It was a decision John Tortorella mulled for a while.
The Blue Jackets' coach didn't award the role of alternate captain to veteran defenseman Jack Johnson earlier this week, and subsequently take it away from veteran center Brandon Dubinsky, on a whim.
He thought it over and made the switch for two main reasons: He wanted a veteran defenseman to wear an 'A' among the Jackets' talented corps of young defensemen, namely Zach Werenski (age 20) and Seth Jones (age 23). He also wanted Dubinsky, who'd had the 'A' for five seasons, to focus on improving his individual game.
"I just know Jack," Tortorella said Thursday after practice at Nationwide Arena. "Jack doesn't say much, but he leads by example. I think he's been a leader since he's come into this league. This is something, quite honestly, I've thought about for a long time ... not so much rewarding Jack, but we have such a young back end there. I wanted someone back there, so the situation with [Dubinsky], it kind of pushes me that way."
Dubinsky has no goals and two assists in nine games to start the season, which isn't up to his usual standards.
He missed practice Monday for personal reasons, but Tortorella said there is no connection between that and the alternate captain decision. He'd just like to see Dubinsky get back to his usual caliber of play, and felt the time was right to make the switch.
"'Duby' and I have had a very frank conversation about that," said Tortorella, who also coached Dubinsky with the New York Rangers. "That's one thing him and I can have. We've gone through a lot together, good and bad. I just think it's for the good of him. It's a two-fold thing here. Jack Johnson is a leader. He's an old-school guy. I think some of the young guys need some of the old-school stuff too. Sometimes, it's just the will, and Jack certainly oozes that."
Tortorella also knows Dubinsky will still be a big part of the Jackets' locker room.
"'Duby's' going to lead," Tortorella said. "He's a leader. Not through his mouth, through his play. People follow him with his play. We need his play to do more of the speaking than worrying about a letter on your chest."
That process started Wednesday, when Dubinsky played one of his best games after being re-paired with linemates Boone Jenner and Cam Atkinson. Tortorella made the switch about halfway through the Jackets' 5-1 win against the Buffalo Sabres, as part of a full shakeup of his forward lines.
It didn't take long to pay dividends. The Jackets scored three goals in 2:59 to blow the game open with a 4-0 lead. Jones scored the first of the barrage, assisted by Dubinsky and Atkinson. That opened the floodgates.
After the period ended, Dubinsky saw Atkinson. His first two words to his former linemate from last season: "Welcome home."
That move was made because Tortorella had waited long enough for Atkinson, Alexander Wennberg and Artemi Panarin to click consistently as the top line. It didn't happen, and Dubinsky also struggled centering the third line.
"I don't think [Dubinsky's] played well," Tortorella said. "I don't think Cam's played well. I do think Cam and [Panarin] have a little bit of chemistry, but it just didn't feel good to me, and it didn't look good to me consistently enough. 'Duby' has struggled right from the get-go here, and I thought he felt much more comfortable when we put that [line back] together."
As for Johnson, who's playing his 12th NHL season, wearing the 'A' is an opportunity to impact his younger teammates even more. He also made it clear that Dubinsky's leadership status is the same as before.
"It is what it is," Johnson said. "Brandon Dubinsky's a leader on our team, whether he has a letter or not. That's not going to change how he's viewed in this room and his importance to our team, and he knows that. He's been around long enough, and he knows how valuable he is to us."
That still doesn't erase the sting for Dubinsky.
"I mean, listen, I'm human," he said. "Obviously, it hurts a little bit to have that role taken away. I mean, for me to just say I don't really care would be a complete lie, and [people] know me better than that. Yeah, it was a tough conversation, without a doubt, but I owe it to my teammates to be who I am, the player this team needs me to be. I'm not going to let that affect me.
"I was pissed off, but you're not always going to be happy. [I've] just got to move forward and look after myself, and try to help this team get better and win hockey games."
News & Notes
TORTORELLA LIKES LOOK OF NEW LINES
Aside from re-joining Dubinsky with Jenner and Atkinson, Tortorella's tinkering Wednesday created different looks for the other three lines.
He was happy with the top three against Buffalo, which all have a balance of skill, grit and two-way players. The fourth he's less sure about, with rookies Sonny Milano and Pierre-Luc Dubois on the wings, but he sees potential there too.
The former top line of Panarin, Alexander Wennberg and Atkinson are now split onto different groups.
"I spent a month before the season stating we're going to have [Wennberg] married to [Panarin], and you've got to be very careful," Tortorella said. "Things look good on paper, but sometimes it just doesn't work on the ice. So, I like the way it settled [Wednesday]. I thought when we changed the lines, it changed our game. As always, I'm going to watch it and try to stay with it, but I'm never going to be a coach to just sit there and watch us die on the vine with it, either."
The new lineup puts Josh Anderson, a 6-foot-3, 221-pound power forward who can skate, at right wing on Panarin's line. Captain Nick Foligno is in the middle. They played well together against Buffalo, and combined to score the final goal on a wrist shot by Anderson late in the third period.
"I was pretty excited," Anderson said. "When you get to play with those two skilled guys, [Foligno] and [Panarin], you just want to give the puck to them as much as you can, because you know you're going to get it back. You've got to be ready, with your stick on the ice, because they're going to be looking for you all night."