The narrative (and betting odds) in October said John Tortorella would be the first NHL coach fired this season. Any modest success to end last season, of which there wasn’t much, would all come crashing down and tempers would flare, they claimed.
People pointed to his short fuse and sometimes prickly attitude with the media, highlighted by one or two outbursts that shouldn't have happened. What critics ignore is a coach who has proven his skill, who sits among the most successful coaches of all time, with 501 wins. Currently, just 21 coaches have more career wins than Tortorella in the NHL. Ever. Let that really sink in. The only other U.S.-born coach in the same conversation is Peter Laviolette with 492 wins. The next on the list? Dan Bylsma with 299 wins.
In 11 full seasons as a head coach (so, not including years he was brought in as a mid-season replacement), Tortorella’s teams in Tampa Bay, New York, and Vancouver finished with winning records in nine of them. His teams have won three division titles. And of course, the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup in 2004.
A stellar 21-5-4 record to start this season, or 46 points in 30 games played, finds the Blue Jackets fourth in the league behind only Chicago (48 points in 35 games), Pittsburgh (47 points in 33 games), and the New York Rangers (47 points in 35 games). With a game against Pittsburgh on Thursday, a win would vault the Blue Jackets into first place in the league.
So, what now? Naturally, the narrative shifts to “this won't last forever.” Well, no. Of course not. But there's ample evidence pointing to this being more than a flash in the pan, and toward continued success in Columbus.
Being fired by the Canucks after one season may have been the best thing to happen to John Tortorella. His time away from the game seems to have served him well. He’s more patient and adaptable. And there probably wasn’t a better situation than the Blue Jackets - away from the media spotlight of New York or Vancouver, with a young, hungry team - to recapture his past glory and compete for the Stanley Cup once again.
This might seem easy to say in the midst of a 10-game winning streak. (Make no mistake: It is very easy to say this in the midst of a 10-game winning streak.) But this is about more than just a handful of games. It's about the players’ approach to the game, and how they talk about their success. And it’s not just the ones at the top of the scorecard, either - it's guys from top to bottom, some accepting lesser roles than they're used to, all for the good of the team. This is no longer a team where everyone quickly shuffles to the exit after a loss. It’s not a team where players ask to be traded because they don’t like the outlook. In fact, it's the opposite. It's guys wanting to be here, wanting to work, wanting to win for the city of Columbus.
It's no longer forced pride. There’s no talk of "looking forward to next season." Players just show up and do the work.
Most importantly, the players have responded to his coaching style with a bright red and union blue stamp of approval, and they're being rewarded with more responsibility and wins on the stat sheet. What more can they ask for?
All good things come to an end, and yes, the Blue Jackets will lose again one day. For now, enjoy it. Take comfort in the fact that this is one of the youngest teams in the league, with players like Cam Atkinson and Zach Werenski leading the way. Sleep well knowing that Sergei Bobrovsky is back to Vezina-winning form. We all know how unstoppable he can be when he’s on his game.
This is a team winning games the right way. They're not taking shortcuts. And they've come to expect success, not simply hope for it.
John Tortorella’s message to the players, all the way back to a brutal training camp, has remained simple: "This will all be worth it."
And it has been worth it. The coach was right.