Blue Jackets Looking For Creative Ways to Overcome Pandemic Challenges

This NHL season is truly unique in many ways. It’s also truly challenging for everyone involved.

Whether it’s having to stay at the hotel full-time on the road or handle extra things because of Covid protocols, making this season work is a huge adjustment from the norm.

For members of the Columbus Blue Jackets, there’s one thing in particular some players are struggling with. They’re struggling with this element because it’s something that takes them out of their comfort zone. The reality is there’s no easy solution to this problem.

Welcoming New Teammates, Pandemic Style

Think back to the world prior to the Covid-19 outbreak. What would happen when new players came on board? The new guys would be welcomed to the team in various ways.

It could be a night out on the town somewhere. It could be an invitation to someone’s house for lunch or dinner and mingling. Maybe they go to a sporting event as a group.

Thanks to the pandemic, none of this is happening.

In fact, thanks to the rules in place players must follow, there is very limited in-person interaction. This puts a strain on players who tend to be more social. It’s a major adjustment to the way they normally live their life. Outside of virtual meetings, the only in-person interaction for the players is during practices. With new protocols just implemented, they can’t even arrive to the rink prior to one hour and fifteen minutes from the game. All meetings must be done virtually as well.

Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno joined me this past week on the season debut of Catching Up With the Captain. We got into a discussion about this topic and he admitted just how much of a struggle it is not being able to have that social interaction especially with so many new faces in the locker room.

“Yeah you know what?” Foligno said. “It’s probably been the hardest thing for me because I’m so social when it comes to that. That’s my favorite way of getting to know guys, having them over for dinner, having them meet my family, getting to know them off the ice. Lunches on the road, dinners on the road. That’s actually been a struggle. It’s something that we’re trying to figure out as we’ve gone along here because we’re trying to respect the Covid protocols and not put anybody in danger.”

“Early on, if I’m being honest, I haven’t really liked the lack of time we’ve been able to spend with each other. I’m trying to figure out ways. It’s just hard. It is a fine line you walk. That’s what I’m trying to fight with. As the schedule opens up I think it’s going to allow us more time where we have off days where you can set something up in a safe way on the road for guys to be together.”

“That’s one thing about our team. We really like being around each other,” Foligno continued. “It’s important for that camaraderie and the way we play so it’s going to be a focus of mine coming up for sure.”

Recently, defenseman Michael Del Zotto brought up the social aspect of this. He admitted struggling with this too.

“The biggest thing I’ve struggled with to be honest with you (has) been getting to know the guys,” Del Zotto said. “With the Covid restrictions and not being able to spend time with your teammates away from the rink, (it) has been tough on me. I’m a very vocal, I like to have fun. I like to joke around with the guys. I like to get to know guys personally and keep the room light. It certainly doesn’t help with the restrictions we have, so that’s probably been my biggest struggle.”

The Blue Jackets have several new faces in the locker room. The likes of Del Zotto, Max Domi, Patrik Laine and Mikhail Grigorenko have had to adjust without the benefit of much social interaction. It will be interesting to see how this develops as time moves on.

But for now, given the way the protocols are set, expect limited social interaction to continue. What kinds of ideas can be thought of to try to overcome this obstacle? Foligno and others will work hard to try to find something. But in this most unusual of seasons, there might not be much that can be done until the virus is more contained. Among the many challenges facing teams this season, this could be one of the hardest to overcome. We’ll see how it all plays out.

Extra Side Dishes

  • Tortorella said Saturday that Zach Werenski will be out of the lineup on Sunday against the Carolina Hurricanes. He left Thursday’s game but then came back to the bench only to not see the ice. He was limping. The team is awaiting for more information as to the exact nature of the injury and how long he might miss.
  • Goalie Elvis Merzlikins remains day-to-day but Tortorella had no further update. Matiss Kivlenieks is the backup and could see some action with back-to-backs coming up. Joonas Korpisalo is the expected starter for Sunday’s 3 P.M. puck drop. The team is not holding a morning availability.
  • There will be some other changes in the lineup for Sunday. With Werenski out, it is expected that Scott Harrington would enter the lineup. He skated with Michael Del Zotto on Saturday at practice. Dean Kukan skated with Seth Jones. Also Liam Foudy is expected to rejoin the lineup and Grigorenko would sit. Foudy would have to be recalled to the roster as he’s on the taxi squad. Stay tuned for some roster moves in the lead up to the game.
  • Tortorella said that with the team being 12 games in, he is going to make lineup decisions based on merit. He has not been able to settle on consistent lines as of yet. “It has been a point of contention for us as far as our center ice and hence that’s what brings into exactly what our lines are going to be. I would love to settle in on some lines…I want to feel good about our four-line situation but I have not been able to do that.”
John Tortorella Columbus Blue Jackets
John Tortorella hasn’t been able to settle on lines yet in part because center ice is in flux. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)
  • For now, Domi is moving to the wing. Tortorella said it has been a struggle early on for him. This will give him a chance to put Alexandre Texier back at center ice. The four centers expected for Sunday will be Roslovic, Texier, Riley Nash and Mikko Koivu.
  • Kukan is going to at least start with Jones on Sunday. Here’s Tortorella on what has stood out about him to get this chance: “He’s probably been one of our better defensemen in skating the puck out of our end zone and turning the net and just taking off. He’s made some good offensive plays, not afraid to make an offensive play. I think the flipper is an important part of the National Hockey League. The flipper is a really important play but we’re relying on it way too much where there are plays to be made and we’re just not seeing it. And when we do see them, it’s just not a sharp enough pass. Kuks has been one of our better ones in getting us out of our end zone while making some offensive plays.”
  • And finally on some tougher lineup decisions, Tortorella admitted he isn’t sure if taking Grigorenko out is the right call. But in his words, this goes back to merit. These things can change but with more than 20% of the season gone, he’s going to watch things really closely in regards to who gets to play. Kevin Stenlund played well before his injury and now can’t wait to get back in. And the Blue Jackets missed Foudy’s speed. But if you see a lineup change moving forward not injury related, it will be based on merit in Tortorella’s sight.

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