I picked the brain of Aaron Portzline (@Aportzline), Blue Jackets beat writer for the Columbus Dispatch, on the topic of Kerby Rychel earlier today. Our conversation below.
I’m curious to know a little more about the trade request scenario with Kerby Rychel last summer. How did that come about and why wasn’t it facilitated originally?
Aaron Portzline: I think they would’ve traded him if the offer was right. I don’t think they ever got an offer that blew them away or they would’ve made the trade. I think they just reached a point where they decided they would get what they could for him and move on. It was a pretty sour relationship. I think both sides handled it professionally publicly, but it was not a rosy relationship. Shortly after he got drafted, it kind of took a turn.
What were the underlying reasons for the fallout so early on?
Portzline: I think there was frustration and a feeling, among Kerby and the people around him, that it was unfair how the other kids who were drafted in the first round – Alex Wennberg and Marko Dano – were quick to be given NHL opportunities, and Rychel was not. I think they felt he was held to a different standard for whatever reason.
There was some underlying stuff about the way he was handled in [the AHL]. Not that the coaching staff wasn’t great to him, just that he didn’t feel like there was an opportunity there to blow the doors off, which is usually what first round draft picks get in the American Hockey League as long as they are productive. And he was, for the most part, productive.
It got personal, and he felt slighted. I don’t mean this as a personal attack because I’d say it to his face: The kid has a big chip on his shoulder. He plays with a chip on his shoulder. He is one of those guys that is always ready, and if he feels slighted in any way, he’s going to let you know about it.
In terms of when he has been in the NHL, Kerby only played 9:30 on average in 32 games last season. What was the relationship with John Tortorella like? Was he given a fair shake in your estimation?
Portzline: Tortorella was there for this year but Kerby had been up in previous years, and I don’t think much was different. Honestly, watching the games he played, there were some times where we would think, “Boy, Kerby Rychel looks like he’s a difference maker. He’s playing a very forceful game.” But there were a lot of times and a lot of games where he would fade and he wasn’t an impact player. I don’t recall games where I thought, “he should be playing more,” based on his performance.
When you look at the situation the Blue Jackets were in — so far out of the playoffs — you think, “why wouldn’t they play a kid like this more?” But I can’t say that there were times that he deserved a tonne of ice time at the NHL level and didn’t get it. I don’t think that would be fair or accurate.
In terms of his game, what do you think has held him back? He had some gaudy goal-scoring numbers in junior. Do you think that could still translate? Do you think he could thrive in a bottom-six forward role if it doesn’t?
Portzline: Is he capable of being a bottom six forward? Absolutely. I think that might be where he lands. I’m going to reserve judgment on this kid because I don’t know that he — rightly or wrongly, fair or not – has been inspired to play his best hockey the last couple of years. I think it’s that simple. I think he could be rejuvenated by this. I think you could see a different element from him. He was a good player in the AHL playoffs, but he didn’t knock your socks off at that level.
Yeah, his production was middling during the AHL playoffs.
Portzline: Yeah, not great. I think the kid is going to be rejuvenated by the trade. I think he’s an NHL player, but I am not smart enough to say this is where he’s going to land or this is what he’s going to do. But I think he’s an NHL player.
Do you have a sense of what Torts, or anyone in organization while he was there, wanted Kerby to work on in order to play regularly in their NHL lineup?
Portzline: Last season was such a lost cause almost from the start. On an individual level, I think it’s like anybody else. They wanted to see him make an impact at both ends of the ice. A young guy should be pretty rambunctious and pretty motivated coming up from the AHL. They should demand more with their play. They always wanted to keep him hungry, but I think they wanted to see more bite from him, more engagement, more physical play. That’s the kind of stuff he did in junior. I get that he’s a different kind of player, and I think he wants to be a different kind of player, than his dad was. No offence to Warren, but Warren was a pure fighter. The kid — I think and a lot of people believe — has more to his game than that.
He’s not found a fit yet. He certainly didn’t find a fit here. I’ve got to say this, too – you’re calling kids up from the minors here in Columbus, and last year you’re putting him on a fourth line with Gregory Campbell and David Clarkson. That fourth line has been a holding tank rather than a change maker ever since they got rid of Derek McKenzie and Mark Letestu and Blake Comeau. It’s been where you put the guys who don’t fit anywhere else. It hasn’t been a line that has really made an impact.
That sounds like excuse making for Rychel, and he could’ve played his way off the line or he could’ve played his way higher in the lineup if he played better, but a lot of these kids, frankly, have not been surrounded by talent. They’ve not been put in a situation where it’s been easy for them to succeed. I think that’s fair, too.
What would you say his skating ability is like? I’ve seen some criticism in that area.
Portzline: I don’t think it’s great, but I think it’s certainly adequate. It’s not the reason he’s not in the NHL.