Many terms are used to describe Columbus Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella: obsessive, passionate, difficult, firebrand, driven, fiery, autocratic, dictatorial, tyrannical, and, of course, the most often used term to describe the veteran coach: (a) lunatic. But what words can also be used to describe the winningest U.S. born coach in National Hockey League (NHL) history are a great coach.
For all of the controversy, his disdain for the media – often times earned on the part of the media – and borderline lunacy, Tortorella is one of the best coaches in the NHL. And, this season in particular, what Tortorella has done with the Columbus Blue Jackets young squad (prior to the trade deadline, when they acquired two veteran players, they boasted the NHL’s youngest team) is downright extraordinary.
And, although some have quietly conceded that Tortorella is the prohibitive favorite for the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s best coach/coach of the year, it’s a notion that most of the national writers haven’t yet mentioned, at least publicly.
However, the turnaround from last season to this season, from both a statistical category and, most importantly, from the improvement in wins from last season, is remarkable: last season, when Tortorella took over for the recently fired Todd Richards after the Blue Jackets opened the season with a horrific 0-7-0 record, Tortorella took over the head coaching reigns after the season had already started, a particularly tough trick to rectify both from a morale and motivation standpoint, not to mention the challenge to correct any issues that may have existed within the team’s locker room.
In this particular instance, there appeared to be many issues beyond the losing. Tortorella’s first challenge was to change the dynamic of the organization, on many levels. Tortorella preached accountability, conditioning, something previous head coaches expressed concerns over, particularly former head coach Ken Hitchcock and interim head coach Claude Noel. Tortorella demanded a commitment to his philosophy and a professional approach to the game. In short, the Blue Jackets were ‘all in’. Aiding Tortorella’s cause was the support from Blue Jackets senior management, as they and Tortorella were in lockstep as to how the players would be held accountable for not being in condition, for being too affable about losses and with each other, rather, having a constructive edge with each other, pushing them and each other to higher standards, individually and collectively and expecting, not hoping for success/excellence.
In looking at the turnaround in terms of wins and losses from the previous season, Tortorella has guided the Blue Jackets from a 34-40-8 record (34-33-8 under Tortorella) to their current 48-19-7 record, an improvement of 35 games above the .500 mark from the prior season and an improvement by 30 wins from the 75 games under Tortorella from the prior campaign in a nearly identical amount of games. With regard to overall statistics, the Blue Jackets were 18th in goals scored per game and were 29th (out of 30 teams) in goals surrendered (goals against) per game. This season, however, the Blue Jackets are remarkably 2nd in goals against per game and 5th in goals scored per game. A great deal of the defensive turnaround is directly attributable to the resurgence of Sergei Bobrovsky in goal; however, Tortorella’s emphasis on the defensive aspect of the game, something he believes generates the offensive proclivity, not to mention the improved conditioning of the team, has resulted in one of the most captivating storylines in the NHL this season and for many a season.
One other statistic that is not often mentioned or discussed regarding the turnaround of the Blue Jackets is the seismic drop in penalty minutes from this season to last season. Last year, the Blue Jackets were the NHL’s 3rd most penalized team, the majority of which drew the ire of Tortorella were often classified by him as ‘stupid penalties’, penalties due to a lack of discipline or a lack of conditioning as a result of getting caught out of position on defense. This season, however, the Blue Jackets have demonstrated that discipline as they are the 8th least penalized team in the NHL which results in fewer penalty kill situations and less stress on Bobrovsky due to a lesser barrage of shots faced while shorthanded.
Tortorella has previously won the Jack Adams Award in 2004 while serving as the head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning after winning the Stanley Cup in that same season. And for all of his, at times, contentious with some members of the media, no one can dispute that he is one of the best head coaches in the NHL and justly deserves this prestigious award, although Tortorella is the type who doesn’t care about personal accolades, he is obsessed with one thing: winning.