ESNY

A calm, redefined and proven winner in John Tortorella looks to reinvigorate the Columbus Blue Jackets based on past success and failures.

By William Chase

In October John Tortorella addressed the Columbus Blue Jackets struggles, at the time as an analyst for NHL Network’s NHL Tonight.

This was Oct. 19, the program breaking down the teams’ 0-6 start, Tortorella speaking at ease regarding the teams’ struggles.

“It’s fixable” he would say. “It’s not too late.”

Torts reiterated the Jackets are a good team, that the losing trend to start the season can happen in the middle of the season or the end, and that their current situation was not a time to panic.


John Tortorella would take over for the fired Todd Richards two days later.

Whether or not Torts and Blue Jackets’ brass had already been talking contract, who knows. Tortorella maintained he had not been contacted by any team per a Frank Seravalli article for TSN Oct. 20.

No, I have’t. I think it’s an absolute joke that they have these percentages of who’s going to get fired first. It’s such a disrespected position. It drives me crazy how people treat it. So, no, I have not been contacted and the coaches being talked about are real good coaches.

If looking back, anyone takes what Tortorella said on Oct. 19 to heart regarding his saying the Jackets are a good team despite the struggles, and that he was simply kissing up to his future employers and soon-to-be new team, Torts was already on the record as having said Columbus would make the playoffs, on the same NHL Tonight program before the season.

When Tortorella spoke as an analyst, particularly about the Blue Jackets struggles, he was calm and his hockey IQ shined through from all the years as a head coach from around the league.

Of course it’s one thing to be talking about another team on television. It’s also easy to be calm when you’re not the one behind the bench and actually going through the 0-6 start.

Before the season, when he picked the Blue Jackets as a playoff team, he referenced his 2004 Tampa Bay Lightning team — a team he won the Stanley Cup with — and mentioned the Blue Jackets, like his Lightning team, may not feel the pressure. That they can just go out and play.

When Torts addressed the teams’ struggles as an analyst in October, he brought up the pressure again. He referenced the Jackets 15-1-1 run down the stretch last season and mentioned how the team, though trying but ultimately falling short in making the playoffs, were a team that was an underdog. The team was just able to go out and play and not worry about anything else.

This season everyone, all the TV pundits, had expectations for a team that had largely been irrelevant across the NHL landscape, as far as postseason is concerned. How does a team deal with these expectations?

A team learns a lot about itself when it goes through good times, but especially bad times. As an analyst Torts even said they will be better for the bad start to the season. It’s cliché but it’s true.

Whether or not Tortorella had been contacted by teams, and whether or not Columbus had been contemplating a coaching change, whether prior to Oct. 20 when he was quoted as having said he had not been contacted, it was evident Columbus felt a change was needed.

The Torts era adds a new chapter, but it was also the end of another.

Todd Richards goes down as perhaps the most successful Blue Jackets coach in their short history. After all he’s the only coach to net a victory in the playoffs for Columbus when they took two from the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2014 Quarterfinals.

Going into the season, the defense was an area of concern for Columbus. Amid the 0-7 start to the season, the level at which the team was getting outplayed spoke to it being more than just a concern.

It was an all-out dire code-red.

The team gave up at least four goals each game. Columbus had scored just 13 goals, allowed an NHL-worst 34, and former Vezina-winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky had a horrendous 5.07 GAA, 83.5 save percentage.

For a team that finished the prior season on a 16-2-1 run, had brought in Stanley Cup star Brandon Saad in the offseason and had been talked about as a playoff team, this was not the start anyone could have imagined.

A change was sorely needed, and it was unfortunate that it had to cost a good coach in Richards his job. Coach Todd Richards was highly regarded from his players and everyone from within the organization and around the Central-Ohio community.

But you can’t fire the players.

For people who think of John Tortorella, you probably remember his last coaching stop in Vancouver, when he just about took on the entire Calgary Flames team in the hallway January 18th, 2014.

He brings with him a fire that keeps players accountable. From locker room-laden profanity sessions to hoisting the Cup a decade earlier with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Tortorella has had his share of successes, mixed with controversy, during his NHL coaching career.

Tortorella’s introductory press-conference in Columbus featured what appeared to be a calmer version of the fiery coach.

Perhaps just glad to be back in the NHL, the coach spoke of needing to listen to those around him.

I want the players talking to me. I want to listen to what they have to say because we’re in a little bit of a rut and I’m still trying to get used to who they are. I want them to feel that they can come to the coaching staff and we can grow together here

Again, it sounded good. It’s another to go out there and prove it.

As of today, the Blue Jackets are 4-4 under Torts, and Sergei Bobrovsky is 4-3 with a .928 SV% his last five games. He’s only allowed more than two goals in a game once since the Torts takeover, and hasn’t allowed four since before the Richards departure.

A marked improvement since the beginning of the season for the team, and goalie, who at one point had been reduced to admitting he had “zero confidence.”

Though it’s a small sample size, there are more than a few reasons to be optimistic about the Columbus Blue Jackets being guided by John Tortorella.

He has the winning pedigree, he has the fire to keep players in line, and he’s not afraid to call anyone out or say it like it is. He may be mellowed but it’s still John Tortorella we’re talking about.

