If you’re a general manager of a young, talented, up-and-coming team seeking a coach to get the right message across, John Tortorella should be atop your wish list.
There’s no better proof of that than Tampa Bay, where he took over a fledgling team representing a fledgling franchise in a fledgling hockey market and made it into a Stanley Cup champion. In the process, he kickstarted the careers of longtime stars Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards, Pavel Kubina, and Dan Boyle.
Should you have a coach in your back pocket should the best laid plans go awry? For sure. The message might wear on the guys in the room as the years go on, as happened later in Tortorella’s Tampa years – which, in fairness, happens to most coaches. It was rinse and repeat, after all, in New York when despite not winning a Cup molded the careers of Derek Stepan, Ryan McDonagh, Brandon Dubinsky, Chris Kreider, Henrik Lundqvist, Michael Del Zotto, and Carl Hagelin, among others. The Rangers didn’t reach the Stanley Cup in his tenure, but did qualify the year after his 2013 Broadway dismissal.
Now he’s doing it again with the Blue Jackets.
After Tortorella’s reputation was torn to shreds in a disastrous 2013-14 season in Vancouver, in which he was a bad fit in a bad situation, he landed in Columbus in October 2015. Taking over a club that was out to an 0-7 start under Todd Richards, the Jackets went 34-33-8 the rest of the way. While Columbus missed the playoffs, things were at least stabilized following the coaching change.
The Blue Jackets have taken off in season two, a full offseason under the lead of the 58-year-old coach (save for a hiatus in September to coach Team USA in the World Cup of Hockey, in which Tortorella didn’t come out looking good, to put it nicely).
Out to a 20-5-4 record, the Jackets’ 44 points are good enough for third place in the Metropolitan Division, a standing that is no indicator of just how strong this team has through one-third of the season. Columbus is the hottest team in hockey with nine straight wins, and sits a point behind Pittsburgh and three behind the Rangers in the Metro. The Jackets have three games in hand on the Penguins, five on New York.
Columbus is a franchise that has seen no success since setting up shop in 2000, with just a pair of playoff appearances scattered among a bevy of disappointing seasons. It’s a situation not dissimilar to what Tortorella walked into in Tampa Bay when he took over the 2001. Only thing is Tortorella finds himself on a bench closer to contention this time.
Few goaltenders have been as good as Sergei Bobrovsky since he was traded to Ohio from Philadelphia in 2012. Among goalies to play 180 games since the start of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season (in which Bobrovsky won the Vezina Trophy), Bobrovsky is tied with Cory Schneider and Henrik Lundqvist with a .922 save percentage. Only Carey Price (.927), Tuukka Rask (.924), and Corey Crawford (.923) have stopped pucks at a higher rate over that span. The 28-year-old is playing his best hockey yet, with a .932 save percentage and 1.94 GAA in 26 games.
Columbus is good in front of Bobrovsky as well, much better than in recent years. The Blue Jackets are a combination of quick, strong, and skilled on the back end while being heavy and creative up front. Zach Werenski has been one of the league’s best rookies, while Seth Jones joins him as a budding star on the blue line. Jack Johnson and David Savard are reliable defenseman that aren’t too old but have experience and can play big minutes. Cam Atkinson, Nick Foligno, Sam Gagner, Boone Jenner, Brandon Saad, and Alex Wennberg have brought the blend of brawn and skill to the forward position.
This team has been among the more talented, young squads in the NHL for some time. The Jackets have been no stranger to the trendy ‘breakout pick’ in recent falls.
That breakout appears to be happening, and it’s all coming together under Tortorella. Just as it did in Tampa Bay. Just as it did in New York.
When Tortorella won his 500th game by way of the Jackets 4-3 overtime win at Vancouver on Sunday night, he entered unchartered territory among American-born coaches. He joined a fraternity that includes just 24 of the 362 coaches (per hockey-reference.com) to command an NHL bench. He joins a group of 10 active coaches in Joel Quenneville (823), Ken Hitchcock (774), Lindy Ruff (715), Barry Trotz (677), Darryl Sutter (611), Alain Vigneault (589), Paul Maurice (571), Mike Babcock (568), Dave Tippett (534), and Claude Julien (529). Not bad company. And it comes as no fluke.