John Tortorella a dicey hire by the Blue Jackets, but he buys time
It was only a matter of time before something changed for the woeful Columbus Blue Jackets. On Wednesday morning, something did.
Todd Richards is out as the team’s head coach after three seasons, replaced by professional lightning rod John Tortorella.
Richards became the first coaching casualty of the season after the Jackets put forth another listless effort against the Islanders on Tuesday night. Their 4–0 loss dropped their season record to 0-7, an historically bad start. Just six teams in NHL history have stumbled out of the blocks so miserably.
Change, then, was necessary. Whether or not this was the right change remains to be seen.
The 57-year-old Tortorella has had success in this league. He’s won 446 games, the most ever by an American-born coach, and led the Lightning to the Stanley Cup in 2004.
His recent history though is less than glossy. He”s been fired twice in the past three seasons—by the Rangers in 2013 and the Canucks in 2014 after losing respect in both rooms. His temper and his intransigence were commonly cited as reasons, but he had deeper failings that should give Jackets fans pause.
“I don’t think our mindset was ready for the level you need to be at,” Tortorella said just prior to his dismissal in New York. “That’s what I struggle with right now. I didn’t do a good enough job in correcting ... their mindset.”
The brass in Columbus must believe he’s corrected that failing because if there’s anything this team needs, it’s an adjustment of its mindset. The Jackets’ lack of confidence in themselves and their teammates is evident on nearly every shift as players scramble to cover assignments other than their own and sag deeply after mistakes, a habit that’s repeatedly led to the opposition scoring goals in bunches during this skid.
There’s also Tortorella’s obsession with all-hands-on-deck shot blocking, a strategy that’s been proven to be of questionable value. Sure, it can help a team with sketchy goaltending, but it was redundant with Henrik Lundqvist in New York. And, Sergei Bobrovsky’s current crisis of confidence aside, it's not necessary in Columbus with the former Vezina winner, either. It also leads to more instances of players getting caught out of position, an increase in injuries, and a decrease in transition opportunities.
In both Vancouver and New York there were questions raised about Tortorella’s ability to adjust in-game to tactical changes presented by the opposition. And he has a well-earned reputation for breaking players who don’t fit into his mold.
To his credit, Tortorella demands accountability. Players buy in to his system or they don’t play. That said, he can wear a player down to the point that the relationship is permanently damaged. That’s something current Jacket Brandon Dubinsky knows too well. The former Ranger was one of those players who needed a fresh start after his time with Tortorella.
“I think my relationship with Torts fell apart the last year I was there and I just felt like his relationships with some of the other players could be doing the same thing," Dubinsky told The Bergen Record upon Tortorella’s firing in New York. “I guess that sums it up as to why I wasn’t completely surprised that it happened.”
If all that gives you pause, and it should, remember this: Tortorella doesn’t have to be Mr. Right for the Blue Jackets. He just has to be Mr. Right Now. He’s not being asked to lead this team to the Cup. He simply has to get the Jackets believing in themselves and each other, and working together as a cohesive unit. We’ve seen this group come together before, and while no one’s expecting anything like that 15-1-1 run down the stretch last season, a team that competes on a consistent basis would be a solid return.
And while Tortorella draws all the attention as the Jackets make the transition to his system, he buys GM Jarmo Kekäläinen time to address Columbus’s real issue: a sub-par blue line. Word is that he was working the phones hard on Tuesday night. Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch tweeted that the team was in talks with the Devils to acquire defenseman Adam Larsson in exchange for a package centered around Cam Atkinson. Hard to understand why New Jersey would be willing to move the former first rounder just as he’s finding his game, but the Devils do have some defensive depth in their system and desperately need some help up front, an area where the Jackets are strong.
It’s also likely that Kekäläinen will be in touch with the Stars, who are currently carrying eight defensemen on their roster and who just happened to have a scout at the Jackets’ game last night. Patrik Nemeth, who’s been the odd man out during Dallas’s hot start, might be a player of interest.
The Numbers Game
• The Canadiens, the league’s last remaining undefeated team, are the sixth club in NHL history—and first in 21 years—to start a season with seven straight regulation victories. The others: the 1975-76 Sabres, 1985-86 Nordiques, 1993-94 Devils, 1993-94 Maple Leafs and 1994-95 Penguins. Only the Sabres avoided a loss in their next game.
• Alex Ovechkin is the first player in Capitals history to score 900 career points and the fourth Russian-born skater (along with Sergei Fedorov, Alex Mogilny and Alex Kovalev) in NHL history to reach that milestone. Since 2005, Ovechkin has also produced 138 more goals than Jarome Iginla and 45 more points than Sidney Crosby, his closest pursuers in those categories.
• Coyotes captain Shane Doan is only the eighth player in NHL history to appear in 1,400 games with one franchise. The others: Gordie Howe (Detroit), Nicklas Lidstrom (Detroit), Alex Delvecchio (Detroit), Ray Bourque (Boston), Steve Yzerman (Detroit), Mike Modano (Minnesota/Dallas), and John Bucyk (Boston).
• Elliotte Friedman offers his take on the bumbling Blue Jackets and the tight market for blueliners in this week's 30 Thoughts column.
• Another great game in the minors for this top Edmonton prospect last night. How much longer can they keep him down on the farm?
• With four days off between games, this team is heading back to training camp.