute Mike Babcock for Tortorella, and Laine for, well, anyone in blue. The Leafs franchise was founded so that stories like this could exist.
It’s got everything: the high-profile names at the centre of it; the faint whiff of bad behaviour; the tantalization of a “number of things that come into play”; the insistence on airing the team’s laundry out of doors, but not in full public view, so that everyone spends all their time trying to peek over your fence to get a look at this rumoured laundry.
If Tortorella’s got a problem with Laine, he ought to say what it is. Then you deal with a few days’ worth of bad headlines instead of a whole season’s worth. If the player’s intent on getting the coach fired, he probably decided on that the moment he benched him. Why prolong the agony?
For Laine’s part, he seems determined to distinguish himself as the first Finn on Earth no one gets along with. The only people he’s doing any favours for right now are the ones who signed his trade papers in Winnipeg.
Bottom line – the Blue Jackets are doomed this year. It doesn’t matter what their record says. In the NHL, it doesn’t start out this chaotically and end triumphantly.
That is a lesson the Leafs may have finally learned.
What’s changed about the Leafs this season? A little and a lot.
They added a few veteran players around the edges, but the engine of the team is unchanged since its installation in 2018. The results are certainly better.
What has changed a great deal is the conversation around the team. You hear that? Neither do I. There isn’t one.
For the first time in about a million years, the only interesting thing about the Toronto Maple Leafs is their record.
The players haven’t gotten into any off-season outrages, or said anything incendiary. The coach hasn’t benched anyone, or said anything incendiary. The executive is functionally invisible, making it impossible to say anything incendiary.
There are different types of incendiary in the NHL. In Dallas, it’s “We’re going to burn the arena to the ground.” In Toronto, it’s “We’re toying with the idea of flipping Player X to the third line.”
Remaining non-incendiary in Toronto is an achievement of the highest order. How’d they manage it? The pandemic.
There is something about a live audience in hockey that incites everyone. The crowd is consistently a storyline in hockey in a way it isn’t in, say, basketball or football.
With its tendency to undercheer and overboo, the Toronto audience is a marvellous accelerant for any locker-room bushfires the Leafs start. One guy in the greys stands up and screams, “You suck, Nylander” in the middle of a bad loss and it’s a story.
This season, the Leafs might as well be playing in a bunker somewhere. They are that disassociated from their paying customers.
The pandemic also offers news cover.
“In these unprecedented times …” Legally, that’s how every news story must begin now. I wish people would stop saying that. These times are very precedented. Human history is chockablock full of pandemics, financial downturns and social unrest. Just because they haven’t happened to you doesn’t mean they are unique.
When you start a sentence in such dire terms, you’re not going to finish it with “… the Leafs have a real headache on the power play.”
With people’s attention elsewhere, the Leafs have enjoyed an unprecedented period of underobservation. They are free to do their jobs without several million volunteer general managers hanging off their hips like clingy boyfriends.
What we are seeing right now is what the Leafs look like in their natural hockey habitat, undisturbed by outside civilization.
(The league’s other obsessional team, the Montreal Canadiens, is getting the same benefit from the same effect.)
This ecosystem is not reproducible. By next year, fans will be back in the stands and the Leafs fanbase will be back to its hyperventilating self. They’ll probably virtually work themselves there by May.
But for now, the Leafs have achieved their ultimate regular-season goal – they are too good, too boring and too unnoticed to be distracted from their jobs.
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