As an NHL network analyst at the time, Tortorella stressed that this Blue Jackets team would be better for the winless start, and perhaps most notably connected with that, the adversity associated with the losing. Now he is the one responsible for getting this team turned around.

At the time of the hire, Brandon Dubinsky would say per an Associated Press article picked up by ESPN, “he’s proven he’s a good coach. He’s going to help our group.”

Of course those familiar with the Brandon Dubinsky vs. John Tortorella saga in New York when both were with the Rangers, might remember these two have had their history, both good and bad.

Through the success together of playoff teams in New York, Dubinsky and Torts would have their at-odds moments.

In 2012 upon talking about his return to New York to face the Rangers for the first time following his trade to Columbus for star winger Rick Nash, Dubinsky per Pat Leonard, NY Daily News would say “I think my relationship with Torts fell apart the last year that I was there (in New York).”

Upon Tortorella’s arrival in Columbus last month, he right away noted that Dubinsky would be among the leaders he would rely on. He knew Dubinsky. He didn’t know many, if any, of the other players in that dressing room.

Per Aaron Portzline, The Columbus Dispatch:

“We spent a lot of time together in New York. I had him at a different stage of his career, when he was a young kid. We went through the process, him and I, some good things and some bad things. But that was my first meeting, was sitting down with Dubi when I came into the building here. It was so good to see him. He is a family man now.”

No matter the history, Dubinsky — four goals, seven assists — has simply flourished so far under Torts with eight of his 11 points coming in the Torts era. Starting day one, Oct. 22 at the Minnesota Wild, Dubi would play his most minutes he had played all season up to that point.

The team would fall to 0-8 that night in Minnesota, a 3-2 defeat, but it was already an improvement considering how badly the team had been. For instance it was the first game that wasn’t decided by more than a goal.

Though the team had the same pieces, and Tortorella was the only change for a team that would fall to 0-8 before getting its first win against the Colorado Avalanche, sometimes the hiring of a new coach is a kick in the you know what that a team needs.

From hoisting the Stanley Cup in Tampa Bay, to leading the New York Rangers to the beginning of sustained success, to the disaster of a one-year tenure in Vancouver, Tortorella is the right guy to lead the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Per ESPN’s Joe McDonald, Scott Hartnell had this to say:

“He’s a very intense individual. Watching film, he calls guys out on film, which didn’t happen too much before, even before I got here. It’s a different atmosphere. It makes guys be held accountable, which is a great thing. Hopefully, it means a bunch more wins here. I wear my heart on my sleeve and he does the same thing, so it’s great.”

Regarding Tortorella’s approach, no filter and all, Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekäläinen spoke to reasons regarding why the team felt John was a good match.

I’m a big believer that honesty is the best policy. I’m sure he’s rough around the edges every once in a while, but I don’t mind that either. I also think that some of the things that may have haunted a little bit in the past, he’s learned from them. We’re getting a new and improved version of John Tortorella.

Kekäläinen spoke to the team doing its due dilligence regarding Tortorella, including representatives that worked with Torts in Tampa Bay, the New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks, with most reports indicating players thought Tortorella “was the best coach they ever had.”

It was Tortorella’s winning record, but perhaps most importantly his ability to win in the past mixed with his leadership and being a good teacher that appealed to Kekäläinen.

While having his success along the way, Torts has also had to make decisions along the way that may have led to strained relationships with players, including Brad Richards — currently a member of the Detroit Red Wings and a past-member of Torts’ 2004 champion Lightning squad — who was benched in a Rangers playoff series the year he was fired.

In Vancouver, the Canucks were heavily injured and depth within the organization was thin. It’s also tough considering the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks, all yearly playoff and Stanley Cup contenders, all reside in the same Pacific Division.

Whether or not Columbus can make the playoffs this season — 10 points out of the second Wild Card with 67 games to go certainly suggests there’s more than a chance — the approach under Tortorella has helped a team struggling on defense and in goal play significantly better, but also find its identity.

An identity being they’re getting back to the little things. Being the hard team to play against, and a team that has a physical touch. They have scored 22 goals, and allowed 20; Bob appears to be regaining his Vezina-winning form.

According to McDonald, per one Eastern Conference executive “I think it’s a perfect fit for him. Columbus has a team capable of playing his preferred big-bodied style and it really helps him that they have been overhyped without ever having success. He will use that to motivate him.”

With words like jerk, loyal, competitive, tough and winner being being bandied about when describing Tortorella, there’s one thing that’s clear:

John Tortorella is proven.

And now he can use all the past success, all the negatives, and use that to rewrite the script to a season that started out against anyone’s wildest dreams.

The Jackets next game will be at home against Tortorella’s last coaching stop, the Vancouver Canucks. As they still search for win No. 1 at Nationwide Arena, you know John Tortorella would love to get that elusive home win against his old team.

Especially one he didn’t stick around long enough with to prove his success, the method to his madness.

Next: 2015-16 Version Of New York Rangers Is The Best Yet

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William Chase is editor at Elite Sports NY, and has been featured on such prominent websites including Bleacher Report. William is also currently the Marketing & Media Relations Intern for the Augusta GreenJackets.