John Tortorella, Columbus Blue Jackets To Mutually Part Ways
With the NHL regular season wrapping up, every team is in the process of making decisions for their organization’s future. Not all of those decisions are easy ones. The Columbus Blue Jackets dismal of head coach John Tortorella, first reported by ESPN Saturday night, is both an easy and difficult call to make.
When the Blue Jackets brought in John Tortorella, the franchise was at a bit of a crossroads. After three consecutive 40 win seasons and their second playoff appearance in 2013-14, the club fell began the 2015-16 season a dismal 0-7-0, leading to the firing of head coach Todd Richards. In came Tortorella, one of the winningest coaches on the market. Torotrllea guided the Tampa Bay Lightning to their first Stanley Cup in 2004, which came in the middle of four consecutive playoff appearances.
After first-round exits in 2006 and 2007 and missing the playoffs entirely in 2008, Tortorella was let go, joining the Rangers late in the 2008-09 season. The Rangers lost in the first round that year, then missed the playoffs by the slimmest of margins the next year. Tortorella led the club to the playoffs each of the next three years; and in fact, the Rangers had the sixth-best regular-season record in the league during that span.
His tenure in New York culminated in an Eastern Conference Finals loss to the Devils in 2012. Tortorella was fired after a second-round exit in 2013 but quickly scooped up by the Vancouver Canucks. Tortorella’s tenure in Vancouver was an unmitigated disaster. From ticking off the star goalie, to trying to fight another coach, to the team missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008, nothing went right. Tortorella was fired after just one year in Vancouver.
Thankfully, his tenure in Columbus proved to be more successful. Tortorella wasn’t able to salvage the 2015-16 season; the Blue Jackets ultimately finished 27th in the league. But his influence led to instant and dramatic success the next season. Columbus came one win short of tying the 1992-93 Pittsburgh Penguins for the longest winning streak in NHL history, rattling off 16 consecutive wins from November 29-January 3. Columbus smashed their franchise records for wins and points, easily making the playoffs. But despite having the NHL’s fourth-best record, were the three seed in the stacked Metropolitan Division. They were vanquished in five games by the Penguins in round 1, but Tortorella still won the Jack Adams Award as the league’s best coach for his team’s incredible performance.
Columbus returned to the playoffs in 2018 and seemed poised to win their first playoff series after taking a 2-0 series lead with consecutive road wins over the Washington Capitals. But the Caps responded with four straight victories to take the series. Tension rose throughout the 2018-19 season, with star players Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky’s futures in doubt as pending UFAs. Bobrovsky even received a semi-suspension by Tortorella for acting out during a game. Despite buying heavily at the deadline, Columbus barely squeaked into the playoffs as the eighth seed.
Then, magic happened. After falling behind 3-0 in the first period of Game 1, Tortorella delivered this fiery speech at intermission. From that point on, Columbus outscored the Lightning 19-5 the rest of the series. They didn’t just beat Tampa Bay; they swept them in dominating fashion. The Blue Jackets ultimately fell in the second round to the Bruins, but that year became the franchise’s high-water mark. And despite losing Panarin, Bobrovsky, and Matt Duchene as UFAs last summer, the Blue Jackets kept rolling last season. Despite a plague of injuries, Columbus was well in the playoff hunt throughout the 2019-20 season. The Blue Jackets took down the Maple Leafs in the qualifier round, and though they didn’t have enough to take down Tampa for a second consecutive year, they certainly put up a strong fight.
But the rails came off this year. Hard. The warning signs came before the puck even dropped on the season when star center Pierre-Luc Dubois asked for a trade. The Blue Jackets kept him at first, but Dubois looked completely disengaged on the ice. Ultimately, he was benched by Tortorella before being traded to Winnipeg. The Blue Jackets acquired another star for him in Patrik Laine, but Tortorella mismanaged him, too. Laine was benched, then demoted in the lineup as Tortorella seemed to be trying to make Laine a player he wasn’t.
Tortorella has always been a demanding coach who expects responsible play from everyone at both ends of the ice. When that doesn’t happen, even from an Uber-talented player like Laine, things can get ugly. Laine struggled mightily, scoring just 21 points in 45 games with Columbus, a mere 38-point pace in a full season (his previous low is 50). Tortorella seemed to expect Laine to be a more complete player and was not content letting him simply do what he does best: score goals with one of the most lethal shots in hockey.
It would’ve been one thing if the struggles didn’t extend beyond Dubois and Laine. They did. The Blue Jackets finished with an awful 18-26-12 record, sixth-worst in the league and dead last in their own division. Behind the Red Wings. Columbus became an offensive black hole, scoring 2.39 goals per game (T-29th) and operating at just 15.4% on the power-play (27th). While the Blue Jackets have never been a stellar offensive team, their once great defensive game cratered. In Tortorella’s first full four seasons, the Blue Jackets ranked second in goals against per game (2.68), tied for ninth in PK (81.3%), and ninth in shots allowed per game (30.3). This season, they ranked 25th, 20th, and 28th in those categories, respectively. Literally, nothing went right for the 2020-21 Columbus Blue Jackets.
John Tortorella does have a very successful coaching track record. But it certainly seems like his demanding coaching style may have worn out its welcome in Columbus. Today’s young stars seem to generally be more in favor of positive reinforcement and encouragement. On the other hand, Tortorella’s style has always been a demanding and critical one. That’s not to say Tortorella can’t adapt or remain a successful coach in the NHL. After all, Tortorella did a great job at getting the most out of the team for the last four seasons. But it became clear this season that Columbus wasn’t going to reach the next level with him behind the bench.
General manager Jarmo Kekäläinen will begin his second coaching search since becoming Columbus’ GM in 2013. There are established names such as Bruce Boudreau and Gerrard Gallant (who coached the Blue Jackets from 2004-2006) out on the coaching market. Kekäläinen could also look to fill the void from the college ranks, overseas, or a current NHL assistant or AHL coach.
From looking at their CapFriendly page, you can tell this offseason will be a critical one for the Blue Jackets. Laine is an RFA. Seth Jones is a UFA at the end of next season and will be eligible for an extension when free agency opens. The same goes for Max Domi, who had a very disappointing first year in Columbus. The team needs to find a replacement at center for Dubois. They could move on from one of their two solid young goalies. But none of it will matter much if Kekäläinen doesn’t find the right fit behind the bench.
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