PHILADELPHIA — For the first time in his 471-game career, Patrik Laine’s NHL club decided they were better off with him not in the lineup. The decision was made by Columbus Blue Jackets first-year coach Pascal Vincent on Sunday, and it made eyebrows elevate all over the league.
Meanwhile, in Columbus, it’s difficult to be surprised by anything that happens this season because every day seems to be another head-scratcher, every game a new level of ineptitude.
Vincent has tried all manner of motivation so far this season, including benching star forward Johnny Gaudreau twice already this month, sitting high-priced defenseman Damon Severson for an entire third period less than a month into his Blue Jackets career, and sending highly-skilled winger Kent Johnson — a 16-goal, 40-point rookie last season — to the minor leagues.
During a recent 3-2 loss to Arizona, Vincent benched both Laine and Gaudreau — they have a combined 433 goals in the NHL — as the Jackets were scrambling to try and score the equalizer late in the third period.
Nothing has worked. Nothing makes sense right now for the Blue Jackets. After a 5-2 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday, the Jackets (4-11-4) have matched a franchise record with a nine-game winless streak (0-7-2), sending yet another season off the rails before Thanksgiving.
“It’s frustrating for everyone,” Vincent said. “I see those guys in the room and I hear them on the bench, and they’re saying the right things. Their intentions are right.
“We still have a very young team, and going through adversity like this is not necessarily a bad thing. Hear me right: It’s not what we want. But when we look at the big picture over time here, with how we’re going to deal with this, we’re creating a sense of ‘we’re in this together.’
“Eventually it’s going to pay off. I’m convinced of that.”
Vincent may be alone in that. It’s hard to imagine this much chaos, this much day-to-day uncertainty … this aimless approach to a season having long-term benefits.
Think chaos is too strong?
• Gaudreau, who signed a seven-year, $68.25 million contract ($9.75 million salary cap) with the Blue Jackets two summers ago, is off to the slowest start of his career. He hasn’t been benched since the early days of his career in Calgary.
• Laine, the second-highest-paid forward ($8.7 million), was never scratched in Winnipeg or during his time in Columbus
• Severson, signed to an eight-year(!), $50 million deal last summer, was benched for almost all of a third period early this season.
• Johnson, who was fifth on the Blue Jackets in scoring as a 21-year-old last season, was sent to the AHL two weeks ago. (He’s been dominating, by the way.)
• Rookie defenseman David Jiricek, the No. 6 overall pick in 2022 and probably the Jackets’ highest-rated prospect, was told by Blue Jackets management to “get a place in Columbus,” a sign that he was sticking with the big club. Four days later, after two healthy scratches, he was sent to AHL Cleveland.
• Laine started training camp on the wing, moved to center for the start of the season, then moved back to the wing, and was most recently back at center. We’re barely a month into the season.
• Vincent put fourth-line fighter Mathieu Olivier on a line with Laine and Gaudreau in Saturday’s loss in Washington, an odd fit by any measure. It didn’t work well and was broken up by the third period.
• The Blue Jackets have used 35 different forward lines at the start of their 19 games this season, a dizzying process.
The Blue Jackets promoted Vincent to the job just four days before training camp, when coach Mike Babcock resigned after it was learned he’d looked through players’ cell phones, committing an invasion of privacy. The dressing room was on the verge of a mutiny before the decision was made.
Vincent was celebrated as a players’ coach, but he has not been afraid to send messages, even to veteran players.
On Sunday, Vincent made it clear that Laine did not handle it well when told by coaches that he wasn’t going to play against the Flyers. As a player well-known to be hard on himself and more than a little stubborn, the ramifications of this could land somewhere between fascinating and ugly.
It probably cuts even deeper with Laine because Vincent has known him longer than just about anybody else in the NHL. He was an assistant coach in Winnipeg when Laine was drafted and joined the Jets in 2016.
“I know what he can do on the ice,” Vincent said. “I know his potential. He’s not happy about the decision, don’t get me wrong. But right now, I think Patty needs to take a deep breath. Go back to the working lab and get his touches back, get his shot back, get his confidence back, so he can be the Laine we all know he can be.
“It was a hard conversation, but nobody is bigger than the Blue Jackets.”
When a bold move like that is made, it’s easy to tell the temperature of the dressing room by the way the club responds. The Jackets have certainly had worse outings than Sunday’s 5-2 loss, but wasn’t exactly an us-against-the-world response.
Columbus went 0-for-5 on the power play with zero shots on goal in 8:25 with a man advantage. That’s hard to do.
“The streak we’re on, we have to have a much better effort if we’re going to get out of it,” Blue Jackets captain Boone Jenner said. “We need (emotion). The urgency, the emotion needs to be ramped up if we want to get out of this funk.”
Why does nothing work in Columbus? Gaudreau hasn’t been anywhere close to the player who had 115 points and was a Hart Trophy finalist two years ago. Laine was once one of the NHL’s leading goal scorers, but he’s barely been a mid-level producer (tied for 92nd in the league) since his trade to Columbus in January 2021.
Will anybody take the fall for this?
It’s hard to imagine Vincent taking the fall less than two months into his tenure. GM Jarmo Kekäläinen has been assailed by Blue Jackets’ fans on social media and in comment sections, but president John Davidson has shown nothing but faith in Kekäläinen.
Majority owner John P. McConnell issued a sternly-worded statement before training camp opened, making it clear that he was not pleased with the shenanigans involving Babcock, and that he expected the Blue Jackets to have a successful season.
Only one month into it, that may already be a lost cause.
(Photo: Eric Hartline / USA Today)