It was always easy for me to tell when Raffi Torres was going to do something because, like a kid about to pinch a $20 bill out of the old man’s wallet, he’d telegraph the electrical charges surging through his brain with rapid side-to-side eye movements.
The problem I, not to mention various coaches, general managers and teammates, had was knowing exactly what Torres was going to do — score a great goal, deliver a cerebellum-rattling check or make a remarkably stupid play.
Figuring that out these days falls to Columbus Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock and GM Scott Howson, who dealt Gilbert Brule to the Edmonton Oilers July 1 to get Torres, a player so good when he’s on it’s scary and so bad when he’s not it is to laugh out loud. One thing I do know is that Raffi’s eyes will be dancing Wednesday at Nationwide Arena when he stares down the Oilers for the first time since the trade.
We’ll get something — a rush to the net that creates a goal or a nasty pile-up in the crease, a shoulder to the mush of Ales Hemsky or Sam Gagner that gets Steve MacIntyre rumbling through the gate or a tape-to-tape pass to Shawn Horcoff in the slot for the game-winner late in the third period.
“I don’t know if I’ve got the secret to motivating him, but I know he’s brought a lot of energy to our team,” said Hitchcock, who’ll play Torres on left wing with Michael Peca and Fredrik Modin against the Oilers. “We’ve had a real quiet locker room and bench for a number of years now and he’s a big add in that area. He brings a lot of enthusiasm and energy.”
Like a box of chocolates
Anybody who’s been an Oilers fan for more than 10 minutes knows the book on Torres. Calling him streaky doesn’t nearly cover it. On any given shift Torres can look like a dominant top-six power forward capable of scoring 30 goals a season. Nasty. Skilled. When Raffi runs hot, he’ll score five goals in six games.
Two trips over the boards later, it seems obvious Torres never played the game above Midget house league. Bonehead plays. Dumb penalties. He’ll go colder than an ex-wife and, when his confidence inevitably dips, he’ll be AWOL for 10 straight games.
Torres, 27, is the ultimate risk-and-reward player. Howson knows that reality better than anybody after the years he spent in Edmonton as Kevin Lowe’s assistant GM.
“You hope everybody matures as a player as they get more comfortable in the league,” Howson said. “Raffi’s at that point. It’s a matter of consistency and we have to try to get more of it out of him.”
Howson saw Torres’ 20-goal season in 2003-04 and his 27-goal year in 2005-06. He also watched him struggle mightily in 2006-07, when Torres dipped to 15 goals, and last season, when a knee injury limited him to 32 games. He’s seen Torres at best and his worst. Howson weighed the good, the bad and the ugly. Then, with eyes wide open, he dealt Brule to Edmonton to get him.
“We know that he’s a game-changer and a dynamic player at times both physically and skill-wise,” Howson said. “It’s up to us to make sure that he does it consistently. “There’s no question in our mind he makes us a better team. That’s why we made the trade.”
Torres will play just his third game of the season when the Oilers come calling. After recovering from knee surgery this off-season, he separated his shoulder in a pre-season scrap with Ben Eager. He didn’t return to action until a game against Chicago last week. He doesn’t have a goal, a point or a penalty minute in his first two games.
“I think a lot of it with him is patience,” Hitchcock said. “He’s like any player. When you get impatient you start running around looking for action that’s not there. You get caught out of position. You force things.
“The other thing with Raffi is he’s a lot about who he plays with. I think he played his best (with Edmonton) when he played with Peca and Fernando Pisani. If we play him with mature players, I think he can be a real effective player for us.”
Having interviewed Torres at the 2000 Entry Draft in Calgary — the New York Islanders took him fifth overall — and talking with people about him, I thought he had a chance to be something special.
Despite his frustrating inconsistency, he still does, although with Columbus being his third NHL team, the clock is ticking.
I know why the Oilers moved him, but I’m of the mind that if Hitchcock and Howson find a way to get the best out of Torres and get it consistently, they’ll win this trade hands down, no matter what Brule does down the road.
Of course, that, the book on Torres tells us, is easier said than done.
— Listen to Robin Brownlee every Thursday from 4 to 6 p.m. on Just A Game with Jason Gregor on Team 1260.