If struggling Blue Jackets center Ryan Johansen is looking for a sympathetic ear he might want to give Vincent Lecavalier a call. If anyone understands what Johansen is going through right now with his new coach, it would be John Tortorella’s original superstar whipping boy.
“He was very tough on young players,” said Lecavalier, who was just 20 years old when Tortorella replaced Steve Ludzik behind the bench in Tampa. It was not an easy transition for the former number one draft pick. They butted heads repeatedly, with Tortorella benching Lecavalier and eventually stripping the C off his chest. Eventually, though, he came to understand what his coach was trying to accomplish.
“I don't think everybody takes [Tortorella] the same way, which is normal,” Lecavalier said. “Everybody reacts differently to different situations. Some guys don’t react well to that.”
That seems to be the case with Johansen, who is chafing under Tortorella’s tough-love style. According to the Columbus Dispatch, the coach put the team through a training camp-style practice on Tuesday, leaving the pucks in the bucket and focusing on skating drills.
Johansen, the paper reported, was singled out for three drills.
“Everything happens for a reason,” teammate Scott Hartnell said. “We were skating like that for a reason. Joey did some extra for a reason. I think that reason will stay in-house, but we have to learn from our mistakes on and off the ice. We have to be sharper in everything we do. It’ll lead to better play and more wins, which is what it’s all about.”
Over time, Tortorella's approach paid dividends with Lecavalier, who went on to appear in four All-Star Games, win the 2007 Rocket Richard Trophy and lead the Lightning to the 2004 Stanley Cup.
“We’ve had our differences, but that’s how it is,” Lecavalier said. “You’re not always going to agree with the coach and the coach is not always going to agree with players. I’ve had tough years with him, but our relationship ... is not even close to being [what it was] when I started.”
Not easy words, but maybe the ones Johansen needs to hear right now.
• The most interesting name on the list of invitees to Canada’s World Junior selection camp is a player who had every intention of skating for another country instead.
Jake Walman, a sophomore defenseman with Providence College, was born and raised in Toronto and had skated for Canada previously at the U-17 tournament. But the dual-citizen attended the American junior camp over the summer and hoped to play for Team USA in Helsinki. That plan, however, was quashed by the International Ice Hockey Federation, which ruled that he hadn’t met the requirement of playing two full years in the U.S. and thus was ineligible to plan for the Americans.
In the past, Hockey Canada might have snubbed a player who put the Maple Leaf second, but Walman, a third-round pick by the Blues in 2014, is too much of a talent to overlook. The 19-year-old is the top-scoring defenseman in the NCAA with 19 points in just 12 games for the Friars, and his 10 goals rank third among all players.
As deep as Canada is on the back end with returnee Joe Hicketts and NHL first rounders such as Haydn Fleury, Travis Sanheim, Thomas Chabot and Noah Juulsen in the mix, Walman brings a skill set that will be tough to overlook. “He has that ability to push the pace and create chances,” one scout said. “He’d be a dangerous weapon on the power play.”
Even his detractors, and there are a few out there, see Walman as a viable option.
“He’s a kid who has some growing up to do,” one scout told SI.com. “But he’s a real talent. A very, very gifted player.”
Maybe it should come as no surprise that Walman packs an offensive punch. According to USA Hockey, he is the great-nephew of boxing legend Jake LaMotta.
• Canada’s 30-man list of invitees did not include any of the six age-eligible NHLers—defenseman Aaron Ekblad and forwards Connor McDavid, Sam Bennett, Robby Fabbri, Jake Virtanen and Jared McCann—but the team made it clear it is hoping for a last-minute care package like the one it got last winter when the Rangers released Anthony Duclair just ahead of the tournament opener.
McDavid is hurt and Ekblad and Bennett are too important to their NHL teams to be released. Fabbri is a possibility, but he seems to be contributing in St. Louis. Virtanen remains a slim possibility, but it seems highly unlikely now that McCann will be freed up after the Canucks announced that Brandon Sutter would miss another four to six weeks after undergoing sports hernia surgery. That leaves the defending gold medalists with a likely center corps of Brayden Point, Dylan Strome, Matthew Barzal and John Quenneville. Not bad ... but not as good as it could be.
• Canada isn’t the only team that is hoping for reinforcements from North America. Sweden is putting the full-court press on the Maple Leafs to free AHL scoring leader William Nylander from the Marlies for the WJC. And according to one Swedish paper, Toronto is likely to comply.
A report in Aftonbladet suggests that Nylander, along with prospects Adrian Kempe (Kings) and Oliver Kylington (Flames) are likely to be released by their organizations in time for the tournament. Like Nylander, both Kempe and Kylington are playing in the AHL and thus more likely to be freed than players who are competing at the NHL level. Kempe is tied for second in scoring with the Ontario Reign with seven goals and 13 points in 17 games. Kylington has three goals while skating on the back end for the Stockton Heat.
With those three in the lineup, Sweden becomes a strong favorite to wrest the gold away from Canada.
• Back in 1998-99, the expansion Nashville Predators rocked a center corps of Cliff Ronning, Greg Johnson, Sebastien Bordeleau and Darren Turcotte. Thursday night, when they host the Panthers at Bridgestone Arena, they’re likely to dress Mike Ribeiro, Colton Sissons, Cody Hodgson and Cody Bass. As if they weren’t thin enough down the middle before, the injury to Mike Fisher (lower-body) leaves the Preds with a group that’s not even expansion quality. No one’s going to throw GM David Poile a lifeline at a time like this, but you can bet when Fisher returns and strengthens Poile’s hand the GM will start looking in earnest to make a much-needed upgrade.
• The biggest mistake the NHL made coming into this season? Aside from not guiding officials to crack down on interference, it had to be the selection of the Chicago Blackhawks over the Dallas Stars as the opponent for Minnesota’s Stadium Series game on February 21.
That’s not a knock on the Hawks, a team that remains a solid draw despite overexposure in these outdoor events. But with the Stars looking like the class of the Western Conference, this clearly was a marketing opportunity lost.
To be fair, the Stars were no sure thing to be this competitive heading into the season, especially after missing the playoffs in 2014-15. But there’s a lingering animosity in Minnesota towards the former North Stars that would have made for a great storyline. And if not that, then a chance to provide national exposure to reigning scoring champ Jamie Benn and his all-world linemate Tyler Seguin should have been an opportunity the league’s promotional staff leapt at.
As it stands, the Stars settled for just three appearances on the national broadcast schedule, including a Feb. 9 date on NBCSN when they travel to Minnesota. Maybe the league will do a better job of exposing two of its top three scorers next season.