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Blue Jackets searching for the right mix to end losing skid

Kekalainen, Tortorella address recent issues ahead of tonight's game vs. Detroit

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider /

The way Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen sees it, his hockey team has a confidence problem, not a coaching problem. 

And it will be up to the current coaching staff to rectify that issue. 

With a recent five-game losing streak that has pushed Columbus to seventh of eight teams in the Central Division by points percentage, the GM met with the media Tuesday ahead of tonight's game vs. Detroit to discuss what ails the team. 

And while Kekalainen sees a team that has struggled to find its game this year, particularly when it comes to belief on the puck, he also sees a coaching staff that has steered this ship out of issues before and believes it will happen again. 

"It hasn't been a lack of hard work or anything like that that we haven't had success," Kekalainen said. "I think our biggest concern right now is we need to have the courage to just play the game and enjoy it and have the puck. We give up on the puck too easily. We play it safe, if you want to call it that, rather than going for it. I've talked about this many times now that we all started playing hockey because we wanted to have the puck, and I don't think we want the puck enough. Once we get it, we don't want to keep it enough. 

"That leads to puck possession for the other team. Now you're stuck defending rather than having the puck, which is the best defense you can have is having the puck in the other teams' end. We haven't had it there nearly enough this year. That's probably one of the reasons that has led to our problems, but we have a new opportunity tonight again to get back on track.  

"I wanted to have this call to just clarify that this coaching staff has gotten us out of the slumps before. They have done a great job for us in the past five, six years that they've been here. They're the ones that are going to get us out of this jam as well with the team that we have." 

The lack of confidence on the puck has been a consistent theme for Tortorella over the past week as well, as the head coach watched his team struggle mightily through the first 20 minutes of last Tuesday's shootout loss to Chicago and ever since has spoken about how the team needs to loosen up and just add an element of fun to its game.  

Last Wednesday, that meant a practice in which Tortorella didn't go on the ice, instead letting his assistants put the team through a spirited practice that included small-area games and ended with a shootout competition. But that hasn't made much of an impact, as the Blue Jackets were shut out Thursday by Chicago despite playing a much better game, then went to Nashville and were swept this weekend while totaling two goals in the two games. 

Captain Nick Foligno used the word "timid" to describe the Jackets after the second game of that series, adding that the players need to "trust what makes you a great player." But confidence from results on the ice has been hard to come by, with the team's early-season defensive woes making the team so cautious in its own zone that offense is now hard to come by. 

"We need some good things to happen for us," Tortorella said Tuesday. "Not just one, maybe two or three good shifts in a row, maybe a couple of goals in a row, again, just to relax them. It's a major problem with us is that we are a team that is uptight and it mounts on us.  

"You saw what happened in our last game against Nasville. We score the first goal, then we turn one over, they score a goal. We're playing pretty good at the time, and then our whole game changes. We get into kind of a panic mode." 

Tortorella has admitted to having to walk a fine line this year, with the team's struggles and its youth down the middle of the ice leading to the staff having to balance wanting to correct mistakes without wanting to paralyze players with too many thoughts going through their heads.  

Tortorella also said that the coaching staff has tried to find the right identity for the team as it has gone through some big early-season changes, including the blockbuster trade of center Pierre-Luc Dubois for Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic that has added some skill but left a hole in the middle of the ice and reduced the team's physical presence.  

As the coaches have searched for the right notes to hit, Kekalainen said that he hasn't seen players turn a deaf ear to the staff's message. Speaking after morning skate, longtime CBJ forward Cam Atkinson agreed.  

"There's been no tuning out," Atkinson said. "Not even the slightest bit. It's not a coaching issue. It's a players issue. We can't have one or two guys going. We need everybody to be going and feeling good about themselves. It's not going to happen overnight. Even if it happens in one game, you have to continue that into the next game." 

While speculation around the team can only be solved with wins, Tortorella said he appreciated the support from Kekalainen during today's press conference.  

"I hate him having to do that, but I appreciate it," Tortorella said. "I'm not sure what was said, but we're all big boys here. When you're losing games and you're playing as poorly as we're playing, those questions need to be asked. I expected those questions to be asked probably earlier, but it doesn't determine how I coach.  

"I've always lived by I'm going to coach the team to try to help this team win. I'm not going to going to coach a team to try to keep my job. I'm going to try to coach the team to do the best I can for the team and organization. That will never change." 

Tortorella also said that he and Kekalainen have had numerous discussions on how to improve the team over the past few days, while Kekalainen described his efforts to right the ship as a "24/7" quest. The GM had hoped to address the team today about its recent skid but couldn't do so because of COVID precautions that kept both him and the head coach at home for morning skate, but his belief is that the turnaround for the Blue Jackets is in the cards for the near future. 

"I just want everybody to know that we are all trying to get figure out ways to get out of this," Kekalainen said. "We're not happy with the situation. We aren't happy with the way we've played and underperformed. We're trying to stay positive and find ways to get out of it."

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