There was a lot to be excited about if you were a Columbus Blue Jackets fan heading in to the 2015-16 season. Even though the team missed the playoffs last year, there was good reason considering they lost the most games to injury of any team in the NHL during the 2014-15 season (393 games). They finished strong (16-2-1), and they added budding young start Brandon Saad to the mix in a trade with Chicago this past off-season. Almost two weeks after Columbus dropped the puck on the new season, they have yet to register a point in the standings (0-7-0), and Head Coach Todd Richards has been given the pink slip. In his place comes former Canucks, Rangers, and Lightning coach John Tortorella. Richards lead the Blue Jackets to one playoff appearance, a six game first round loss to Pittsburgh in the 2014 playoffs.
The hiring of Torts isn’t entirely out of left field since he was recently selected to coach Team USA in the 2016 World Cup. He still had two years remaining on his contract with Vancouver after this current season, so he will continue to coach under that agreement. The Canucks will receive a second round pick in the 2016, 2017 or 2018 Draft (Columbus gets to pick which one they’ll give up) as compensation for hiring Tortorella while he was still under contract.
Despite players like Brandon Dubinsky and Jack Johnson taking the blame for the terrible start and saying it’s not Richards’ fault, GM Jarmo Kekalainen had to do something. There are still 75 games left of hockey for the Blue Jackets, and it’s not like Richards had a top coaching resume that would be afforded a little more slack. It may have been a long time ago (2004), but Tortorella has his name on the Stanley Cup, has lead teams to the playoffs in eight of his fourteen seasons behind the bench of three different teams, and had the Rangers in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2012. He also took home the Jack Adams Trophy in 2004.
After the way things ended in Vancouver, you wouldn’t think of Tortorella as a top coaching candidate. But being named Team USA’s coach for the 2016 World Cup raised his stock a bit. Also, the make-up of the Blue Jackets roster is suited well for Tortorella’s style. The aforementioned Conference Finals appearance with the Rangers was because the Blueshirts had a team full of blue collar guys. They played physical, blocked a ton of shots, and taking care of the defensive zone was the top priority. Looking at the Blue Jackets roster coming in to the 2015-16 campaign, out-muscling and out-working teams appeared to be the recipe they were going with for a return to the playoffs. Torts also has experience taking over a team mid-season when he took over for Tom Renney during the 2008-09 season (the Rangers were playing uninspired hockey under Renney) and led New York to the playoffs before losing to Washington in seven games. If nothing else, his style will mask Columbus’ glaring weakness, which is a thin blueline.
It will be interesting to see if the time away from the rink changed Tortorella at all. His relationship with the media is surly most of the time, sometimes by design to take pressure off of his players, but it can’t become the center of attention the way it did at the end of his time on Broadway. The Blue Jackets might need some tough love at first, but the hockey player in today’s NHL (and this applies to all of the major sports nowadays) doesn’t respond to the drill sergeant treatment over a long period of time. Even though their relationship fell apart towards the end, Dubinsky has experience under Tortorella’s guidance before, and it would serve the team well if the Columbus Alternate Captain works on repairing the relationship quickly and serving as a liaison (along with captain Nick Foligno) between team and coach.
Tortorella makes his debut behind the Blue Jackets bench and will try and get Columbus’ first victory of the season tomorrow night against the Wild in Minnesota.