It all started with a couple of comments in the game recap thread for last night’s OT win over the Ducks. We’re now 11 games into the season (13.4% of the way home), and the Jackets are actually in very good shape, all things considered. Despite playing two or three fewer games than many of the other teams in the Eastern Conference, Columbus sits just one point out of a Wild Card spot.
SportsClubStats currently has Columbus at over 75% to make the playoffs, including over 54% of earning one of the Metro’s top-three spots. Sample size alerts apply (plus, their model seems to value goal differential, and let’s be honest: that 10-0 beating on Montreal is much more noise than signal at this point), but compare that to an 0-8-0 start. You’d certainly rather be where Columbus is now.
All of this is well and good. But, let’s dig a little deeper. After all, Columbus is just one Sergei Bobrovsky injury away from things potentially being much, much different.
For me, this season’s expectations were in many ways not about wins and losses. It was about seeing if John Tortorella could really achieve what so many other coaches have failed to do: to make the proverbial culture change in the Blue Jackets’ dressing room.
Something Aaron Portzline said once as a guest on the DKM podcast last winter has always stuck with me. In talking about the state of the franchise, he alluded to “something” that has just been... off... about this franchise throughout its history. Front offices have changed, coaching staffs have changed, players have changed. But, that environment—that so many call the “country club” atmosphere—has seemed to remain.
Porty said that, even though no one could really seem to pin down what that “something” was, he wondered if John Tortorella might not be the guy to finally break through simply based on his sheer force of personality and will. Some might even call it stubbornness.
After last night’s post-game presser in which some more specifics of the Brandon Saad “situation” were expounded upon by Torts, it really got me thinking. Back to that comment I linked to above.
I would much rather have guys upset that they didn’t get to play in crunch time be motivated to work that much harder to earn that time than guys who will sulk and pout their way out of here.
A couple of observations, and then a comparison if you’ll bear with me.
First, I thought his response to the question about Saad’s game last night with respect to originally being a healthy scratch were interesting. He was very measured in his response. He was careful to thread a very important needle: he went out of his way to point out that Brandon Saad is a very, very good hockey player, first and foremost. As such, Torts expects more from him every night.
I have no problem with this.
I also find myself wondering if the Torts of New York or Vancouver would have answered the question in such a way. (Perhaps, also, if the answer would have been as clinical and even keel if delivered after a loss.)
Maybe some of that is the Columbus media as opposed to the larger markets, but some of it is a bit of an evolution in his personality as well. There’s no doubt the fire is still burning there beneath the surface, but perhaps he’s worked to control it just a bit. This is a good thing for Columbus.
We can debate until the cows come home about the efficacy of such proposed scratches. We have, in fact, thrown around the, “If he wants to have a true meritocracy, [player x] should be benched!” lines.
But, that’s not the point. See, I think we get caught up sometimes in looking at it from game to game. This season really isn’t about that, honestly. While it’s nice that the team is a damn sight better than last year’s 2-9-0 team through 11 games, I have to circle back to those original expectations, and that notion of culture change.
"Look, with what we are trying to build here with these young guys, we have to do this the right way. We have to get rid of the entitlement in the locker room. I can tell you there are a couple of guys who are pissed right now because they didn’t play enough."
-John Tortorella, after last night’s win
“Entitlement”. Woah. /scrolls up to mentions of a “country club” atmosphere.
Strength of personality. Woah.
One of the things about being a Michigan fan is that I often get to annoy my Columbus readers with very stretched parallels. That said, I find this one to be truly apt.
Jim Harbaugh is possibly insane. For three hours every Saturday in the fall, he definitely is. But, you know what else he is? Immensely good at getting the most out of his teams. He inherited a crappy 5-7 team that sleepwalked through the 2014 season, including losing to some of the dregs of the Big Ten (Rutgers and Maryland!). He brought in a cast-off grad transfer quarterback, and then set about instilling an attitude in his new charges.
In short, they were going to be competing for EVERYthing, and the best guys would play, no matter what. Sounds kinda familiar, no?
Again, he’s intense, but it completely changed the culture of that team in essentially one year: that 2015 team went 10-3, which included losing its first game on the road against a top-25 team, the flukiest loss in college football that I’ve seen in my lifetime, and a legit measuring-stick game against the class of the conference. In their bowl game, they flat-out dismantled a Florida team that had mentally checked out.
In seasons past for Michigan, that unbelievable loss to Michigan State would have sent them spiraling down the drain (and for comparison, look what’s happened in East Lansing this year at the first sign of adversity). Harbaugh’s strength of personality and will forced his team to, as he put it, “put steel in their spine” and soldier on. In that bowl game over Florida, at the first sign of adversity, the Gators packed it in.
Defensive end Chris Wormley had the quote of the year regarding that game:
"I'd say maybe even as close as right after halftime, we came out and scored and shut them down on defense. You could see it in their eyes. You can tell when someone wants to quit, when someone doesn't want to play anymore. It's a good feeling, especially for a defense, step on their throats and be relentless."
THAT is what a culture shift looks like, friends.
How many times have we been the Wolverines after the punt-block-TD? How many times have we been the Gators in that bowl game? Far too many, by my count.
You can’t just expect to flip a switch in a group of players and give them the ability to move on from adversity. To have turned a team from the group willing to quit at the first sign of adversity to the group that yearns to “step on their throats and be relentless” was a process. It went more quickly than many UM fans thought it might, but nevertheless you could see it unfolding throughout the season. That attitude of not dwelling on the bad times, of moving on, of having those experiences “steel your spine” for the future... you have to go through it, and you have to have leadership to help forge that identity. Michigan has that now in Harbaugh.
Perhaps Columbus might have some of it, too, in John Tortorella. No doubt it helps the players buy in when they start to see the results. Harbaugh’s Michigan team saw those results, and has vaulted into Playoff contention in just his second year with mostly Brady Hoke’s players. Tortorella is getting some results with this young Jackets squad only one year removed from a historically bad start.
And, maybe what’s most impressive about those early positive results for Columbus is not just the exceeding of any and all expectations. It’s that they’ve done it staring down the barrel of a very tough schedule.
By the measure of opponents’ points gained, Columbus has played the ninth-toughest schedule in the entire league to this point. And they sit at 6-3-2. And they are learning how to win, even on nights like last night where, frankly, they just don’t play all that consistently well.
It’s part of the process. And it will pay dividends later on when that schedule eases up a bit.
All of this has been a long-winded way of saying that this team might just be on to something. Maybe Porty was right; maybe John Tortorella was exactly the guy this franchise needed to simply cut through a lot of the crap because he just doesn’t care about people’s feelings. Everything is earned. No one is above reproach. Lessons can be taught to every player in the room.
As I’ve said all along, he may not be the guy that ever gets this team to the mountain top.
But, I have to give him credit: he’s done a pretty good job so far of building a base camp.